My new work emerges from my curiosity about “invasive” plants and their associated narratives. With graphite and ink on paper, this work reflects the conventions of botanical illustration – intricate, highly detailed, and true to plant forms. But where botanical illustration aims to catalogue and isolate the chaos of the natural world, these drawings burst forth from that convention. Composed of vignettes that connect in a larger narrative when threaded into wall-sized installations, this work depicts plants and figures who flourish and merge in a broken, shifting landscape.
The compositions convey abundance and ambivalence: the generosity of the earth envelops figures in uncertain positions, ground that shifts, skin that opens. These plants surround figures engaged in queering their relationships – negotiating power and tension, rediscovering queer sex in nature, losing themselves and re-emerging. Instead of depicting plant species in quiet isolation within arbitrary boundaries and dualistic thinking, the work opens into fecundity and interrelation. In this process, I am weaving together the visionary edges of permaculture, queer theory, herbalism, ethnobotany and political history to describe the relationship between ecology and psychology, or world and self.
The work arises out of my research into the ways plants have been depicted aesthetically and scientifically, and it takes note of the often invisible cultural frameworks that influence “objective” studies of the natural world. Specific plants show up in these vignettes, typically those villainized by dominant narratives about “invasive species:” phragmites, evergreen blackberry, Queen Anne’s Lace, tansy, purple loosestrife.
We’re encouraged to cultivate belligerence toward invasive plants – they “choke out native species,” “destroy habitat,” “upset the balance,” and, at all costs, must be annihilated. In this language, I hear a projection of colonizer guilt, and see a troubling mirror of my country. Fascist agendas have, historically, employed ecological metaphors to rally disaffected masses under the cause of a “return to a purer time,” with visions of a stable, “classless society based on a ‘natural hierarchy’” and freed from parasitic outsiders. Early ecologists were so attached to the concept of nature as “stable,” “balanced,” and “pure” that they tossed out data which contradicted their theories.
But nature is dynamic and responsive. Both plants and humans have always migrated and intermingled in response to changing social and ecological forces, and invasive plant species grow in damaged ecosystems because they are uniquely suited to the particular conditions of those landscapes. Often, they are in the process of initiating a series of transformations that create improved conditions for other species in the future. It is not possible to “return” to an (imaginary) “purer time” before plants and humans moved and changed paces. Shedding our current cultural framework in order to observe the ecological roles played by invasive species as they transform disturbed landscapes may be a vital practice if we are to adapt to a swiftly changing climate. I am interested in using these images as an opportunity to engage the public in a practice of observing and questioning why these plants grow where they do.
Nicole Sara Simpkins makes prints, drawings, installations, books and prose poems. Her intricate, detailed work is informed by animism, ecology, and a sense of permeable boundaries between world and self.. She grew up reading books and climbing trees on the New England coast in an old Victorian cottage by a salt marsh. She has shown work at The White Page, The Future, and the Paul Witney Larson Gallery, and she has taught drawing, design, and printmaking at MCAD, UMN, UW Stout, and at Indiana University. She holds an MFA in Printmaking from Indiana University – Bloomington and a BA in English from Macalester College.
I love hearing about what this work does: please write if you are so inclined. If you are interested in purchasing work, please write via email. Some prints from Scylla & Circe Press are available for sale - feel free to contact me by email or via Instagram if you see something you like. Stay tuned for updates on a new online storefront, coming someday. Also, I like making band art, especially if you make doom, metal, punk, and heavy music, and especially if you are rad, female, queer, and/or witchy.
Bibliography/what I'm reading:
Davis, Heather and Turpin, Etienne, editors, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Critical Climate Change Series), 2015. Open Humanities Press.