History of Trauma in Environmental Art: A Short Introduction to the Hudson River School

At some point, hopefully in the next few weeks, a kind USPS delivery person will hand over my diploma from York University. Over the past two years I have been working on my Master of Arts in the History of Art degree, where I have focused on the history of trauma in the life of Joseph Beuys.

The mere act of earning my degree was a rollercoaster—from immigrating to a new country, my apartment building catching fire, the ever impending doom of COVID-19, and completing most of my degree from a country away. But today, I have completed all of my coursework, submitted my MRP, and now I’m just waiting for my diploma to arrive in the mail.

Today, I want to introduce you to my major topic of research and in subsequent posts I’ll give you all of the juicy details from two years of research.

Let’s go!

The legacy of environmental art is as old as art itself, and can be traced back to Paleolithic cave paintings and drawings. In order to keep my sanity, my research only considered artists using the land for inspiration in North America and Europe since the mid-1800s.

Since the colonization of the Americas, Europeans thought that the environment of the continent needed to be controlled. Colonizers aimed to tame and subdue the natural world. Differing from Indigenous communities, the colonizers built cities and community structures that harmed the landscape, and through their mere presence traumatized the Indigenous communities throughout the Americas through forced labor, relocation, spread of deadly disease as well as ecological destruction.

The Hudson River School painters documented the colonization and Modernization of the northeastern region of the United States. Working from 1825 to 1875, painters associated with the Hudson River School produced paintings that provided Americans with an “attractive self-image, a shared political identity and a reflection of their desire for moral and religious truths.” Inspired by the Catskill Mountains, the Adirondacks, Lake George, and the Hudson River, primarily as a means to transport paintings to the art market in New York City, the Hudson River painters used their canvases to deliver allegorical narratives about mid-century life in New York. The group valued close observation of nature and precision of details.

Thomas Cole, Destruction, 1834, oil on canvas.

Acclaimed founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of an Empire (1833-1836)series tells the allegorical narrative of the rise and fall of an empire, with the underlying message that pastoralism was the ideal phase of human civilization. Works like Cole’s and the rest of the Hudson River School spread appealing images and ideas as propaganda and justification for the traumatization of Indigenous communities. These paintings normalized the idea that Indigenous communities were “savage” or “primitive” and needed a helping hand, which was conveniently provided by the European colonists who promptly murdered, relocated, or inflicted other wounds on these communities.

The Salvage Paradigm was coined by early twentieth century anthropologist Jacob W. Gruber and refers to the necessity to preserve so-called weaker cultures so that their culture is not fully lost, but not favored in mainstream society.[1] The Hudson River School perpetuated this idea in their paintings. However, non-Native colonizers like the Hudson River School painters robbed Indigenous peoples of their past and their future through exploitation of their culture and redefining Indigenous identities in terms that their audience (of mostly European ancestry) would accept. Moreover, this principle does not allow for Indigenous communities to publicly claim their own heritage in terms of the legacy that has been passed down, as oftentimes their legacy has been muddled with the white man’s idea of who they should be.[2] The trauma of the land and Indigenous communities in the West can be further exemplified through the idea of Indigenous Place Thought, “which is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through extensions of these thoughts.”[3] If Indigenous histories are considered to be manifested in place, then their agency and spirit exist in all things and are related to one another and the collective story of our planet. Therefore, ecological devastation is an act of violence against not only humans, but all living creatures as well as the land itself.

[1] Jacob W. Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 72 no. 6 (1970): 1294.

[2] Stephen Warren and Ben Barnes, “Salvaging the Salvage Anthropologists: Erminie Wheeler-Coegelin, Carl Voegelin and the Future of Ethenohistory,” Journal of the American Society for Ethnography 65, no. 2 (April 2018): 189-191.

[3] Zoe Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” in Art of the Anthropocene, ed. Heather Davis and Etinne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015): 245-246.

Reminiscing on the Pandemic

Like everyone else, the pandemic changed my 2020 plans—just a bit.

I graduated college in the spring of 2019, and frankly never planned to return to Kirksville. In May of 2019, I said my goodbyes to my favorite restaurants, stores, and parks. After living in a town for three years it’s easy to get attached. Even though Kirksville isn’t some sort of northern Missouri paradise it still held so many transformative memories for me.

What I didn’t know, is that I would ride out the first four months of the pandemic in Kirksville. Throughout these four months I became accustomed to my old college town—getting take out from my favorite sushi restaurant, getting drive-thru coffees, driving down my favorite roads, and hiking on my favorite trails.

