Botanical Ramblin’

Botany I is complete!  My cumulative grade is a whopping 102%!!!!!!  How I accomplished the focus enough to make this grade is still a mystery to me, but I’ll take it!  Botany II is up next, in a week.  And if I can keep up my focus in the middle of a very very very hectic and complicated year-end blitz of teaching, then I will be even more mystified and, yes, I’ll admit, pretty proud.  As in all things I attempt, if it were easy, then I wouldn’t be interested. And after Botany II is finished, I will have even earned a certification!  What to do with it is probably the same as what to do with a Masters in Interdisciplinary Art:  You don’t give a shit about what it is supposed to mean, you just go out and live it!

How botany is weaving its way through my bag of tricks has been really interesting so far.  I barreled ahead full-steam into exploring botanical perfumery, researching and sourcing ethically-sound raw ingredients, foraging, and folk herbalism, historical perfumery, distillation and alchemical processes, watching TED talks,  figuring out foraging rules and buying way too many books and a handful of magic from my favorite artisan perfumer.  I’ve recently proposed scent-based projects for 2 artist residencies: one, which was so thick with hyper-excited inquiry about olfaction in synaesthesia, neuroscience and performance that I had to spell it out (even for myself!) in a Venn diagram; and the other, a simpler study of distilling the forest in the redwood biome.  We shall see where it all leads me and whether or not these are the residencies which will become a part of my ramblin’ way.

In the process of incorporating botany and scent into my artist practice, I have been introduced to so many wonderful people, plants and botanical gestures.  I have touched rare botanical books from the 1400s with my bare hands at the Lenhardt Library, I have learned about the mysterious and naked-lady-filled Voynich Manuscript, I have added my “favorite scent memory” input to a window display in the UK, I discovered pioneering entomologist and botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian, I have studied up on the nocturnal volatile emissions of my 50+ year old Hoya carnosa plant and have attempted to capture her scent, and have received a box of gorgeous, glowing chartreuse Brown-eyed Wolf Lichens from a dear friend I met at a residency once upon a time and who continues to inspire the hell out of me with her beautiful brain, heart, words and travels.

So onward, into it all.  As the bartender said when I’d walk in the door at karaoke, “Here comes Trouble…” and he was right.

The Blood of Trees, the Blood of Humans

In Botany I class, we were given the opportunity to work on an incredible botanical feast project, which asks us to research the economic, ethnobotanical, historical, medicinal and culinary uses of a certain edible plant.  Naturally, I can’t do anything right, so I chose to study conifer resins and set about finding the elusive pine tree in a landscaped Chicago.

Resin is part of the trees’ immune system; simply put, it is tree blood.  The connection to the human body is not lost on me.  I have been studying resin because I have been deeply concerned about violence against human bodies and what it might take to heal us all from these constant traumas.  The sharp irony is that when faced with the alarming sight of human blood spilled viscerally in the public way, I’d imagine it might shock us into catalyzing change, but it doesn’t. We are used to it now.  Instead, we absorb it and it becomes a part of us.  How many times have I stepped over pools of old blood on the sidewalk in Chicago? How many times have I realized I was walking along the dotted path of some human’s blood drips along my way?  Is there any way to know if these wounded people are safe?  Are the kids I teach safe?  Am I safe?

Because I believe that every living soul has power, I also believe that there is a solution, in fact, there are many solutions.  For example, we can start with equal education and art for all and see how communities brighten and shift!  So often, my mind creaks and churns as if circling hungrily inside the wooden belly of a quixotic windmill: We can’t ask for societal change from others–we have no reason to ask permission!– such change has always been ours, assuming that we want it and can organize around it.  Enter poverty.  Enter disenfranchised and abandoned communities.  Enter selfish and cruel City leadership.  Enter widespread anger and fear.  Enter a hot day and flaring tempers.  Enter illegal guns.  And here we are.  Windmill standstill.

Strikingly, acts of trauma inflicted on a conifer yields the same thing as it would in humans: blood.  Like us, the conifer, if not mortally wounded, will heal, especially as its resin has anti-microbial properties and coagulates like blood to keep out bacterial and viral invaders. For medicinal and healing use, pine resin is anti-inflammatory, expectorant, and it is said to have superb drawing qualities for removing splinters and even embedded glass from skin.  So even as pine resin marks the site of injury from a traumatic event, the substance itself is a broadly healing medicine beyond the skin of the tree.

