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Do Your Thing: Art & Nature with Hannah Chalew

We spoke with artist and activist Hannah Chalew about her work, nature, and the uniqueness of New Orleans.

Photo + Illustration: Michael Tucker

We spoke with artist and activist Hannah Chalew about her work, nature, and the uniqueness of New Orleans.

New Orleanian Hannah Chalew is an artist whose work explores the relationship between nature and culture, touching on themes of uncertainty and climate change. We interviewed Hannah about her work, art and nature, the uniqueness of New Orleans, and how she's working to positively impact the environment.

Where are you from and what’s your story?

I was born in Baltimore, but my family moved to New Orleans when I was twelve so I really consider myself from New Orleans. Since moving here, I’ve always felt really connected to this place but now, after having lived in other places as an adult, I realize how special and unique it is to have been able to grow up in this magical city that prioritizes culture, community and pleasure. I went to Ben Franklin and NOCCA for high school, which to New Orleanians already says a lot about me, but my time at NOCCA was really influential to my development as a creative and ultimately my decision to become an artist. I feel so lucky to have gotten such an amazing (and free) education with teachers who are also working artists and who treated our work seriously and demanded that we students did as well. The flora of this city has also had a profound impact on me and I feel spiritually connected to the plants in our swampy landscape.

What are you working on right now?

In my studio, I’m working on some large-scale drawings on paper that I’m making from Louisiana sugarcane combined with shredded plastic street-litter; and I am thinking about how this land has been exploited historically up until now, and the local and global effects of these problems. I also have a living public installation up at Grow Dat in City Park until September. Throughout the summer, I’m holding art workshops for kids from across the city using the artwork as a teaching tool to think about what it means to live in an age of global warming, and in Southern Louisiana in particular.

On making your own paper — how did that aspect of your practice develop and how does it change your connection to the medium and the subject?

I started making paper during grad school though it was something I had been thinking about for a while. I used to make drawings on nice pieces of printmaking paper, but as I thought deeper about all the materials I was using in my practice, I couldn’t account for why I was using this particular paper which had no connection to the subject matter I was drawing on top of it. For a few years, this stopped me from making drawings; which I really missed. As I dug deeper into the subject matter behind my work, I also started to learn paper-making from an artist in Detroit named Meg Heeres, who makes paper from invasive plants. I began thinking about the potential of using the different plants that appear in my work as part of the substrate so that the concept is not only on the surface of the work but is literally embedded in the piece itself. It has taken me a long time to experiment with different plant fibers and figure out how to get the scale and strength I was after, but in the past year I’ve been really happy with the new drawings I’ve created, where the paper itself becomes as important as the drawing and as connected to the landscapes it portrays. I also wanted to create works on paper that weren’t fragile or delicate and that didn’t need to be framed. My new drawings hang off the wall almost as sculptures, objects in themselves, and they can also be rolled up and easily moved.

How has your art transferred to other media?

I studied painting and drawing in college, and when I moved home to New Orleans in 2009, I was using drawing as a way to explore the city and get reacquainted with it after having been away at college during Katrina and the years following it. I became fascinated by the power of nature in our city and really wanted to start collaborating with plants, so I started finding ways to build them into the work, at first in relief, or in a semi-dimensional way. I was lucky enough to have a big, inexpensive studio and access to outdoor space and I just started experimenting outside, intervening with existing plants and creating structures to embed plants into. All of my work thinks about the landscape in some way and is about creating a space that the viewer can enter, so moving into creating immersive installation work just kind of grew naturally out of the works on paper.

Which came first, interest in the environment or making art about nature? How do the two things build on each other?

I was never much of a plant person until I moved home to New Orleans after Katrina and became fascinated by the ways that plants were reasserting themselves in the post-Katrina New Orleans landscape. As I started drawing plants and learning about them through observing and then caring for them in my artwork, I began to fall in love with plants and how magical they are. As I thought deeper about plants, I started thinking more about ecology and how humans are an interconnected part of our environment, but have historically, specifically in Western cultures, viewed ourselves as outside of nature. This has allowed us to exploit this planet and create the increasingly unlivable environment of our own making that is our new global reality. Now I’m a total plant lady, with tons of house plants and a big garden, and I continue to use plants in my work as a way to change our perspective on nature and how we think about our role in the environment.