I became so accustomed to small town life and living in Kirksville again, that I knew saying goodbye a second time would still be a little sad.

There are so many places that hold special memories to me in town, and I knew that there was no way to photograph every location (partly due to quarantine restrictions and partly due to time constrictions). So, my partner (and our sweet pup Buca) and I decided to take a long walk through town and just reminisce. I brought my Canon AE-1 and a roll of Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 400.

Northern Lites, A Virtual Exhibition

I’ve talked before about my apprehension regarding curating. I see it as being an inherently creative practice in the same vein of painting and drawing. Of course, you can hone your creative skills, which is what I am doing through my curatorial practice diploma, but it is still something that I’ve been nervous about doing for a job.

The best way to get over your fears and nervousness about anything is to just do it, right?

So, my friends and I set off on a journey to produce an exhibition as the final project for our curatorial practice class.

Northern Lites, as the project was affectionately called, traces the relationship between the digital and natural world through the inclusion of Canadian artists who incorporate nature, the legacy of landscape painting, and recent developments of technology. The artists selected for this project explore the land through multimedia, painting, and sculpture while inviting viewers to interpret their own personal relationship to the digital era in terms how they see the natural world.

Beyond simply grouping together likeminded Canadian artists, we also had to make a budget and exhibition floor plan, write the didactics for the proposed installation, make a website, and make programming. We also had to write a bit connecting this project to our course readings and lectures throughout the semester.

Overall, the creation of Northern Lites taught me a lot about daily activities of a curator. There is so much more to being a curator than simply being creative. Curators have to organize, make calls, plan, write, and so much more. These are all things that I’m good at. Maybe I could be a curator if I wanted to.

If you’d like to check out our online exhibition click here.


So, it’s been eight weeks.

Looking back, eight weeks ago everything looked oh so different.

Here’s my pandemic roundup.

By early March, Canada had over thirty cases of COVID-19. Day by day the situation seemed more dire, and for me as an immigrant I was worried if I would be allowed to leave Canada, and if so when. After one late night texting conversation with my Graduate Director I bought the next flight out of Toronto to the United States. I left Toronto on March 13, 2020.

My first flight to St. Louis got cancelled. My second flight to Kansas City got cancelled, too. I wasn’t able to rebook that flight so I was forced to fly to the next closest city, which was Nashville. My best friend, and Nashville resident, picked me and my four oversized suitcases up from the arrivals terminal. In the next few days she drove me to Missouri, where I’ve been ever since.

I’m so thankful that my GD allowed me to return home and finish my courses. I’m also thankful that I got back into the US before the border shut down. Thankfully, as an American I’d always be welcome home, but it would certainly be an added (and unnecessary) stress having to navigate mostly shut borders.

Beyond finishing my classes, I haven’t been up too much. Between taking care of my dog, baking, and spending time outdoors it feels like the days turn into a soup of events, weather patterns, and distanced conversations that can all be characterized as the same.

In the coming weeks I hope to share a few of my end of term projects, and a special project that a friend and I are working on.

I guess I’m a Writer

A few weeks ago we had a guest in one of our seminars, and he opened his talk with a question. 

He asked, “How many of you are writers?”

In our group of first year grad students, only one of us publicly admitted to being an author. 

I mean, we’re art historians! Yeah, we write essays on essays and conduct research for journal and magazines. But no, of course we’re not authors. 

The guest speaker preceded to tell us that we’re all authors and we should consider ourself as such. 

Never have I ever considered myself an author. Sure, I wrote a 150 page undergraduate thesis, blog weekly, constantly write for grad school, and am working on getting a few articles published. But, no, no, I’m not a writer. I’ve always considered writing to be such a big creative endeavor. Authors have to have so much field experience, take time to write and rewrite, go through writers block, constantly have a list on potential ideas to add to their writing… 

Then, the realization slapped me in the face. 

I am a writer. 

When I was a kid I had this green spiral bound notebook and each day after school I couldn’t wait to get home to continue narrating my Harry Potter spin-off series about a young witch named Jasmin. 

