Rachel Frank: Ritual and Rehabilitation

Hot Air
A collage of hands holding a clay dog

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Rewilding Franconia Sculpture Park, Participatory Performance as part of 4Ground: Midwest Land Art Biennial, Franconia Sculpture Park, 2022. Photographer: Rachel Frank

Rachel Frank is a Brooklyn-based artist whose practice includes sculpture, video, and performance. Her art explores our shifting perspectives towards natural history, climate change, and relationships with non-human species. She grew up near Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, the birthplace of American paleontology, where large mammoth and other megafauna fossils were found, altering Western views on extinction and evolution. She works as a staff wildlife care manager at The Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Manhattan.

Please tell us a little about growing up in Kentucky and the journey that led you to your current practice. Does your personal history factor in an explicit way in your art?

I grew up in Northern Kentucky in a small town. I was kind of an anxious kid and didn’t exactly fit into the extremely conservative, religious, and football-dominant culture in school. Both reading and spending time outdoors were things that kept me calm and were transportive to me. Kentucky is known for its limestone and shale, which holds a lot of fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago when much of the land was underwater. It was common to find brachiopods, crinoids, and fossilized coral. Sometimes, I would find more recent fossils as well, such as mineralized bison teeth or other bones in the woods. And my mother, who grew up as a farmer in Minnesota, had a lot of interest in the natural world. She had collected petrified wood, geodes, and bones —all these things were around the house where I grew up. A sense of a deeper, more expansive time was instilled in me and made me curious about past species and the history of the natural world.

The plant and animal life in that region of the country are things I miss. At night, the sounds of katydids, spring peepers, crickets, and the occasional owl, whip-poor-will, or woodcock was a nightly symphony in the summer. When I was in grade school, the 17-brood cicadas hatched, blanketing the skies and trees for a few weeks. I remember being so excited by the transformation of the landscape and the thought of this hidden world of small burrowing insects living out their lives unseen until they erupt in one large mass. I read that large cicada broods are declining on the East Coast due to pesticide use and land development, and the last brood eruption in Long Island was largely absent. As I see more and more changes in the natural world around me, I am both sad for the loss, angry over our hubris, and driven to think about these issues more with my artwork and larger practice.

Sentinel Offering Kernos: Woodcock, Oysters, Lichen, 50 x 43 x 44”, 2021. Stoneware ceramic, glazes, steel, epoxy, and spray paint with native plant species. It was installed at Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, NY. Photographer: Sofie Kjørum Austlid

Can you elaborate on how your art addresses the climate crisis?

For nearly the past ten years, my artwork has been largely environmentally driven and is focused on how past species, rituals, and objects can shape our environmental future. Many of my earliest projects explored rewilding—the practice of returning species back to environments where they once lived to help restore ecosystems. I became interested in thinking about the landscape as having a memory and, through site-specific sculptural performances, engaging with this memory.

Recently, I have been working on a series of ceramics based on ancient Eurasian offering vessels. This series borrows historical forms from three types of vessels: the rhyton, which was traditionally animal-shaped; the kernos, which was circular-shaped and had individual offering cups that held grain; and the lekythos, a tall, slender vessel that was historically associated with funeral rites and loss. Some of the vessels in my series take the form of sentinel or indicator species—species that are among the first in an environment to show the effects of climate change and can be used to gauge the overall health of an ecosystem. I’ve been particularly interested in focusing on species that live in the margins of land and water, marrying these two permeable worlds through their habits and movements.

I’ve always been excited by historical artworks that have a performative or ritualistic action to them, but our experience of these artworks is often static, as isolated objects seen behind glass in museums. I am interested in both reinterpreting these vessels in a contemporary environmental context and in re-activating them as performative vessels. In an early “performance,” I staged a group of my animal-shaped rhyton vessels at the shoreline so that the ebb and flow of the tides gradually filled and drained them, creating a new performance that reflected on rising tides. Recently, I’ve also started using some of these vessels to stage site-specific participatory performances where an audience is invited to fill the vessels with water and pour the water out into an area of the landscape, both connecting the audience to the land in a new intimate way and inviting a larger audience to engage with these vessels based on ancient forms.

Does your job as a wildlife care manager for birds seep into your practice?

Yes, I’ve been working at the Wild Bird Fund for about three years as both an animal care manager and a wildlife rehabber. Working in wildlife rehabilitation makes me feel more connected to species’ rhythms and annual movements. NYC is along the Atlantic Flyaway, so during the fall and spring migrations, we get intakes of warblers, woodpeckers, and woodcocks who have hit glass windows during their migration through all the city obstacles. They come in waves and in different groups, so where you are in the migration can sort of be anticipated by the species of birds that are arriving. In the summer, we are inundated with baby birds and sometimes treat female turtles who are hit by cars as they travel to lay their eggs. The winter is a time of hawks, raptors, and winter waterfowl.

Working with other species in rehabilitation, you need to attune yourself to another being’s most basic needs, discomfort or pain, and stress. They are wild animals, and the goal is to keep them wild, not to grow comfortable with you, so you must work with them on their terms and without ego. Through this work, I’ve realized how entangled and interconnected all life is, from the species they depend on for food to the stressors from outside forces like land-use development or climate change and to the reasons they become sick, injured, or orphaned and in need of care.