What is the importance of community in your practice?

As an artist, creating visual art is my most powerful tool to spread ideas and affect change. Art is so special because it doesn’t need to be didactic to reach people and has the potential to move people on issues where they may already know the science or facts on a visceral, emotional level. I show my work in galleries and museums and it’s important to me that my work is in dialogue with my peers in the art community, locally and beyond. But I’m also thinking about ways to engage with people outside the “art” community, who might not already be exposed to the issues I’m thinking about. Especially with my outdoor work, I want my art to be able to meet people where they are and create a space for an experience outside of the realm of the rational. It’s been very exciting to have my new installation up in City Park all summer where it is totally open to the public, so people encounter the work in a place they aren’t expecting to see art. I think this keeps people’s minds open and when caught off-guard they might rethink what they know and believe. It’s also been really exciting to work with kids in the art workshops that touch on the themes of this work, because ultimately we are passing down all these problems to the next generation. Engaging with young people on these issues and seeing the wheels turn in their head, has been particularly meaningful.

"As New Orleans grows increasingly vulnerable to the changing climate, I felt that it was important to move home and contribute to and enjoy the unique culture and also take part in the movements that are fighting to save this place."

What is it about New Orleans that makes you want to be here?

From 2013 to last fall, I was living in Detroit. I really enjoyed living there and found a very welcoming and engaging art community, but I never stopped feeling the tug of home. As New Orleans grows increasingly vulnerable to the changing climate, I felt that it was important to move home and contribute to and enjoy the unique culture and also take part in the movements that are fighting to save this place. In the most particular sense, I live in Mid-City and I love being able to run under the majestic oak trees in City Park and on the banks of Bayou St. John, seeing friends and neighbors all along the way.

Hannah's Bayou Bridge poster

Concerning prints and activism around the Bayou Bridge Pipeline - can you talk some about any art and non-art-making ways you are working for change?

Since moving home, I’ve become involved in the No Bayou Bridge movement, as well as the more local fight against Entergy’s proposed gas plant in New Orleans East. For NoBBP, in addition to creating the screenprint, I’ve been out canvassing and done water monitoring along the pipeline route, I’ve hosted awareness events to build capacity for the movement in New Orleans, gotten a letter to the editor published in The Advocate, and helped fundraise for the L’eau Est La Vie pipeline resistance camp out in Rayne, Louisiana. Regarding the proposed gas plant, I’ve been attending and giving testimony the City Council meetings and have also been calling my local council people. As I’ve gotten more involved politically I’ve also been making more overt references to the oil and gas industry and its pernicious effect on our landscape in my new work. My installation at City Park is made from old plumbing pipes meant to reference the oil pipelines that crisscross our state and they are embedded with plastic litter. Both elements, the pipes and the litter, evoke our human impact on the landscape and the legacy we are passing down, and will ultimately leave behind. My drawings are similarly exploring pipelines and including plastic detritus, and I hope that with both bodies of work and also with my political actions, I can spread awareness and ultimately inspire change.

"Since moving home, I’ve been able to see this landscape with new eyes and question how entrenched the oil and gas industry is in this city and state, and specifically how tied into our culture these industries have become..."

You did a residency or education in Detroit a few years ago...what did you learn while away?

I was up in Detroit for four years for my husband’s training. While we were up north, I also got my MFA in Painting from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. During my time in grad school and the years after, I really dug deep into the conceptual and formal aspects of my work (as one does in grad school). My work changed a lot, and my time there really helped me crystallize what I’m thinking about, what I want to say, and how I want my art to operate in the world. I started to get involved with environmental justice work in Detroit, but since moving home my political concerns and my artwork have really started to coalesce and that feels really exciting and good. Since moving home, I’ve been able to see this landscape with new eyes and question how entrenched the oil and gas industry is in this city and state, and specifically how tied into our culture these industries have become — literally supporting all the art museums and music festivals, etc. I was really excited to take part in Fossil Free Festival this past April, and hope that we can collectively continue to question the role of these detrimental industries on our communities and envision a sustainable future.

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