Can Art Save Threatened Species? Meet Eco-Artist Lynne Hull

By Radha Marcum

If you come upon one of eco-artist Lynne Hull’s outdoor artworks, you might not at first realize what you are viewing. From tall wood sculptures that serve as raptor roosts to floating sculptural islands in waterways, Hull’s “trans-species” works are part sculpture, part habitat. “They work across species boundaries and invite viewers to see the world beyond the human race,” she says.

Hull, now in her sixties, has been collaborating with scientists, engineers, landscape architects, local cultures and the wildlife itself to create eco-art over the last four decades. Her installations have been widely featured in museums and outdoor spaces across the western United States, and worldwide in ecosystems as diverse as those found in Ireland, Canada, France, Kenya and Colombia.

Eco-art shows us ways to experience nature and aspects of it that we don’t usually consider,” she explains to Calmful Living. “An eco-artist is an artist concerned about environmental conditions, who uses art to intervene on behalf of preservation or restoration of nature.” Over the years, eco-art has evolved from “art about wildlife” to “art for wildlife.”

Perhaps there has never been a more crucial time for eco-art than now, Hull observes. “Humans really need to change their attitudes toward other species,” she says. “I do not believe we can survive without most of them. Consider pollinators: If they die of pesticide poisoning, which is looking more likely, we will lose one-third of our food supply. Can the world get by with one-third less food?”

Quiet and thoughtful, Hull draws on her unique background to create subtle power in her work across hemispheres. Born and raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, right on the doorsteps of the atomic labs and the Pueblo Indian culture, she began making art as a potter, a discipline that later led her to create “regional expression ceramics about the relationship between people, the landscape and other species.”

Surrounded by forests and the long-abandoned Ancestral Puebloan sites, such as those in Bandelier National Monument, Hull grew up exploring caves, primitive art and fragments of ancient art “that were in service of their culture and community.” In Los Alamos, “there were no extended families, no grandparents, no grandchildren. None of the men could talk about their work. On the other hand, because it was so guarded, it was totally safe. We could explore.” Without the usual outside entertainment—TV, movie theaters, and so on—Hull spent a lot of time in nature and books.

That juxtaposition of science, the natural world and art is at the heart of her work to this day. From her collaboration with climate experts, biologists and other environmental scientists, Hull takes the scientific parameters—for example, the dimensions and features of a species’ natural habitat—and expresses them artistically. “So many scientists provide data that the public don’t understand. We need people to feel something in order to love these ecosystems.”

Viewers are truly drawn in by the large sculptures she creates, especially when wildlife interacts with them, she says. Raptor roosts can be as tall as 16 to 20 feet. The islands are smaller but draw a great number of species.“A person might notice ducks, or a turtle, or a heron on an ‘island’ sculpture. They’re wowed by it and get more interested in the wildlife there.” The islands attract “all kinds of invertebrates, reptiles, fish on the underside, plants that live on them and clean up water, and baby fish that use the roots of those plants to feed.”

And it’s the impact of seeing living creatures inhabit the sculptures that Hull hopes motivates viewers to make change—to help preserve biodiversity and natural landscapes. “You can know something intellectually, but that knowing doesn’t mean that you are enthusiastic about it. Getting it emotionally really draws people in,” she points out. “Some scientists say that you have to understand something in order to love it. I say that you have to interact emotionally with something in order to love it and buy into it.”

Currently Hull is working on a project that traces the migratory patterns of birds across the globe. “I am placing markers—stone, wood, metal and concrete—referring to species that the place shares with other communities up and down the hemisphere, the distance birds have come and still have to go, and the names of some of the other communities. These ‘migration mileposts’ are like the old roadside mileage and directional markers. It is a project that may continue the rest of my life,” she says.

Hull is concerned about the future of our species, but also about the future of eco-art. “We know who the predecessors are, and there are established eco-artists now, but we’re not seeing many artists take this path.” Nevertheless, she adds, you don’t have to be an artist to create eco-art in your own backyard. “Who says that birds have to live in square houses? Why not build habitats that are inviting to a species and artistic?”

Try making native bee houses or “bee nesting blocks” out of a drilled piece of wood, she suggests. “If you hang them in the garden, late in summer the bees will lay eggs and mash mud into the hole to insulate them—and then in spring the new bees show up earliest to pollinate garden trees.” Hull recommends searching for “bee nesting block” online to find the necessary dimensions.

For more about eco-art and Lynne Hull’s work, visit www.eco-art.org