It makes me wonder how human blood could be used as the basis of a treatment or antidote to solve the problem of spilled blood, following the idea of “like treats like,” as in homeopathy.  From this concept, my resin meanderings migrated toward using the healing capabilities of resin in a way which would put people in direct contact with this substance through the mouth (as a site of resistance, emotion, nourishment and wellness).

Enter cast conifer resin vessels serving blushed pine needle tea.  Enter the gesture.  Enter community.

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So I harvested a whopping 8.4 lbs of conifer resin from 14 bleeding Pinus resinosa trees, otherwise known as Red Pine, from Hyde Park, where I have taught kids K-12 interdisciplinary art for the past 10 years.

As with each of my projects, the location of the site is crucial to my research and project development– arbitrary locations feel thoughtless and ham-handed to me– I like to do the work of researching and seeking out particular, peculiar, taken-for-granted or forgotten locations in order to introduce site-responsive work, which is a step beyond site-specificity.   Being responsive, listening to and engaging with these chosen environments integrates my hand into it, instead of imposing my work there, as is common practice.  Working site-responsively also breeds a deeper kinship, understanding and awareness of the wild doctrines of my environment, which I deeply enjoy learning during my stay with the land.  Immersion and integration makes for artistic innovation and all of this prods me ever forward in partnership with and stewardship of the land and her people.

After I harvested this raw resin, I cast my favorite whiskey glass in rubbery seaweed-based aliginate and wrapped this form in a plaster cloth mother mold for stability. I melted the resin in coffee cans, placing any miniscule stray spiders or curious weevils in my happy terrarium of lichens and epiphytes, strained the fragrant, darkened molten resin with cheesecloth and poured it into the alginate molds, rotating the resin around the inside of the form to make a hollow vessel.

My first pour was the most illuminatingly beautiful, at once rough and graceful, stunning and surprising, in colors and textures which resembled, of all things, transparent cockroach wings.

I live-cast some vessels for my Botany class and in them served nutritious and restorative pine needle tea.  My classmates kept their cups, later reporting to me where they kept them like prizes, safe in their homes, on shelves, in cabinets.  All of it melted my heart and let me know I was doing good work.

If I can solidly name one thing I live for, it is when my materials are smarter than me and teach me more than I could have ever imagined.  This was one of those moments.

Even better? An observation from a change in weather:  these vessels self-destruct.

So in the end, a bright truth: Even though I am calling for the healing of humanity, specifically Chicago’s beautiful, vibrant communities, I know that my own bones and my own blood are calling to be healed.  Fragile eventually becomes brittle, and a shift in temperature can cause even the most beautiful, vibrant vessel to self-destruct.

What are you waiting for?

This is a piece I wrote on Wattpad to encourage our disaster poets-in-hiding to come out from behind their trees and write!

Hey Disaster Poets!

I am seeing so much great work coming in, and I want to thank you all for putting your hearts and minds to work! I’m anxiously awaiting the words of a few of you and part of my job is to give you all a nudge, so here it is: What are you waiting for?

I think we can all relate to this question, yes?  I certainly can.

When you read the article in the link below, you will see a photo by the artist Yves Klein, entitled “Leap Into the Void.” This image is my own personal muse– I have had it taped to my wall for years.  It inspires me to do only that which scares the crap out of me.  It totally works! My artwork and artmaking life has only gotten more interesting, more challenging and more fun, purely because I have made a healthy habit of triple-dog-daring myself to make the work I want to see in the world.  I am the only one who can bring this work to the world.  The same goes for you, too.

After I’m gone, I want my legacy to reveal that I always worked my fingers to the bone, that I did not take no for an answer (especially from myself) and that I made compelling, engaging artwork through a lifetime of thoughtful risk, adventure and constant questioning.

My artwork is not meant for a lazy audience.  I don’t believe your writing should be, either.


I triple-dog-dare you.



An excerpt:

What Are You Waiting For?
by Joe Bunting

You have a story you’re afraid to write.

