Carolyn Hopkins and M Acuff in discussion with writer Michelle Nijhuis on the subject of both artists’ work in Smolder, their joint exhibition at Carnation Contemporary in November 2022. The following transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Nijhuis  So I would love to hear from both of you what your individual experiences of wildfire have been like—especially in the past few years—as they've become really our dominant experience of summer in the Columbia Basin, and how those experiences informed your paired works.

Carolyn Hopkins  I grew up in the Northwest, so I definitely have my personal history here to compare it to. I had moved away for a decade, and then when I moved back about ten years ago I think the forest fires slowly started being more of a problem. I was living in Portland, but by then had moved further out to 202nd and Glisan St. This was when the huge Eagle Creek fire had just happened, which was depressing because it was one of my favorite hikes, and because it was started in such a frivolous, silly way. One small action had such an enormous impact.

The evacuation boundary actually was only about three miles from my house, which was really something considering I was well within the urban growth boundary. Since then, I’ve moved to the gorge where we've had these summers where you're just inhaling smoke. Because I have outdoor animals it's really concerning—you have to be really aware and have the horse trailer ready to go. One of my horses doesn't load well, so that's another issue that I have to plan ahead for; it’s like what do you grab? What do you leave behind? I had one instance where we thought we were going to have to evacuate and so I started packing the car.

From the viewpoint of my property, I can see the smoke come in through the valley anytime it’s there. I have this very strange vantage point to witness that. At this point, it's a whole season. It's been really difficult, to the point where I've thought about moving out of the region because I find it to be so upsetting. When you have that much smoke you just kind of feel like you're trapped inside. It has definitely impacted my mental health—my existence. Where I am, my concern over my home and my animals has infinitely increased every summer, which is difficult.

MN  Yeah, I've lived in the West, my entire adult life. Mostly in the rural West, in Colorado, and now in Washington State. It's only been since moving to the gorge about ten years ago that I've really noticed how smoke is a separate and extremely disruptive phenomenon. It's not necessarily about having to evacuate, it's almost as disruptive in its own way.

M Acuff  Yeah, I echo a lot of those things. I've been here for 16 years. In the last eight or so years it's very predictable and palpable, and visceral that this is going to happen. I remember chasing fires around to try to document what's going on. I'm very attuned to how you can create an image of what's going on. It's so hard to speak about climate—I don't like to say climate change—I find that a very impoverished notion. I prefer climate collapse—or even better—fucking ecocide.

When you're thinking about the environment, you can conjure certain images—pelicans covered in oil, or the lonely polar bear on an iceberg. Now we've got all this smoke-filled sky which is one kind of image that addresses what’s happening—like in your video, Carolyn. I remember really wanting to make images of this, so I've been orienting to it photographically for a long time now. In summer I go to this reservoir near my house at sunset. You can literally watch two sunsets: There's the sun that first sets behind the layer of smoke. It goes away completely. Then there's the sun that sets behind the actual landform of the earth.

That kind of phenomenon speaks to the situation that we're in, this truly visceral experience of the climate changing and heating. It made me realize that I'm not going to live in this hyper-rich, affluent, segregated way; there's no segregating the air.

MN  Yes, yes. So talk to me about how these personal experiences led to the pieces that we're talking about tonight. How did both of you go from trying to grapple with this phenomenon that's global, and yet local, and really disruptive to us personally—but certainly not as disruptive to us as it is to many other people who are more vulnerable? How did you channel all those experiences and emotions and understand things into the two pieces that you produced for this show?

CH  Previously, when I was much younger—in my early twenties—I worked in the National Park system after growing up out here with a mom who was a land use urban planner. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest you learn about logging. There are protesters on both sides of that who do seemingly very radical things. So there was a lot of awareness of environmental issues from when I was really young.

My mom, in particular, is very into fly fishing. I grew up understanding that we now must farm fish to put into the rivers because we have damned them, and that kind of thing. It really influenced me at a young age. Working in the National Park system in particular I found was a really odd situation because the parks are all about preservation. So I was leading trail rides and running a corral of about 75 horses in Grand Teton National Park during the summers, and I became really concerned about the impact on the animals there. All of the people on the trails, all of the trash, and humans interacting with wildlife and having accidents as a result. So a lot of my work early on was about the ways we approach preservation.

At that point I was working a lot with taxidermy, looking at the ways we preserve things inside of our homes to talk about the natural world. Then I moved to New York City for a while and then went to grad school outside of Detroit. When I moved home the climate crisis was escalating. My work really started shifting towards that subject matter. I would say, in the past five years, it has been the sole focus.