Birds, particularly migratory birds that live in the intertidal, shoreline, and pelagic regions, often appear in my work. I think of these species as transformational forms connected to the liminal space between water and land, a relationship that is becoming more permeable with climate change. With climate change, we will also continue to have less stabilized or fixed ideas of geographies and places. I am interested in how these migratory species connect diverse landscapes across countries and continents through their movements. Rather than permanently linked to a specific geography or location, these species are in flux, connecting the neotropics in the south to North America to Arctic northern regions. In general, I view birds as symbolic of movement—migration, seasonal change, transformation—and combined with the offering vessel form; they conceptually allude to the processes of collection, exchange, and engagement between species.

Temporal Vessels, Participatory Performance as part of SkowheganPERFORMS, Socrates Sculpture Park, 2023. Photographer: Stephen Tateishi

You had a performance at Socrates Sculpture Park on September 30th. Could you tell us about it?

The performance was organized through the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where I was an artist-in-residence in 2005. During that summer residency, my mother died after a short battle with late-diagnosed cancer. Soon after her death, I took one of my late walks through the woods and was followed by an owl I could only hear calling in the darkness. I wrote a piece about this experience, linking the loss and desire for connection to the perilous journey birds take on their seasonal migrations and the fleeting moments when we encounter these birds visually or just through sound. I sculpted several bird-shaped ceramic rhyton vessels based on species that annually migrate through the city specifically for the performance. After reading the written piece, participants were invited to choose a vessel, fill it with water from a circular basin, and then take the vessel somewhere into the landscape to pour the water out. It was a very initiative and personal performance, and some people privately told me the experience of it was very emotional for them.

Can you tell us about your group show at Underdonk that ended on October 15th?

Constellation Threads was a group show curated by Elisa Soliven-Gerber, which featured artists who use fabric or incorporate fiber-based techniques into their work. I had several works in the show: part of a ceramic milkcrate that hung on the wall with sculpted parasitic plants that I made during a residency at Wave Hill in the Bronx and an installation combining several works that I made specifically for the show. The milkcrate form is one I’ve been remaking in ceramic and using in my work recently. Living in NYC, I come across landscape-like stacks of milkcrates daily. I’m interested in the form as a type of vessel for the exchange and movement of goods that exists without a set geography but creates its topographical landscape on the margins. It’s become a form I’ve recreated in clay and used as a framing device for sculptural works. In this piece, I sculpted some parasitic or carnivorous pitcher plants on the surface of the milk crate hanging on the wall, with long fabric tendrils extending down in a net or vein-like form from the milk crate. Pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants live in wetlands and bogs and depend on the movements of insects, luring and enticing them with a sweet smell and then utilizing fungus and microbes within their body pitchers to aid in digesting them. They are considered a sentinel or indicator species and one in decline with the draining and development of wetlands. I’m also interested in them as plant species that are more animal-like, with their reliance on other species for help in digestion—a symbiotic relationship not unlike the digestive tract of mammals. The piece also includes a bronze cast human ear as another vessel of exchange, taking in sound.

Constellation Threads, Curated by Elisa Soliven-Gerber, Installation, Underdonk, Brooklyn, NY, September 16th-October 15th, 2023. Photographer: Masaki Hori

Can you tell us about your residency in NV at the Montello Foundation? What is it about the landscape that inspires you?

Here in NYC, we experienced such climate extremes this summer. The sky was darkened to a sickening orange glow in June from the wildfires in Canada, and the city experienced flooding and a near shutdown of transportation in September. It’s getting hotter and wetter on the east coast. I was interested in going to an area of the landscape experiencing the opposite—much of the west, particularly the southwest, is experiencing drought, and many areas are running out of water. I was also interested in going to a place, unlike other places I’ve lived. It’s so quiet here; one can hear the wing beats of a raven overhead, and the lack of light pollution allows you to see the Milky Way stretch out at night. There is no cell phone service or internet, and I used the time to work on sculptures and drawings and think, read, and write.

How do you square your climate activism with your artistic practice? How do they differ?

I think of my practice as larger than just studio-based and one of care and working towards attunement with other species and the larger ecosystem. I work to rehabilitate various species, and even when I’m not at the clinic, I am often answering text messages from rangers and concerned individuals about wildlife. I also stage performances where I am interested in engaging with landscapes differently. I’m continually interested in thinking about how to interact with species and the landscapes outside of models of extraction, status value, or possession. However, as a sculptor, I still use materials and make object-based forms. I mostly work in ceramics, but I use fabric and occasionally bronze and glass. Conceptually, I am interested in transformational materials, bronze, glass, and clay, all of which undergo a process of heating, melting, and liquefying (solid/liquid) before reaching their final states. I’m interested in the malleability of these materials and the use of these materials in sculpting species that can traverse diverse environments. The materials use energy to change form but can also be melted back down (in the case of bronze or glass) or broken into shards, like ceramics, and returned to the earth. Because these materials have such a long history, I am also interested in thinking about how they can reach back into deep time and speak to and connect across history, cultures, geographies, and backgrounds.

About the writer: Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017. HOT AIR is made in collaboration with Hovey Brock, who has frequently written articles on climate/art for Art Spiel.