The in-depth thoughts of artist Patrick Mehaffy from July's edition of THE Magazine
Photo by Dana Waldon
Patrick Mehaffy's art is informed by his interest in, and deep feelings for, the natural world. His work is not specifically about the environment or the state of our planet. Instead, his intention is to create work shaped by the unconscious, work that is capable of transforming conscious thoughts into what Mehaffy hopes is engaging and inspiring art. His work is included in the permanent collections of many museums and his sculptures and drawings can be found in private collections throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Spain, France, and Australia.
Mehaffy was asked for his thoughts on a series of topics.
Your concern for the state of our planet
The evidence is overwhelming—human beings are killing the earth. We’re altering the chemical composition of the air and oceans, we’re poisoning the soil, we’re destroying the habitat of thousands of species of plants and animals, and we’re using resources beyond sustainability. Mass extinctions, immense storms, catastrophic forest fires, floods, killing drought, dying reefs—these are the sad legacy of our superior intelligence. I don’t know how any thinking person could be anything but overwhelmed by concern for the state of our planet. And that’s part of the problem; with every report of yet another global environmental destruction we feel ever more numbed and impotent. As George Carlin said, “The planet is fine. The people are fucked.”
A lot of people seem to think that a society’s progress can be measured by its ability to isolate itself from the natural world. By that metric, we’re the most civilized society that’s ever lived on earth. A few years ago I took a young nephew to Canyon de Chelly. I thought he would find it as inspiring and profound as I always have, but he was so obsessed with cell phone reception that he never saw a thing. His curiosity for the natural world, so evident in his childhood, had been usurped by a screen three inches tall and two inches wide. He would have been much happier if we had gone to a shopping mall. His dependence on technology for easy distraction and entertainment, and his inability and unwillingness to experience even the slightest connection to the natural world, isn’t unusual. It is America in 2013. But that doesn’t change the fact that humans are part of the natural world and we share the planet with other creatures that are so complex and beautiful that they take your breath away.
Our growing disconnection from the natural world
Avarice, greed, indifference, and our unquenchable thirst for comfort and convenience are the things that have always been destroyers of beauty. Specifically, habitat destruction is responsible for most of the worldwide decline or extinctions of animals and plants. There are now more than seven billion humans on our planet. More people means less room for the natural world. It has been estimated that at least fifty-percent more farmland will be required to grow the food needed in just thirty years. Yet ninety-eight percent of all of the earth’s arable land is now already in use (or has already been depleted beyond use). This January, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute published an article that estimated that free roaming and feral house cats kill two and a half billion birds in America every year (and even more mammals). The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that something like six millions birds are killed by flying into cell phones towers, communication and power transmission lines, and wind turbines. As many as sixty million birds are killed each year by collisions with cars and trucks. As many as seventy-two million birds are killed each year by poisons in the environment. These human-caused bird deaths have destroyed the natural balance of mortality and survival. Worldwide, more than two thousand species of birds are considered threatened with extinction.
Why art matters in a world like this
Art has the capacity to make people feel something that will always matter. But art is too often perceived by the public as either a commodity of great monetary value, or something so without value and relevance that it’s considered an insignificant part of the American consciousness. Fiction—whether the fiction of a painting or sculpture, or the fiction of a novel or short story—seems to be losing its grip on our collective imaginations. The immediacy and accessibility of our technology is narrowing our focus and whittling down our willingness to take the time to engage with artistic fiction. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course; technology can also be used in the service of artistic fiction. But in today’s America, technology’s command over our attention seems to be widening the gulf between us and the natural world, which in turn permits us to believe that we’re somehow removed from the earth instead of being a part of it.
Solution or solutions
Understanding the state of the planet requires knowledge. Solutions require wisdom. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote, “Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage, all other virtues are useless.” Wisdom, joy, courage, and the will to change—those are the solutions. Not surprisingly, the non-profit environmental organizations are light years in front of governments when it comes to solutions. And they have a collective power that we, as individuals, will never have. My favorite is The Wildlife Center, in Española. The Wildlife Center rehabilitates injured or orphaned New Mexico wildlife and releases animals back into the wild. They are true stewards of the land, and they teach that stewardship to young people. They make a huge difference. One bird or bear at a time.
Darwin’s Finch II, mixed media and encaustic, 13” x 11”, 2013
An exhibition—Feral at Heart—will be on display at Shiprock Santa Fe, 53 Old Santa Fe Trail. Opening reception: Thursday, July 11 from 5 to 7 pm.