You know the one I’m talking about. The big one. The dangerous one. The one you’ve been putting off. The one you just don’t have time for.

The Truth About Your Story

You will never be ready to write your story.

You will never have enough time.

The fear won’t go away.

It’s time to stop making excuses for yourself. It’s time to come out of hiding.

Your story was meant to be shared. What are you waiting for? (You might want to tweet that).
It’s Okay If No One Is Listening

Stories were meant to be shared, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to listen to you.

Your job is not to force people to listen. Your job is to share your story in a way that creates a connection with those who are listening.

If people show up, if people enjoy your work, be grateful. It’s an honor to have their attention.

But if nobody shows up, if nobody likes your story, be grateful then, too. It’s an honor to have a story to tell. Go share another.

This thing we do, this writing, it’s a gift. You’re not entitled to a gift. The correct response is always “thank you.”

Read more here:

Leap-into-the-Void no bike


Henna from Jenna

One of my teens in Artshop dreamed up an innovative way to bring her intricate, undulating ‘doodles’ off the page and into the world: mehndi!  After some highly respectable and earnest experiments in making henna paste from scratch, I gave her some clues about where she could buy henna cones.  She and her friends made the trek from far south Chicago allllll the way up to far north Chicago to hunt for these specialized cones which hide in unexpected boutiques and apparently come with no instructions whatsoever.  All the better for experimentation!

Here are her beautiful improvised glyphs on my fingers.

jennas henna improved

In response to her own work, I showed Jenna the photographs of Shirin Neshat and she asked: “Does our work have to be on a regular surface?  I mean, could it be on a person instead?”  Oh, how my heart fluttered at her breaking the rules!  Can’t wait to see how her doodle-vision expands to whole-body work or using live models in our upcoming summer exhibition or audience-responsive performance of mehndi or or or…

I am the luckiest gal in the world to be wearing one of my student’s artworks on my skin.  Totally melting.

Fighting for a Peaceable Kingdom.

First day back for a third installment of new arts partnership at my favorite high school– the school which resembles a spotless, open, sunlit community college, and also, happily, where I teach my neighbors.  This is the school where my partner History teacher and I have become dear friends and our collaborations are ever stronger for it.  We develop and implement intricately layered, interdisciplinary, arts-integrated history curriculum which intrigues our laid-back, clever, amazing kids.  The best part is when they take our work, turn it on its head and make it truly theirs.  This is the arts partnership where, every single year, my kids do such fantastic soul-grabbing work that I am brought to tears.

One of my oldest friends in Chicago is a child who has grown from a dimpled, ecstatic 6-year-old into a dimpled, ecstatic, tall, handsome, kind, creative high school junior.  Today he came to visit me before class with a smart new haircut and tidy knitting project draped over his arm.  I am always overjoyed to see him, and marvel at his grown-up-ness.  I embrace him like family, because he and his parents, his two older sisters and his sweet chihuahua are absolutely a part of my family.

At this school in our rough and vibrant neighborhood, there has been an unspoken agreement for years, a loose truce of sorts, that the insidious gang warfare in our community shall not pass the metal detector and that there will be peace in the hallways.  It has been this way for at least the past 5 years I have taught there and has been predominantly adhered to. Today, it was just not so.

The instant I began to speak to this class of freshmen and sophomores today, a hefty fight broke out in the hallway which required security to physically corral the offender.  At one point, the fight was pressed up against the wire-glass window of our classroom. We watched the glass as if we were unblinking goldfish, knowing that we could not interfere.  Our kids calmly kept their seats and my partner teacher and I were so proud and relieved that they did.  I mean, unless you’re going to help stop a fight, there’s really not much to see.  Except drama, rage and maybe, if you’re ‘lucky,’ a little blood.  The whole ordeal lasted less than 2 minutes, but it rocked me in a way that I never thought would happen at this school.  Other schools, yes.  But not this one.

So my beloved neighborhood high school, which I value so dearly as a beacon of hope for the kids in our underserved community, today no longer feels entirely safe.  There has been a breach in respect and understanding and it is coloring the hallways black, blue and red. Having taught in CPS for over a decade, I have seen some things inside school walls I’d love to unsee, but somehow, even those things weren’t really surprising.  That this is happening at this particular school means that the safe space that was created by a near-miraculous agreement between the administration and the students has been swiftly stolen from the kids.  Understand this: for a majority of kids in Chicago, school is the only place they can get a welcome break from the normal craziness of aggressive Chicago living.

