Wetlands in Relief

Pippin Frisbie-Calder’s awe-inspiring woodcuts of the Gulf South call into question our complicated relationship with nature.

Water and art have always been a part of Pippin Frisbie-Calder’s life, thanks to her father, who is a seafarer and writer, and her mother, who is a printmaker. During many of her formative years, she was homeschooled on a boat sailing between Mandeville, Louisiana, and Central and South America with her family. Her mother put carving tools in her hands before she was five years old. Frisbie-Calder’s own artwork — which deals primarily with the ecology of Louisiana’s bayous, swamps, and cypress forests — bears the influence of her parents, her itinerant childhood, and her deep love of Louisiana’s rapidly disappearing wetlands.

Over the past decade or so, Frisbie-Calder has been collaborating with biologists, ornithologists, and other researchers to create works that not only seek to “get people to fall in love with these ecosystems, even if they don’t get to see them in person,” but also to call into question our complicated relationship with nature.

Her ongoing series, “Exploring the Gulf South Through Woodcut,” is a collection of grand, large-scale woodcut prints, ranging from four to seven feet tall, that throw the wild beauty of these wetlands into sharp relief. Each is painstakingly produced: She typically spends 400 to 500 hours crafting each woodblock carving. The scenes she creates are based on sketches and photographs of the landscape and wildlife — primarily birds — from Frisbie-Calder’s own explorations of Louisiana’s backwaters, as well as on information gleaned from researchers.

Cypress, for instance, is an ode to the “majestic old and living cypress and hardwoods that have survived a century of human exploitation.” The nearly 7-foot-tall woodwork features a massive bald cypress with 11 birds milling in and around it, as an alligator lurks in the waters below. Her multiple woodcuts of nonnative starlings, meanwhile, are aimed at making the conversation about conservation “a little more complicated.”

People “have done a lot of horrible things to starlings to try and eradicate them,” Frisbie-Calder says, but they didn’t ask to be brought here. “We brought them here, so it’s our fault.” We ought to “think more deeply” about why we hate some things and beings the way we do, she says.

More Online: Learn more about Frisbie-Calder’s work pippinfrisbiecalder.com

Contemporary Heroes references Operation Migration, a successful effort to train endangered whooping crane chicks to follow their historic migration flyway, guided by an ultralight aircraft manned by a pilot dressed in a full crane costume. The work not only mixes whimsy into religious iconography, but also offers a message of hope and responsibility. As Frisbie-Calder says: “The story is both bizarre and shows a future where humans will have to be involved in environmental restoration.”

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