This work is a continuation of previous work I made with my horse, Magpie. I have another work which is a photograph of me in the landscape on Magpie with a ridiculously long white flag I had made. I’m up on my property, flying it on horseback in this almost comical gesture of trying to surrender to what is happening. I’m one person and cannot change what's going on in the world in terms of the climate crisis, but it was a small gesture to play around with that idea—thinking about surrender and thinking about the scale of the issue.

This summer I did a road trip through Montana, Washington, and Idaho, and I stayed in this hay barn that was 150 years old. I felt that the space would be a really great place to do a performance, which is new to me—I've only done one before, so I knew it would require other people to be involved. I really wanted it to happen during fire season and was hoping that we'd be able to capture some of the light coming through that doorway into the space.

As a part of that, I wanted to make this shirt that would mirror the light through the space. So the shirt I'm wearing in the video is covered in little mirrors that you would normally see on a disco ball.

MN  And did you make that yourself?

CH  Yeah, for the video shoot. Then was able to get my friend Sam Slater to agree to the videography and drive all the way up there, sleep in the barn, and shoot it. And he did just an amazing job with that. And then also hired the musician Chris Biggs to do the audio. And so the video is kind of you know—it's two things.

My work has also been very focused on looking at like tropes of the American West. More and more I'm interested in the cowboy. It's kind of this figure that, you know, comes out west and exists in the landscape. It’s supposed to be salt of the earth, but it also has a lot of other connotations about, you know, settling and taking over land that already belonged to other people. It's something that still is very prevalent, even in this region in terms of the way people function.

Horses are a big thing. Cowboys are still a thing, certainly. People dressing like cowboys in The Dalles or in Goldendale are very common, so I’m kind of looking at that trope as well. I wanted to fold that into the work to talk about the historical ways that we thought about the landscape versus what the landscape is doing now; how we interact and exist within that space, both culturally, and physically. And our historical attitudes toward fire

MN  Settlers are a big part of that, too. You know Western settlers. White settlers attempted to subdue fire, and it certainly did not serve well. I really loved how your piece played with light. We think of fire as a source of light and warmth, of course, but I think those of us who have lived through wildfires know how it transforms the light. I mean that's one of the most disorienting things I find about living through the summers that we have now is how, it just confuses your sense of what the weather is, and what time of day it is. I really just appreciated that element of your piece, because you make it with the shirt—the way light is reflecting in these odd ways, and with the view, it is kind of unearthly.

Tell me—what your thoughts are on channeling all of these experiences into your sculpture?

MA I think it started with the pandemic. It caused me to freeze in a way, to stop buying anything, and to take stock of things in a totally new way. I went into this intense recycling mode within my big, cluttered studio. I started to revisit objects and materials, some that were actually more oriented to my teaching. I made a few new elements, but I was really metabolizing things in new ways. I included a photo of a work I made long ago utilizing the David figure which shows up again in the current piece and other recent pieces.

The backstory is that when the new art building on Whitman’s campus was completed the architects had told us they created one facade where they imagined the artists in the building placing things—their work—as a way to speak to the activity happening inside the building itself. There are cement squares intercalated within the brickwork that they wanted us to use. My piece, Juxtapose, was this giant, gaudy, bright orange chain with the large figure of David dangling from it like a necklace. It was a way to speak about the relationship between the figure and architecture, the body, and also the commodity.

There is a long history of sculpture as it relates to architecture. The work was up there for maybe six or seven years. Then suddenly the administration took all of the work down as it was simultaneously gearing up for a capital campaign. When the work went up there were initially some complaints about the nudity. I remember at the time thinking that if the figure had been a woman people would not have had a problem. I was suspicious about the timing of the removal, and at the time I didn’t have tenure so I felt like I couldn’t put up a fight.

When the work came down I was kind of devastated. I had this strange experience of something akin to a symbolic castration. I realized that there was a way in which I was really identifying with the figure. I mean, on some level all artworks function as self-portraits. I realized at the time that it was in a way my symbolic phallus in the world. Yeah, I'm a woman and I'm going to put up this naked male figure, and people are going to have to deal with that. I had many ways of justifying that move, historically, conceptually, contemporarily. But it ended up being an experience of castration for me. And I was like, “Wow, okay. That's kind of interesting.”

After I transitioned and began presenting as male, I found myself having a totally different relationship to the David figure. I’ve used him now several times in the context of new work. I also decided I was not ever going to have this figure be upright, erect; instead, it was going to be down, deposed. That sort of inevitably led to burning him. There was a bunch of other work around me, and it was burnt too. It was largely a place for me to put my grief, on many, many levels. Recently I was doing a talk about this piece, and another colleague had also taken the time to really look at this work and reflect back to me about it, which was incredibly moving. It’s actually really painful for me to look at it. On one level there’s a pretty obvious and legible political commentary about monuments and race, white supremacy, and white bodies. But on another level, it deals with the complexities of gender, and how I've been in these two different bodies, and have had these two very different experiences.

