Wilderness Mind: Dissolving Duality


by Deborah Thomas

Barr Owl Talons Bergy Bit 26 Renewal Water

Although, on first impression, “wilderness” may call to mind places of intense experience in nature, far from civilization, it reveals itself to be much more than a location. Traditionally associated with a land of uncultivated, abandoned and inhospitable conditions or inhabited only by wild animals,i during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its meaning expanded subjectively to include more Romantic and transcendental notions like “the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires” and “the best antidote to our human selves,” while mysteriously remaining the site of “something profoundly Other.”ii Whether places considered wilderness are ultimately to be regarded as wastelands or sacred spaces, in either case it is not the places themselves that define the nature of the wilderness experience. “Wilderness,” regardless of where it is situated or whether it is described as frightening or divine, is a cultural construct that is typically placed in opposition to “civilization,” located apart from the human world as something pure and essentially natural, to be preserved and protected both from the outrages of global industrial exploitation as well as the small defilements of daily life.

We disagree. We consider that creating even the most high-minded dualism between humans and nature sets up a dynamic that creates conflict and does not lead to effective stewardship of the environment, either locally or on a global scale. We also believe that rather than being defined either as a physical or an imaginary location, “wilderness” is more a state of mind that defies location, either geographical or imaginary – one in which social structure relaxes, logic slips away, and time and space collapse. This open state of mind, or “wonder,” can be experienced in natural environments that inspire fear, disorientation, foreboding or other qualities of “sublime” landscape appreciated by the likes of Edmund Burkeiii – and it can also unexpectedly arise in the midst of degraded urban grittiness or in an unexplored corner of a superficially unremarkable backyard. Artists in our group discover natural wonder in many places – from Antarctic icebergs to carcasses of dead birds. And just as we respect “wilderness” in all of its manifestations, we believe that biodiversity and sustainability can only be maintained if we humans give up trying to isolate “unspoiled” nature and instead seek a complete relationship with the natural world that includes responsibility and respect for the global interface of ecosystems, be they planetary or microscopic, that we unavoidably impact.

Wilderness Mind:  Dissolving Duality includes the work of fourteen artists from the Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art’s Eco-art Collective. As a group we embrace collaboration; we have worked together to study and work as eco-artists since 2005. This exhibition represents work that ranges from photography to non-representational painting, performance, and installation; it spans a continuum of references to water from suburban irrigation systems to the arctic ice cap; to wildlife, including Barr owls, sea otters, and golden trout from the Sierras; and to locations from San Pedro Harbor to Mozambique. Within the frame of wilderness, the group’s work articulates themes of degradation and emergence, natural cycles, mystery, concern for the environment, and connected oneness.

We hope that the artistic diversity and interrelatedness of our work for this exhibition provides visitors with an experience of our collaborative approach as an alternative to more traditional strategies of agency through domination, and to the possibility for everyone to experience “wilderness” in any number of settings, not just in uninhabited nature. Through the visual messages communicated in our work as well as through workshops and programs offered to the community in conjunction with the exhibition, our ultimate goal is to inspire visitors to participate in effective stewardship of the environment.

Deborah Thomas, Curator

March, 2012


Deborah Thomas lived and worked as an artist in New York and Geneva, Switzerland before moving to Los Angeles. In addition to working as a fine art artist, she also studied and taught art history and theory, literature and cultural studies. Her work has included a series of conceptual installations and mixed media pieces using photographic images and found text. The art focusing on environmental themes typically explores place and the environment metaphorically and builds from a personal point of view using domestic objects. Before she passed away December 2012, she was working on a series of eco-art Installations about water—descriptions of a local watershed and pollution of the ocean by oil spills and acid rain. She combined small multiples of her own snapshots with familiar objects like shower curtains and umbrellas in these pieces. In addition to showing her own work, Thomas curated several recent exhibitions: Wilderness Mind: Dissolving Duality, Day of the Dead Planet, Bringing the Past to Light: New Art from Old Images, Intimate Geography: Getting To Know a Place and Estate of Mind, with related conceptual premises. More at www.scwca.org

  • Images above:
  • Marie Cenkner: Barr Owl Talons — Specimen Found on Route 57
  • J.J. L'Heureux: Bergy Bit 26
  • Annemarie Rawlinson: Renewal
  • Carolyn Applegate and J.J. L'Heureux: Water Wars