words Lin Stone // photo Craig Thomas
Cameron (Cami) Davis is a senior lecturer with the Department of Art and Art History and a Sustainability Fellow at the University of Vermont. She teaches painting, drawing, and courses on art, ecology and community. Davis considers her paintings to be her primary vehicle for exploring issues of conscious perceptions and living sustainably in a warming world.
Artist and Environmentalist?
“I’ve been occupied with concern about climate change for the last 12 years and am a member of an eco-artists’ network. But I don’t like to paint botanical drawings that are divorced from context in the world; they seem empty and sad to me. I try to paint my love and concern for earth with a great deal of context and want my paintings to be more of a loving conversation with earth—an emotional aquifer.
I want to elicit a contemplative and immersive gaze, one where viewers are drawn deeper into the shadows and shapes, images and emptiness, and take note of where the dappled light falls when it emerges from dark…“
“I have an enormous sense of loss and grief when I realize the meaning and implication of glaciers melting and seas rising, so I try to paint this parallel sense of grief and beauty, loss and renewal, and most particularly, [environmental] emergency and emergence.“
Davis recently co-produced a choral and chamber music performance, the Emergent Universe Oratorio, a composition that described the creation of the universe and included the installation of twelve paintings Davis created for the set. The series’ title, Endless Spring, is Davis’ reference to one of the Buddhist terms for enlightenment or awakening.
“I collaborated on this project with composer Sam Guarnarccia. The Oratorio was a love song to the earth and to the emergent universe. It was extraordinary to pair orchestral and choral music, paintings, spoken word and birds cooing in the eaves as we sang out in the beautiful Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms. Usually, when trying to tell the 13-billion year history of the creation of the universe, it involves loads of iconic images— humanity in relationship to time and space—huge Hubble space photos contrasted with men and the world at war.
“But I just couldn’t paint galaxies and Hubbles; my primary relationship is with the earth. So I have to start where I stand and have intimate knowledge. For example, in one the paintings for Endless Spring, “Tar Sands Tonglen,” I painted the background image of Tar Sands with white irises and petals—a symbol of the union of heaven and earth. As I painted further, things that I didn’t plan on emerged, such as petals lifting off from green stems and becoming little white orbs that floated across the canvas. On another canvas, I painted a melting glacier in Alaska with forget-me-nots in the foreground—where my home [garden forget-me-nots] meets the edge of a melting Alaskan glacier—here the blue flower petals float away like tears. Many of the later paintings have snowdrops and drifting petals too—the snowdrop seems a perfect metaphor for emergence—the first spring flower to push up out of the cold edge and blanket of snow. The painting “Prayer for the Monarchs” is a more literal piece: we saw just a couple of monarchs in the yard this year, but when my children were in first grade, we’d see hundreds.”
Why Make Art?
“Artistic expressions are one of the ways in which we digest information, experiences and find meaning in the world—like religion. We need the reflections of artists. But I think art does more than this—art can be pre-cognitive; it can anticipate and forward our understanding, as though it’s a tuning fork for culture. Further, whether thinking about the role of art on a quantum physics level or in a sensory shamanic manner, I’ve wondered this: ‘if I take notice and appreciate the earth, does it amplify earth as Gaia?’ So, perhaps these artistic gestures of mine are a little bit like clapping for Tinkerbelle—come back! I believe.”