All of this relates to my desire as an artist to make links between climate collapse, racism, and slavery. I'm trying to stitch them together. There's a net that covers his body; his beautiful, beautiful body. It’s just a knock-off garden statue, but the residue of that beauty and its sensuousness is somehow still there. I brought the net back from the Arctic. I was trying to speak to the difficult time many of us are having just being in our bodies. Male and female, and everything in between. It's alive in the culture. I'm just trying to wrestle with it and be involved with those things. That's when I really feel good about being an artist—when works function on all these different levels. I know all of these things are not always going to be legible to people, and that's fine. That's when it's fun to talk about it; give it language.

MN  Consciously. Some of it is legible unconsciously. And then, when you talk about it, for instance, “Oh, that fishing net is from the Arctic.” That's a whole additional layer that I didn't pick up just by looking at it. But how resonant, of course.

So tell me how the two of you met. I don't know when and how the collaboration began.

CH  Was it 10 years ago we met? I think over a decade now. We met at Brush Creek, which was an artist residency in Wyoming. It was a very wealthy retreat—a resort mostly, I think—for very conservative folks. We were one of the first cohorts, so it was still figuring itself out.

I think we were both going through some personal stuff at that time, too; like, I had just graduated from graduate school. I wanted to be teaching that wasn't panning out. I was very frustrated. I'd moved back to the Northwest and was having a hard time finding where to even show my work.

And I met M, who was making work that—we have a lot of subject matter in common. And a lot of imagery in common.

So it was just exciting to meet someone else who's thinking about the same things. And M is also much more articulate than me. So it was really nice to hear someone else talk about those things. I feel like even the way you speak in conversation M, you're a very thoughtful person. You choose your words very carefully. I would say I'm a little more like on the fly, and especially at that age, I just would say anything that came to mind. So it was just nice to meet someone who was further along in their practice, and so articulate and clear about what they were doing.

I was very drawn to M's work right off the bat because there were so many similarities. One anecdotal story I’ll share: M had this, I think it's just like a deer that normally is used for archery practice. It's basically kind of like a statue where you can kind of move the parts, and M strapped that to their back and went to the grocery store with it. The store had all this weird taxidermy in it for no apparent reason. Just because you're in the middle of Wyoming, there’s taxidermy everywhere; over your fruits and vegetables. I had been taking photos of it because I thought it was so odd. But we documented M walking through the space with this deer on their back, and no one batted an eye. I would really think, you know when you get out into these more rural communities, and you do things that are very out of the ordinary wouldn’t be the case.

MA  It was actually a lawn ornament. It's like a life-size deer but made of plastic. It weighs nothing. I had made this strap and I did a piece where I literally walked from Walla Walla to Chicago with it. I stopped everywhere including Yellowstone, the Badlands, the Black Hills, and walked around with that deer strapped to my back. The piece is called homing and it's about being disoriented in a biological, but also bigger sense. It relates a lot to your work, Carolyn, because you are constantly imagining yourself with your horse right; as one figure. You're insisting on some essential connection or bond between you and another creature, right? I guess I had a weird version of that, you know, long ago now.

We are actually going to another artist residency together in a couple of weeks at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, and I am planning on bringing my deer with me. It’s white now and it has been painted a lot of different colors and been in a lot of different installations, but it’s still with me. I'm actually not bringing that many things, because I'm trying to do more movement stuff. But I forgot that you'll be there and the deer will be there!

MN  So did you work on these two pieces together? Were you in communication while they were developing? Did you know that they would be shown together, or did those things come about later in the process?

CH  Later, but we communicated.

MA  We had initially made a proposal for a three-person show at Eastern Oregon University and then the same proposal was taken up by The Dalles Art Center where we had a show this past spring. Both exhibitions use the title Bewildered. We’ve definitely trusted our instincts on how the work would come together, but also been in frequent communication along the way. When you sent me your initial idea for the Slow Burn video I got so excited. I also thought, “My God, that is so complex!” I could totally feel your vision.

MN  How do you see these pieces working together? What do they bring out in each other that they might not where they are shown by themselves?