But when normal is craziness, what is ‘normal,’ really?

In a raw turn of irony, I must mention how appropriate it is that this fight happened today– we are beginning a project which uses poetry and its performance to dissect historical and contemporary disaster in order to comprehend both it and our place in the aftermath of such disasters.  From the fall of Rome to 9/11 to the relentless stream of murders of Chicago kids, we intend to empower these students to see into and out of the mayhem so that our cruel histories won’t always have to be repeated.  So that they never have the opportunity to see themselves as victims or lesser-thans. With this project, I really want to imbue an activist sense in these kids, so that they make peace with their power and choose wisely how to wield it.  Who knows, maybe these are the 26 kids who will take a stand and bring back the truce– the students have to want it to make it so.

We asked them what they think ‘normal’ is.  Soon, we will ask them what ‘normal’ can be, or if ‘normal’ is even what we are going for.  Is poverty a disaster?  Is violence?  In making their poetic responses to disaster, a good question to bring to our kids is not necessarily about focusing on the end result of their piece, but on the legacy of their work.  Disaster is short, but aftermath is long.   What is the purpose of their writing and how does it continue to ring after the poem is performed?  Something I am mulling over is whether art beautifies/abstracts the ugly (too much?) by loosening our grasp on stark reality… or does art illuminate the meaning of our understanding of violence, breaking it down into bits we can digest and do something about?

But this is where it gets tricky for me.  I understand full well that healing is the electric undercurrent of teaching and artmaking.  Though sometimes I wonder:  how does making art make any sense in the face of all this violence?  How does a basic appreciation of nature, detection of birdsongs or rustling of wind through the trees, even stand a chance in Chicago? Waiting at a stoplight in my Truk, I watched an older woman yelling something mundane, not disciplinarian, to her kid today and the child didn’t bat an eyelash. This is their normal.  When our communities are so neglected, marginalized, poverty-stricken and stressed out, I can understand why people can only speak heatedly to one another or not at all.

On my way home from teaching at my other favorite school, I pulled over for 6 screaming firetrucks heading to a single destination which was not on fire and also for one ambulance headed toward my house.  Sirens are reeling even now as I type.  Mostly, I don’t even notice them.  They, along with gunshots and threatening voices, are merely a part of the Chicago soundscape I’ve grown so accustomed to and skilled at tuning out.  This is my normal.

The complacency and complicity in this city breaks my mind.  Why do we disregard fights in school as child’s play? How many kids gathered around the fight as spectators instead of talking the contenders down from their ledges?  Are the safe spaces I set up in my classrooms enough?  How many more murders of our kids will it take before something truly meaningful and comprehensive is implemented?

I don’t want blood-sport spectators for my world or entertainment-seeking spectators for my performances.  Rome fell.  Someday Chicago could too.  I want authentic interactions in my work and in my life, because these moments are fast becoming phantoms.  If our kids– who are the stewards of our many societies– are never given the opportunity to know and practice peace, respect or caring about one another, then they are doomed to repeat these same mistakes over and over ad infinitum. Our kids want to succeed whether they are truly aware of it or not.  How do you get kids to care?  You request it of them.  It works and I do it all the time.

So let’s see what happens tomorrow at my still-favorite high school full of my beautiful neighbors.  It’s Valentine’s Day.  Maybe the expectation of love will infuse the hallways with the spirit of the truce we miss.  And if not, at least I will be collecting a squirmy bag of vermi-compost from my Valentine, the dimpled, ecstatic, tall, handsome, kind, creative, high school junior whom I have grown up alongside in Chicago.

Journal entries by Freshmen from a Humboldt Park High School, addressing a first memory, fear or experience with gun violence.

Young Chicago poets respond to the genocide of their peers and friends:

Ameena Matthews, Chicago Ceasefire/Cure Violence Interrupter on WBEZ’s “Year 25″ interview series:

The Interrupters:

“The film’s main subjects work for an innovative organization, CeaseFire. It was founded by an epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin, who believes that the spread of violence mimics the spread of infectious diseases, and so the treatment should be similar: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. One of the cornerstones of the organization is the “Violence Interrupters” program, created by Tio Hardiman, who heads the program. The Interrupters — who have credibility on the streets because of their own personal histories — intervene in conflicts before they explode into violence.”

