Environmental Artist April Flanders Facilitates a Conversation Between Art and Science [Interview]
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post ran in 2022. We’re publishing this update because we have exciting news about installation artist April Flanders.
April Flanders wants to facilitate a conversation between science and art. “Both [fields] strive to describe the visible and invisible world around us,” she writes in her artist statement. Based in North Carolina’s remote Appalachian region, the interdisciplinary artist creates deceptively colorful paper works that scrutinize the environmental effects of globalization.
One such effect is the risk posed by invasive species. An avid naturalist, April works with environmental research groups, creating large-scale paper installations informed by the latest scientific reports. Her recent work looks at the damage caused by organisms, plant or animal, introduced to non-native ecosystems through human intervention, accidental or otherwise. Quite often, it happens on purpose. Cane toads famously invaded Australia in the 1930s after sugarcane growers unleashed the bug-eating amphibians into their fields, hoping to save the crop from beetle larvae. They quickly became pests, multiplying uncontrollably and poisoning predators across Australia, where they continue to spread.
“Invasive species are not inherently bad,” April concedes. “They exist within their native habitats in harmony with other organisms but travel to other ecosystems primarily through human mediated transfers. The result is an imbalance in the delicate equilibrium of our ecosystems.” Using cut paper and printmaking methods, April harnesses the medium’s potential for mass reproduction at breakneck speed, a trait she shares with certain invasive species, like the cane toad. Her layered, large-scale installations are dependent on repetition, multiplicity, and blind reproduction, a strategy she employs to dizzying effect.
Despite their mesmerizing beauty, April’s installations caution us against complete seduction: “While non-native organisms may provide novel interest and unique beauty, the natural controls that would normally keep them in check are missing,” she notes. April sympathizes with our lust for beauty, but her work begs us to consider the impact of human curiosity on the world around us. “Any system is interconnected; small changes have huge impact. Within the system that connects humans to nature, we are the vehicle for the destruction of balance.”
Scroll through to read our interview with April Flanders, then head over to NOT REAL ART’s April 2023 exhibition, Art and the Environment, to see her entry, the sea-inspired print “Lower Depths I.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
April Flanders discusses the necessity of exercise, why science and art make good bedfellows, and the artistic challenges posed by settling in a rural area.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
April Flanders: There are two books that every artist should read, and re-read: Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch and Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orlando.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
AF: I am an avid environmentalist, and this is what informs my work. I just have this overarching urge to protect the planet from, well, us. We are just such a destructive species, and it's painful to see the world changing in these really permanent ways. The world we live in today is not nearly as wild or as pristine as the one I grew up in. I really fear for future generations in terms of our relationship with the planet. I have chosen a really specific aspect of the environment because all of it together just feels too big, but invasive species are having a huge impact globally. I also really enjoy the science aspect of this work. I delve into current scientific research with every piece.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
AF: It's really hard to choose just one, but I would like to host a dinner party with Ellen Gallagher and Laylah Ali. They both have amazing work, and they both just seem so cool and funny. I'd like to get in the room with both of them and see what we talk about!
What are you trying to express with your art?
AF: At the core of my work is the desire to shine a light on an environmental problem that isn't receiving enough attention. Invasive species are exceptionally destructive, and we are a huge part of the delivery system. I think it may be idealistic to think that my work would cause behavioral changes on the kind of scale necessary to make a difference, but I have never been able to make purely decorative work. Ironically, I do have an interest in creating work that is beautiful, or at least captivating. I'm interested in capitalizing on that experience to educate folks about the actions we take daily that affect this problem.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
AF: My biggest barrier right now is not having full-time child care while having a full-time job. It's closer to full time than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, but it's still not enough. The result is that my studio practice suffers, and to be honest, my parenting suffers too sometimes. Even though I have some recent successes, I feel like I'm always trying to catch up.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
AF: I am an educator, so often this means sharing my process with students, which includes all of it: my creative decisions, the technical details, and my honest assessment of their work. Though I sometimes see relationships between my work and theirs, it's always them making work that is completely their own, just informed by what I'm able to offer them. I also go out of my way to share opportunities with art friends and colleagues. I find that the more I share with others, the more opportunities come my way. Stinginess has no place in my studio or professional practice.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
AF: Honestly, I hate that artists so often have to choose between these two things. If I look honestly at the arc of my career, I guess I've chosen the path of historical significance, because my installations are designed to be sellable. The part of me that needs to support my family wants to be commercially successful.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AF: I am collaborating with a group of scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's Marine Bioinvasions lab. I'm headed to their lab next week to check out their research, with an eye towards creating a site-specific installation for an international conference they are hosting. Scientific research informs my work, so I’m really jazzed to be part of their lab for a week, and to be able to check out these organisms up close. I think this experience will be transformative. I'm also curating and organizing a portfolio exchange around this idea, so other artists are going to be part of this too. It's generating a lot of interest.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
AF: I exercise regularly, and I consider exercise to be part of my studio practice. I also spend a lot of time outside and sometimes those things go together in the form of hiking or mountain biking. These things aren't optional for me. I have to do them in order to function, and in order to create work.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
AF: I don't like the gallery system. I understand that gallerists need to make a living, but having a middle-person just inflates prices so much, and it just seems so exclusive. It's like this weird private club that everyone wants to be in, but there is some sort of secret handshake that you only get if you're in the right place at the right time. I also feel like this system encourages the public to be really narrow minded about what art is, and can be. Art practice is so expansive. It's not just about objects for sale.
Is there a specific time you recall feeling marginalized by the art world?
AF: Honestly, I feel marginalized all the time. I recognize that I have a great deal of privilege, to have a job that supports and requires a creative practice, but the power centers of the art world feel really out of reach. My practice, and the opportunities I can take advantage of are so limited by my role as a mom to two kids. For example, I can't take a month to go to a residency; I can't travel around to find gallery representation, or even to get inspiration for my own practice. I also just don't have much studio time, and though I get some recognition, I feel like I'm always working at the edges and scratching around for some amount of visibility.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
AF: I live in a very rural area, and while it is amazingly beautiful to live in the mountains of western North Carolina, it is also two hours from anything. It's really challenging to follow through with some of the best practices for getting gallery representation, such as going to receptions, when you live hours away from cultural centers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
Want to be featured in Q+Art? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a short introduction and a link to your online portfolio or three images of your work.