Deceived by boundaries and bureaucratic labels, one might believe that once land is “protected,” set apart, it will also be safe. The “environmental jewelry” made by Rika Mouw, a coast-dweller on the Kenai Peninsula, references connectivity and calls attention to threats to these lands that are less visible – climate change and ocean acidification – together with more obvious dangers like drilling, logging, and overfishing.
Mouw’s Judicial Collars series explores the idea that species and places should not suffer for want of legal standing in a system skewed toward commerce, abstract agencies, and human stakeholders. Arctic Caribou, a gyre of caribou antler cross-sections, captures the crush of milling bodies of the Porcupine caribou herd, which undertakes the North American continent’s longest land-mammal migration. Her wood-chip ruff Tongass Yellow Cedar celebrates a tree logged for decades in our nation’s largest national forest, but now frost-killed from lack of snow cover during winter months. Salmon closes the loop, hinting at complex ties between vegetation and fish: Spawning bodies that wild scavengers drag from the shallows fertilize woods; plants check erosion, keeping rivers clear, shaded, and cool.
Blazing flame-tongued every fall, fireweed recurs as motif and material in Mouw’s oeuvre. One of the first plants to green cindered country, it implies succession, resilience, the future. To Alaskans, it also spells summer’s radiant brevity. With Mark of Time, her time-lapse collage of wreathed pods going to seed, Mouw honors the plant’s reputation as nature’s calendar tracking the passage of summer: The fewer blossoms left on the stem, the sooner fall will be here.
In her life and her work, this artist of gentle, refined bearing turns to a landscape that has brought her to tears, a gem she’s explored on foot and by raft. The birthplace of caribou generations inspired her most potent conceptual piece, Gift of the Arctic Refuge. This treasure chest is lined with text from the decree that established the “wildlife range” in 1960. From it, snow geese rise – a skein of hand-torn-paper messengers bearing the words of those who fought for a sanctuary. “Through bird migrations alone,” Mouw says, “the Refuge connects peoples and places all over the world.” Wilderness is the great gift America has given itself. It defies Pandora’s box of development and destruction. Like fireweed, and Mouw’s art, it germinates hope and one message supreme: Carpe diem.
Rika Mouw is a studio jeweler-sculptor in Homer, Alaska. She was an artist-in-residence in Denali National Park in 2012. Her work has been shown across the country and is in the collections of the Anchorage Museum and the US Department of the Interior Museum in Washington DC.
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