Very relatedly, on long-term (toxic) stress on the brain and kids’ ability to learn:
‘”When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids’ brains… If you’re in a constant state of emergency, [the pre-frontal cortex, where a lot of non-cognitive skills happen] just doesn’t develop the same… For these kids, ‘the bear’ basically never goes away, they still feel its effects, even when they’re just trying to sit there quietly in english class… [Pediatrician] Dr. Nadine Burke Harris says: “A lot of these kids had a terrible time paying attention. They have a hard time sitting still.” ‘

Hadiya Pendleton as a 6th grader, in a student-produced PSA about preventing gang violence.  She was a friend of one of my students.

Carbon Dust

Spent this entire rainy, melty day drawing with carbon dust at the lovely Chicago Botanic Garden.*

What is carbon dust drawing?  Invented by Max Brödel, it is an old, painterly expression of slowly layered drawing using a brush in a mix of carbon/charcoal and graphite.  Oftentimes used in medical, botanical illustration and natural history archives for incredibly detailed, luminescent specimen drawings.

There are mysteries in this medium and maddeningly tidy gestures which tested me in a great way.  My usual drawings are very large– huge will come soon enough, I remind myself– with vine charcoal lines like gashes, grey mirrors of silver leaf balancing velvety chords of visceral, striated matter on thick paper. Lots of action, movement and sound. Working very small today– 4″ square up to 9″x 12″– was something I haven’t done since undergrad, but I worked and worked with the carbon dust until I produced my own ghostlike version of… a very small eggplant.  The still life was my AP Art concentration for my portfolio in high school and I have not made one since then.  Great for honing my observational skills, but not as cerebral or imaginative as I require, both then and now.  Alas, the precious eggplant!

Here is my happily methodical setup, compleat with all species of my various charcoal and graphite grindings on the left, my trusty jar of coffee, some cotton I grew a couple years ago and asterisk-shaped mesquite tree seed pods from Texas or Arizona or New Mexico which rattle when you shake’m.  The subject is a rough and glossy pen shell, washed up empty on my hometown’s South Lido beach.  Rendering the pen shell in carbon dust is where I really felt this medium take off for me– I felt more and more successful with this drawing and from that, began to envision correlations with my existing drawing practice.  The (in)action of drawing so still and small eureka-ed forth the idea that I make large drawings for the whole-body gesture on paper. The tiny eggplant was just too constrictive and admittedly reminiscent of those teenage still lives.  I began to pay attention to how my body was moving and became momentarily dismayed because only my hands and sometimes my arms were in motion.  I was losing the gesture and my body was not doing much more than the equivalent of working at the computer, a location which I hate feeling tethered to.  For the pen shell, I worked bigger and tried this half-standing hover thing that was too annoying to keep up, but at least I was more aware of my body in space as I drew.

Did You Know™ you can lighten areas of value by sandpapering old, dried up erasers into crumbs and then brushing them on your drawing?  I KNOW!!!!!


The class was filled with sassy older ladies, straight-talking Midwestern gals, who invited me, the spring chicken, into their circle at lunch.  I sat with five of them and over the course of our conversation, realized that we all had been or are currently, educators.  Oh, how the frustrating leadership of CPS makes it so easy to, ahem, discuss them at length. The lady to my left (my lunchtime drinking buddy) remarked that the only thing she wishes about her 4o years of teaching is that she had more time to make art.  My heart may have stopped the moment I heard this.  MESSAGE!  Now, I’ve only been teaching for 11 years (or is it 12?), but 40 years without adequate artmaking?!  HELLNO.  Good thing I’m not really prone to creating regrets and I am already hyper-aware of how much I teach.  So happy to have met people from outside of my generation who are not younger than me.  Can’t wait to talk to them again when Carbon Dust Drawing class resumes next Sunday.  (We have drawing homework!!!)

