Kenyon College

The Art of Trees: Behind the Scenes of the Curatorial Process


The Art of Trees is a research and planning project steered by Gund Gallery staff and a committee of Kenyon faculty, staff, and Gund Associates who are working together to develop a Spring 2021 exhibition that explores trees as the real and metaphorical touchstone for conceiving a new social imaginary, through which we can reinvent our relationship with the natural world for social and ecological betterment.  A team of Gund Associates focused on curatorial practice are synthesizing the committee’s research to structure a collaborative curatorial endeavor and community dialogue about the current environmental crisis. In this series, Gund Associates share aspects and outcomes of their ongoing research.

If an exhibit is well curated, you should leave feeling restless, curious, and completely unaware that your experience was carefully constructed as a result of months, if not years, of research and adaptation. At Kenyon, a lot of this research and adaptation is performed by the Gund Gallery’s curatorial associates. Throughout the past academic year, our team has been developing the Spring 2021 The Art of Trees exhibit. Public aspects of curation, such as the Gund Gallery’s The Art of Trees guest lecture series this past academic year, have offered insight into the process, but they are really just the tip of the curatorial iceberg.

Where do you even begin when it comes to curating an exhibit? I wondered that myself as I stepped into the conference room on my first day as an Associate. First, as I found out, comes a complete and overarching breakdown of the subject: Trees, in our case. As our team developed this curatorial basis, we came up with several thematic categories to divide our research. The following spoke the loudest to me: 1) Trees as community, 2) Social Justice/Practice, and 3) Restoration, Destruction, and Solitude. Each of these encapsulates the nuance of the environment and its relation to our everyday lives, and reflects how, just like with curation, there’s much more than meets the eye when one sees a tree.

To help us form an intellectual common ground on trees, we were all assigned collective and individual research. One of our first assignments was a Radiolab podcast, “From Tree to Shining Tree.” These short 35 eye-opening minutes expose the secret life of trees, the unseen community that acts as a sort of living organism. A thriving network of roots exists underground – and out of sight – transmitting nutrients and signals to each tree. As we thought about trees as an interconnected, codependent community, we expanded this idea to our next theme, Social Justice and Social Practice. We wondered how human communities, like trees, organize to protect their environment and its inhabitants.

We collectively discussed another reading addressing injustices within the environmental movement which came to public consciousness beginning in the 1970s. The essay, entitled, “The Big Picture: American Art and Planetary Ecology,” by Alan C. Braddock and Karl Kusserow, describes how environmental disasters, past and impending nuclear war, and oil spill accidents caused widespread anxiety about the safety of our world. The artistic representations that claimed the need for environmental activism began to reflect and shape the American conversation on environmental justice. These representations placed responsibility on the individual to essentially save the world, conveniently overlooking the U.S. government’s role in the exploitation of natural resources and environmental racism. Furthermore, the images popularized at this time mostly represented and targeted the white middle-class, ignoring how the issues brought by environmental exploitation disproportionately affect low-income groups and communities of color.

Along the same lines, my individual research focused on environmental and social justice practices that challenge exploitative, hegemonic powers. In my selection, T.J. Demos’s Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, I read about Demos’ demand to reject the destruction of nature caused by capitalism and colonization. Demos further calls on us to protect our communities by integrating Indigenous philosophies and practices into the social and environmental fight for justice.

The third theme, Destruction, Reconstruction, and Loss are addressed in an ecocritical article we read emphasizing the artist’s responsibility to create art that has both abstract and tangible impacts. Pleasing aesthetics are no longer enough, according to Hyperallergic’s article “How Can Ecological Artists Move Beyond Aesthetic Gestures?” which urges artists to create sustainable, long-lasting, and ecologically positive change through their art. 

At long last, we’ve arrived at the point where we’ve done the research. Now we must integrate our collective knowledge into one exhibit. The Art of Trees is an amalgamation of all of this research and discussion. Hopefully, when you see the exhibit, you will leave restless, curious, and now, I suppose, only somewhat unaware of the curatorial process that immersed you in this experience, in this The Art of Trees.

Carley Townsend ’20

Check out part of our reading list for yourself!

The Gund Gallery exhibitions and programs are made possible, in part, by the Gund Gallery Board of Directors and the Ohio Arts Council.


Feature Image: Flickred! / Flickr, from the Radiolab website.


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