Emma Percy is an eco-artist from Western New York, now living in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. Their work is dedicated to exploring and repairing the relationships between humans, the land, and our nonhuman relatives. Materially they work in the fields of book arts and fiber arts, and have published dozens of zines on the intersections of art + ecology.
How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?
I grew up spending a lot of time playing outside, which is where I first got in tune with the secrets and treasures that you can find when you spend time observing nature up-close and improvising with the materials around you. Later on when I was a teenager I found that walking was one of my main sources of solace - I would take my dog out for a walk almost every day after school, and really valued that time to let my mind wander. This is when I started to notice the ways that plants and critters tend to thrive in the places that people don’t pay attention to, and I got interested in those in-between fragments of the suburbs where people hadn’t built anything yet.
But it was when I got to college at Alfred University that I really started focusing my art practice on engaging with the natural environment – there was a component of the Art Foundations program that involved an imaginary line being drawn across the town, and we were to familiarize ourselves with that space and make any kind of art we wanted in response to what we found or experienced along that path. I thought this was simply fantastic, and that class really jump-started me on the path of conceiving my ideas out of direct experience with the place in which I was living.
I was lucky to have a few teachers who really believed in art that was socially and ecologically engaged and that wasn’t limited to making objects, and peers who were making really excellent work with plant fibers, found materials, performance, and so on that opened my mind to what art could be and how it could be in relationship with nature.
Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.
I’ve been generating a body of work for the past couple of years called “the spell of seeds,” all of which is about looking at wild seeds and learning from them. There's so much magic and metaphor contained in these little beings, and it's remarkable how resilient wild plant species are to the destructive tendencies of contemporary human society. The main piece is an archive of the seeds in Western New York, which began with collecting samples of seeds from the landscape and drawing each of them in detail, highlighting their marvelous variety of forms and strategies for propagation.
I’m working on a sculptural piece to go alongside the series of drawings, in which the seeds themselves will be displayed in a letterpress type drawer, drawing the connection between seeds and language. I see plant life as a way of the land expressing itself – there’s so much you can learn about a place by looking at what’s growing there. In addition to the seed archive and drawings, I’ve made a few collages, screenprints, and sculptures about seeds and the messages I’ve received from them, and I’m working on a zine that will tie all of this together.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?
My first piece of advice is to slow down as you’re going through your life and take time to notice how other life exists around you. Try to let go of your preconceived notions about what things are or how they’re functioning and just observe. You’ll be surprised at what you might notice that was right under your nose the whole time. Cultivating regular practices of looking and listening are key for learning about the natural world and creating space for ideas to come to you.
Beyond that, I think that doing research into traditional skills and nature-based craft practices is a great place to start thinking about co-creating with nature - think about how you would make the things you have to use every day if you only had access to the materials in your immediate landscape, and find out how people before us built and made things. You’ll find that in many cases, these craft practices developed out of an intimate relationship to nature and could only continue sustainably through a conversation with the materials or “resources” in question. Oftentimes there is actually a benefit to the plant or other creature from people working with it – Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about this in Braiding Sweetgrass, which is one of my favorite books.