MA  There are clear references to these very powerful sculptural tropes of monumentality, of figure and horse, like Napoleon; or with mine where the figure is toppled. When I saw those two works in this space together I was very pleased. Again, I’m enamored of your insistence, Carolyn, of becoming one with the horse—like a centaur! It's very powerful. It's very provocative and gets at this question that is living at the center of my practice which is, “What does it mean to rely in unfathomably complex ways on a countless number of other beings?” It’s a question of interdependence, and Slow Burn feels like a proper response to that.

MN  Yeah, you've just been telling us about this plastic deer that you carried on your back, and now Carolyn's art is about a creature that's carrying her on her back.

CH  What's funny to me about working with horses is that it just comes naturally. Art and horses have always been the two things for me. Even tiny Carolyn was obsessed with both. They've just always been the two things I do, and they're very different communities.

For a long time, I did not put them together. They were too separate. They fueled each other in different ways. But this horse, Magpie, that's in the video and photo is how I am able to do this work. I've gotten questions from people that are more about how when working with horses if I'm the dominant being in that relationship. But to me, because I go out and feed her every day, I treat her when she has medical issues, and I care for her, it's a very intense relationship that is more codependent. I gain so much from having her in my life and getting to go out with her and ride all around the landscape out here. It's very special for me. If I didn’t have her there's no way I could do this work.

She's a much older horse who did the entire Pacific Crest Trail when she was younger. Then she was basically left behind by her owners when they moved to Texas. That happens a lot in the horse world because they're very expensive animals to have. When they start aging out of whatever that person was using them for they often get sold and can end up at meat markets. It's a really ugly part of that world.

When I bought her I just thought she was going to be a pasture companion for my younger horse. I had no intention of doing anything with her, but because she's so tolerant and in tune with me, we are able to do these things that I would not attempt with any other animal.

So for me, it's like I'm utilizing that imagery as a way of talking about the American West in a really specific way. I’m a woman—I'm very clearly a woman—I’m not a cowboy. I come from a very different background, having grown up in the Northwest, but being a very liberal person who was raised by someone who has a really intense awareness of our effect on the landscape and who was putting urban growth boundaries in place. All of that kind of stuff.

Those relationships are very different from someone who needs an animal to move cattle. I've done that stuff, and have been a part of those communities. I can totally appreciate those relationships with livestock as well. But my relationship with Magpie in particular is a very personal one that's really special. I'm very, very lucky to have this animal so that I can make these pieces. It's kind of just been happenstance. I never went out trying to buy a horse to make art. I'm really thankful for it, because it's a very fruitful place for me to be making work right now. But it's also really interesting in terms of the way people react to that work. I think it's similar to our relationship with landscape or climate. We all have very different understandings of it, and very different ways of approaching those relationships.

So yeah, it's interesting in terms of the way you perceive that because there were some people who really felt like the conversation they wanted to have about that piece was more about my dominance over Magpie. Which I thought was very interesting, because it's not something I had really considered. It’s not how I expected someone to interpret that work, but certainly in a historical context that is how we use those animals. It still is today—in terms of using her as an example, she could have very well ended up being dog food. She's just a fantastic animal.

MN  And from her perspective, she may well think that you were put on earth to serve her. You take her to wonderful places, and wave giant flags off of her back, right? You're a little weird, but you're really nice!

That makes me want to hear more about how people have reacted to the show at Carnation Contemporary.

CH  The opening was good, the opening was pretty busy, and the sister piece I had to this one was a series of tiny little ceramic horses. I sometimes go through a major creative block, and I don't know what to make, and it's really frustrating for me. And so I've been making these tiny clay horses for months last winter when I just didn't know what to do. I finally decided to glaze them all after different horses I have loved in my life. But those were also for sale. It’s crazy to me what people will buy vs what they won’t. Those pieces were selling like crazy. I was getting tons of feedback about those. And then the video was getting less feedback. Which was concerning to me, because it's really the important piece in the show for me. But people who did spend time with it were really enthusiastic about it.

You know, when you make work it can be hard to know how it's going to be received versus what your intentions are. I was really pleased that people understood that it was about the climate crisis. A lot of the things I had been thinking about when I was making the work were coming back to me verbally from people who were watching it. So to me, that is a successful moment; if someone really enjoys spending time with the work and then also understands some of what I was trying to communicate with it. So that was successful for me.

MA  There's a contrasting aestheticization that happens in both works. Carolyn's is literally made of light—in terms of being a video—and mine is made of darkness, in some way—burnt material. There's a real sensual way that they relate to and counter each other.

CH  You also lit the space in a really particular way that I felt really tied the work together, and also set the mood as soon as you walked into the space.

MN  It's rare and valuable when what people experience actually gets communicated back to us because sometimes people can't articulate it. Sometimes they can, but it takes months or years for them to be able to do so, because—as we've talked about—there are so many layers.

