“The Artist and the Ecosystem: Strategies for the Use and Reuse of Materials in Early America”
My dissertation asks how artists working in European styles in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America participated in their domestic ecosystems. Relying on all sorts of materials collected from daily life, from dung to dirt, bones to scraps of paper, potatoes to old pewter, artists played a unique role in moving materials through cycles of consumption, waste, and reuse. My investigation aims to understand why artists turned to these supplies and what meanings these materials give to their artwork. Colonial conditions and cross-cultural exchanges, including those between Euro-American and Indigenous makers, are important factors in my response. Considering work by well-known artists like Benjamin West, who purportedly first learned to make paints from Indigenous locals using earth pigments, as well as work by lesser-known craftspeople who used bones in pottery, egg whites in photographs, or legal documents as drawing paper, I am studying how art intersected with cycles of daily subsistence.
My methodology is grounded in ecocritical art history, while also drawing from frameworks concerning materials and materiality, recycling practices in pre-industrial contexts, technical art history, and post-colonial critiques of resource extraction. Especially in light of the urgency of environmental crises today, I view this project as addressing a larger need to rethink how even older, pre-industrial objects implicate systems of consumption and the stewardship of resources.