*Major tangent: The Chicago Botanic Garden.  OH MY GOODNESS.  How have I lived in Chicago for 10 years without understanding the depth and educational vastness of this institution?  The instructors for the classes are authentically psyched about their work, the library has a rare books archive (!!!!) and more journals about mushrooms, Hoya carnosa and carnivorous plants than I know what to do with and this Bryan Nash Gill Woodcut exhibition made me cry. To know the human-year age of a tree by its rings is an incredibly humbling moment.

Only one other piece has ever brought me to tears– Ana Mendieta’s Body Tracks.   In 2005, at the Des Moines Art Center, nearly all her non-earthworks filled the entire gallery.  My heart and I drove there from Chicago twice. Faced with three of these side-by-side blood drawings hung precisely at Ana’s diminutive height on the night she performed them sent me right over the edge.  In the clear white room marked only by the rust of old blood and pigment, these tracks came alive, making Ana more human than spirit, more fiery-fragile, more insistently, viscerally real.  Weeping in public at the sight of her fingerprints and the profound injustice of her death.  Though I never could have known her, I missed her.  So many of us miss her and we are improved for knowing her through the spirit of her work.

ana body tracks 1974

couplet: on blindfolding strangers


As the artist serenades the blindfolded dance partners, they are fed small morsels which change physical state over time.  Juxtaposing elements of chance, anonymity and the unknown, a risk/trust partnership is created between audience and artist, exploring authentic exchange between strangers in live performance.

Food served: Ice and dark chocolate. (Vegan)

As part of my second inclusion in the wonderful cabaret of Food and Performance!

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Before I blindfolded my dancers, I wanted them to feel a sense of security in this unknown action they were generously performing with me.  Strangers to each other, I looked them in the eyes, and read the following instructions to the couplets from my songbook, a diminutive silver-leafed “Book of Truth”:

Thank you for dancing with me.

I will place a small morsel in your hands, which you will allow to melt away in your mouths.

When either of your morsels melts fully, you may stop dancing.

I will continue to serenade you until you break apart.

I received some really great feedback for this piece:  the participants spoke of vulnerability and beauty, of a deep discomfort which required them to stay in the moment, of teetering on the threshold of fear and desire.  Success!

Being primarily focused on perfecting my delivery of the gesture to my audience-performers, I didn’t readily consider that I would also be receiving something in return.  How amazing to discover the gestures they would bestow upon me!  Blindfolded and lacking the self-consciousness that comes with sight, these dancers allowed me in to their experience just as much as I did with them.  As I sang to them, I observed truly intimate events made public: cooing, hugging, kissing, even long stretches of breathing each other in.  Most of the couplets did not stop dancing with one another when their morsel melted– they waited until I checked in with them, after a second or third repetition of their serenade.

The piece was designed to link strangers together in a preposterous, potentially scary moment, but many existing partners danced with me over the course of both nights.  I only received one flat-out refusal and had one woman scamper away with a hush-finger over her lips while her friends were being blindfolded.

This performance provided me with plenty of opportunity to make observations for use in future work.  I found out that it didn’t seem to matter if the dancers recognized the songs I was singing– familiarity didn’t seem to equal comfort in the midst of discomfort.  So if they didn’t recognize the songs, then why am I singing someone else’s music?  Let me make my own! Something about singing for others is quite an intimate act.  I’d envisioned getting a little bit too close to the dancers so that I could whisper-sing the lyrics… alas, the space was too charmingly rambunctious with all the other performances going on.  I’ve got loose plans to remount this piece alongside the work of a friend this winter…  indoors, in a parlour, it would work well… though I’m compelled to take advantage of a wide, lonely swath of snow as my dancefloor…

I’ve got some thoughts about continuing to research designing performance situations which involve the senses. There’s something about the state of being strange, of being a stranger, about linking strangers.  Something about our sense of fear and our startling ability to overcome deep-seated fears just because somebody has made a request of us to do this fearful thing.  (In public.  Blindfolded.  While everyone else is watching.)  Something in the synthesis of taste and smell– perhaps even sight and touch– when does one really become the other?  Really enjoying how generative this experience has been so far…

I’m working on expanding this research– by teaching far less, making plans to perform more often, and creating new opportunities to grow this garden of inquiry and build a community of daredevils with it.