Maybe this is appropriate since we're getting close to the end of our conversation; I want to talk about the theme of “the end” or the Apocalypse that shows up in both of your works. Carolyn, you talk about creating from “the viewpoint of the end”, and I wanted to know more about what that means to you. Similarly, M, you use the concept of the nigredo from alchemy, or transformation through destruction; how that is a metaphor that you're using in this wor. Talk to me about that—themes of the end, and of transformation through disaster.

CH  Yeah, I think that phrase started coming into my artist's statement when I was making work that felt like it was the conclusion of something. I was also thinking a lot about the conclusion of a journey, and being able to look back at what you have come through, or the trail that you have followed to get there. Really kind of thinking about that in the way that we look at history in terms of how it's gotten us to where we are now. I'm pretty pessimistic about where we are at and what's going on in terms of us not making big efforts to change our trajectory.

So really, I kinda talk about that; looking from the viewpoint of the end as a way of communicating that notion as well. I am not optimistic that we are going to turn this around, and—you know—remain a species on this planet that's thriving. I would love for that to happen. I still think it's possible. But really in terms of the way we are dealing with what's going on—I don't foresee that happening. So my work is often kind of in response to that feeling.

The other thing I talk about in my artist statement now is the word solastalgia, which is a new word that's in reference to a feeling of dread that we have. I'm in my late thirties, and I would love to have children but I don't feel like I can. I know people younger than me and that's becoming a much bigger issue for them. They don't want to bring more life into a world that isn't going to be able to support it, or where someone could potentially have a very painful existence. So those are things that I think about in my studio practice and my daily life. That's kind of where those notions come from in terms of writing about the work or talking about the work.

MA  I think I share that sentiment. I'm also still wanting to wrestle; I'm not done fighting and trying to figure out and make sense of something so immense and abstract, but also very real. On the one hand, I'm kind of like, okay, ecological collapse is actually in some sense totally natural. We have this one species, and it elaborated a system that broke a fundamental relation—a sacred biological relation—to all of the beings on the planet.

To me, that's just what is happening, and I want to be honest about that. At the same time, I try to hold space and hope for other possibilities. We are in this unbelievably complex, dependent relation with all these other beings; we need to manifest consciousness of this fact in wholly new ways. Actionable ways. Artists have all these different tools that scientists don't have, or journalists, or whomever. We get to use irony or hyperbole, or aesthetics—the sensual—as a form of knowledge that we can communicate and share with. In my piece I had left one item that wasn't burnt, I just had to put that in there. People often ask “what's that?” and the answer is that it is a weird rudder or mast-like thing.; a thing that resists, resists total destruction.

On the one hand, destruction is also welcome in certain senses. I can't stop thinking about the image of the black hole that came out recently; it gave me some solace because the moment that we go through that black hole, all the plastic is gone! I want to keep remembering things functioning at a geological scale. I want to remember that there are bigger things happening in the universe. I want to resist all the suffering that is happening now, do what I can to mitigate it, to create images that will hopefully compel people to think more deeply. There is some magic in everything burning to the ground though. Something will come from that again.

MN  That would be worthy in its own way, for various reasons. I've written and thought a bit about the seductions of the idea of apocalypse in Christianity and elsewhere, where there's this certain attraction to the idea of a fresh start. Bring it on. Bring on the disaster, so we can all start again and maybe do better. I suppose there's an element of that in this in your work, but you complicate it in these really interesting ways. Both of you are thinking about how we are going through a period of destruction, the likes of which certainly none of us alive today have ever seen. What will come of that? Will there be something after it that we actually get to witness? Will we not witness it? Will it be better? Will it be worse? It goes beyond these binaries of optimism and pessimism, and good and bad, in ways that are helpful to those of us who are engaging with your work. Thanks to both of you.

There's so much more we could talk about, is there anything that comes to mind now that you would like to add or say to one another, or ask of one another?

MA  I've already said this to Carolyn, but how grateful I am to have known you for this decade, and to now get so much time with your work and you. It's been so nourishing!

CH  Likewise. And I think the one thing we didn't talk about is that M was one of the few first people to get on board with Carnation. It’s a co-op that we opened to create space and opportunity, because there isn't enough of it, especially in Portland and the Northwest. And so it's been great to be able to work with you in that context, too, and this space to make work, which is also such a precious thing to come by.

MA  Thank you. Michelle. Thanks to both of you.

MN  I appreciated spending time with your work, and this conversation has just dropped me to a new level of understanding of it. I'm sure there's more to come.

photo credit: Marcelo Fontana

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