Michelle

Caron-Pawlowsky

Altars, 2021—ongoing

Altars is a project that memorialises plant species that have gone extinct as a result of human development. This project stems from research into queer ecology, a theory that considers environmental studies and queer theory to be deeply interconnected. Queer ecology works to break down arbitrary human conceptions of what is “natural” and “unnatural” and aims to challenge the value we ascribe to certain living beings above others. Using the framework of queer ecology led me to consider how the lives and deaths of plant species could be honoured in the same ways as those of human beings. What does a plant’s final resting place look like? 

Altars is a site-specific installation project that memorialises native, extinct plants from the area of installation. I collect leaves, petals, stems, and roots from plants in the area and use them to “reconstruct” the extinct plant. This reconstructed plant is buried in the ground and an altar is erected above it. The installation becomes a shrine, burial ground, and memorial site, honouring the existence of each species. Humans have driven nearly 600 plant species to extinction, and there are currently over 6000 threatened or endangered plant species around the world. Altars aims to encourage a deeper consideration of what it means to lose a plant species entirely.

Altar for Thismia Americana, 2021

Ceramic altar made from hand-harvested, pit-fired clay, leaves, roots, mushroom, salvaged plexiglass, photography, stones, mortar

Altar for Thismia Americana is the first installation in the Altars series, completed during the Emerging Artist Residency at Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota, USA. Thismia americana was discovered by botanist Norma Etta Pfeiffer in 1912 and disappeared in 1916, around the time when industrial development began altering the plant’s original landscape. Extensive development in the area has continued since. Also known as Banded Trinity, Thismia americana was endemic to Chicago, Illinois, and is the only species of Midwestern plant known to have gone extinct as a result of human development. 

I collected natural materials from plants around Franconia and used them to recreate Thismia americana, which I then buried in the ground below a small altar made of clay harvested at the site of the sculpture park. Altar for Thismia Americana aims to create a memorial for this plant within Franconia’s landscape.

This piece was installed within David Burns’ sculptural installation, Thinking Space, created in 2009. In 2020, Franconia experienced a fire that burned the wooden top half of Thinking Space. What remained was the circular, stone foundation, which David generously allowed me to use as the site for Altar for Thismia Americana.

 

There are currently 26 endangered plant species in the Midwest.