Natural Tendencies: Critical Encounters’ personal narratives on Human/Nature

By The Columbia Chronicle

by Marilyn Propp

Faculty, Art and Design

I grew up in upstate New York, where darkly forested mountains, lakes and clear rushing rivers were part of my childhood—most of which was spent outdoors where the sense of freedom and open space became a part of my essential nature. Being outdoors meant blissful hours of solitude. I explored layers of earth, different rock formations, the changing feel of the wind: fresh and cool out of Canada in winter, fragrant and soft in the summer, wild and loud in early spring, heady with the scents of burning leaves in autumn.

One of my strong childhood memories was laying in bed at night, listening to the wind blowing through the trees. I would look out at the night sky and watch the birch trees bend and sway to the rhythm of the wind. The silhouetted branches looked like a man and a lady dancing.

In 2005 I was awarded a one-month artist residency in northern Wyoming, in the pristine natural environment of the Piney Creek Valley—cattle country, land stretching as far as the eye could see. Outside my studio door towered the purple and ochre foothills, and across the great expanse of land in the distance, the Big Horn Mountains. I left the large double door in my bedroom wide open at night so I could look at the mountains silhouetted in the dark and see the night sky. This month-long experience had a profound effect on me. I was filled with a deep sense of the rhythm and movement within the vast expanses of land and sky. The solitude and reflective silence, the immense space, the smell and feel of the earth and the soft wind awakened the child in me I had been and to core my connection to nature. It was as though another piece of the puzzle of who I am had fallen into place.

I’m a painter with a very active studio practice. My work always begins with a form of automatic writing. I make gestural calligraphic marks that move across the surface of paper or wood panel. The marks reflect the movement of my arm and body as I progress from left to right across the long horizontal format; it is a sort of traveling made visible with mark-making. The imagery results from the rhythm of the black marks on the white surface; familiar objects appear and take form until I know what they are and what they are doing.

In my drawings, I create a sense of place with a particular light, usually with a distant vista of mountains and an atmospheric heavy sky built up with smoky charcoal. In both drawings and paintings, the objects reference industrial or domestic tools, which I transform into animated biomorphic characters. Often, shells, masks or shoes make an appearance, continuing the metaphor of the journey.

There is a lively energy to the work—playful and exhilarating, like those childhood days of cool air and sweet earth, of inquisitiveness and exploration, of feeling fully alive and fully myself.

My studio is on the fourth floor of an industrial building. The entire north wall is filled with tall windows, and I watch the immense space of sky, the changing light, birds soaring, pipes and cylinders poking out of rooftops, el trains snaking around, reflecting silver and pink and lavender in the evening light.

My apartment also has large windows, which are always open. On the third floor, we are in a tree house surrounded by maples whose branches bow and sway in the wind. The lake breezes feel cool and fresh, and at night I listen to the wind, breathe in the lakey air and watch the branches move. I sit in my office, writing; cool wind on bare arms, green leaves against red brick flickering on dancing branches. I’m in paradise in the city, and the Adirondack Mountains are not far away. I’m still the child I once was.

The aim of Natural Tendencies is to show the relationships between humans and nature, as well as to better understand human nature. This is the third edition of Critical Encounters.

If you would like to submit to Human “Natural Tendencies” please contact Kevin Fuller at 312-344-8505 or

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