Burying an extinct plant as if it were a human—interdisciplinary artist Michelle Caron-Pawlowsky is working on piece rooted in queer ecology that memorializes Thismia Americana, at the Emerging Artist Residency at Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, Minnesota. Thismia Americana is the only Midwestern plant known to have gone extinct because of human development. Every year, a group conducts a Thismia hunt where they return to the last known habitat of the plant. After a successful summer of the Créer des ponts residency, organized by Art Souterrain in Montreal, Michelle spent the fall living in an old farmhouse with 8 other artists working predominantly with sculpture. The project is completed and is called Altar for Thismia Americana.
Caron-Pawlowsky hopes to continue the project with other altars dedicated to other extinct plant species. She discussed that there are currently 26 plant species that are endangered in the Midwest and over 6000 in danger of going extinct around the world. The concept that plants deserve as much respect as humans is a rather radical way of thinking. After learning more about sustainable environmentalism, she decided to challenge what society may consider as normal and natural. Queer ecology is rather new; it is derived from queer theory—-which seeks to break down restrictive narratives that bind and constrict the human experience.
Caron-Pawlowsky explained that the ideology encompasses a small field that is still rapidly developing. Catriona Sandilands, a professor at York University generally credited with conceiving of queer ecology, considers environmental studies through the lens of queer theory because they both deal with breaking down binaries and what humans understand as natural and unnatural—arbitrarily. Michelle emphasizes that she reads queer ecology as “rejecting the idea that humans are more important or more special than non-human beings.”
However, her art was not always rooted in queer ecology. Michelle is still in her undergrad at Concordia specializing in photography, with plans to graduate in the winter semester of 2022. When she first got into photography, she took a lot of pictures of herself. “It was the most accessible and easiest thing to do. There was no judgement.”
After becoming more comfortable with her skills, she began taking pictures of her friends and family. “I take pictures of the people closest to me. It often acts like a self-portraiture stand-in.” Michelle emphasized to me how crucial it is that she feels connected to every element of her art for the message to be properly conveyed. Recently, she has cycled back to taking pictures of herself.
After she switched her minor to environmental studies—which she would take in conjunction with her studio art classes— Michelle explained how the two disciplines “naturally bled into each other.” The pandemic forced her to take time and slow down, which has directly translated into her most recent artistic practices. Michelle first piece with elements of queer ecology was also her first time working with photos in a three-dimensional way.
With Pulp is a series of photographs with elements of nature strewn through them. Some natural objects are articulately placed on top of a photograph and scanned, while others are depictions of nature itself. Regardless, the series addresses the kinship of person to nature inviting the viewer to heal from hardships or trauma with the guiding hand of the environment. The piece is a kind of meditation— Michelle explained to me that her pieces are not meant to last forever, they act as a repository to ode the inevitable decay of both human and the natural world.
“My work has always been an integral part of self-care and healing for me. It can be a lot easier to create something physical, as an act of healing, rather than talking about it.” they explain. “It is nice to make something beautiful and then move on.” Michelle’s art confronts memories, psychoanalyzes them, and leaves the viewer with a kind of reprieve. Their work’s soft depictions allow for a gentle confrontation of the past in order to make space for the future.
As Michelle explained, they use art to move on from their past. Inevitably then, Michelle told me that “there is a natural feeling of distance from what I have made in the past.” Here We Lay in a Beam of Bright Light, Our Hands Buried Deep in the Earth is one of Michelle’s most recent projects made collaboratively with Florence Pin. The work Michelle made as part of this project combines photography, installation, textiles, and alternative printing processes. Michelle describes the work she created for this project as, “more thoughtful, more empathetic, and slower” to emphasize our symbiotic relationship with nature.
Michelle’s oeuvre is multifaceted—from minimalistic photographs to installation pieces with complex meaning, Michelle challenges the notion that an artist can only be skilled in one medium.
Michelle explained to me that their work is a natural progression— we cannot anticipate what she will create in the future because she does not know herself. Michelle reflected on how their favourite season is Autumn. “I am not sure why. I guess it is a gut feeling, like an important shift, growth, and change is near. But it also feels like time to slow down.”
Michelle reiterates that their work emphasizes how we must care equally for ourselves as we do for the environment, inviting patience for setbacks and acknowledging future growth. Queer ecology is not just an art medium for Michelle, they challenge themselves to use this ideology in every aspect of their life.