Frankly, school doesn’t come easy to me. I was never one of those students who could just sit and absorb all of the information presented in class. Instead, I had to spend time reading the textbook and reteaching myself the materials presented over and over until it finally stuck. Scientific theories must be explained to me over and over, and math concepts go in one ear and out the other with no comprehension. But something about writing was different. For some reason I’ve never had a problem turning my thoughts into sentences on paper. In middle and high school I took a bunch of writing classed, but in undergrad I didn’t take any English classes. I didn’t miss out on writing, don’t worry. Basically all of my art history classes were writing intensive. We worked on thesis statements, grammar, essay organization, and citation guidelines all under the guise of studying art.

Knowing all of this, how, after studying art history for 6 years, am I just now considering myself a writer. 

How did this happen? 

Anyway, proof that grad school is about more than only turning in assignments and making connections. It’s also about finding your strengths and the things you like to do and finding ways to integrate them into your career.

Thanks APO

In undergrad I was involved in Alpha Phi Omega, one of the largest international collegiate service organizations. Looking back to my time at Truman, so much of my identity was rooted in APO—wearing letters to class, weekend service trips, chapter and exec meetings, and just random hangouts with friends. Now, in grad school, I’m realizing so much of my identity is rooted in the things that I learned while apart of APO. 

In APO our pillars are leadership, friendship, and service. Through our pledging process we’re taught that serving on the exec board will benefit the chapter at large, doing community service will help our community, and that friendship is the key to a happy life. But for me, the true meanings of these pillars didn’t sink in until a bit later. 

I completed over three hundred hours of community service throughout my time in my chapter. Of course doing good in the community was transformative, but the most important thing I learned was to be of service, not to just the community or to my Brothers, but to anyone who needs it. To me, this is different than doing service. Being of service means fixing a problem without being asked, and asking for no praise and just doing good because you can. Being of service to others makes your heart feel warm, and presumably you bring someone joy. What’s better than that? 

Being of service directly connects with our pillar of friendship. In my opinion, one of the best qualities of a friend is one who is of service. Someone who will give you advice, tell you when you’re wrong, and just generally be around when you need them to be. This idea of being of service has transformed my idea of what it means to be a friend, and a colleague to the students in my program. I want to be friends with others in our program, and I realized that I went about making new friends in a way that is so familiar to APO’s principles. Plus, being apart of a group with a collective identity taught me to advocate for everyone, even if they’re ‘competing’ with me. Grad school can sometimes feel like a big competition–who can get the most funding, the most prestigious internships, or write the best essay. But instead of wanting something my colleagues earn, I’m proud of them. We’re all apart of the same program, and maybe I’ll get the next scholarship, who knows! 

I also served as my chapter President during my last year in APO. Getting into the position I assumed I would be organizing meetings, putting out fires from small interpersonal problems, and generally just making sure my chapter stayed afloat. It’s so funny how we always underestimate and rationalize complicated situations to ourselves. Anyway, when I was elected president I had a concussion, I was engulfed in final projects and exams, dealing with personal relationship issues, and I was preparing for a study abroad program in London. I quickly came to the realization that while I was dealing with all of this, everyone else in my chapter was going through something too. 

I’m a triple Scorpio (yikes, I know) so my leadership style quickly became helping everyone deal with their personal problems in anyway that I could in order to not only help them, but also make them love our chapter as much as I did. Ever since joining, APO was a place for me to totally be myself and be accepted for it, and I wanted everyone to feel that way. I just knew that if I couldn’t help someone with their problems, then there was someone in our chapter who could. However, I was still dealing with almost 100 college aged students, so naturally there was drama and problems that couldn’t be fixed. Sometimes because people didn’t want help, and sometimes because the world isn’t always fair and people make malicious decisions on purpose.

Literally the most important thing I learned in college was through my time as president of APO. I realized that not all problems are mine to solve and not all problems can be solved. This isn’t radical, obviously. I’ve just always been the kind of person that sees a problem, fixes said problem, finds next problem, fixes it, on repeat. It was exhausting.

Learning this definitely has made me more chill (I hope my friends would agree). In grad school if I can’t finish a reading for class I remind myself that I’ve read the other two and I’ve finished the assignment. I’m no longer so hard on myself when I try my best. 

Also while serving as President I had to lead weekly meetings, communicate with the chapter and our advisors, and just generally be the face of the organization on campus. For an introvert, this was exhausting. But I’m forever grateful for these experiences! Since serving as President I’m more confident in asking group members to accomplish tasks on time, talking in class, and scheduling meetings. Practicing these life skills in a low stakes environment like APO easily made my transition into grad school much easier. 

Right before graduation I wrote a post on my Instagram about how much APO pushed me to my absolute limits and I hoped that instead of remembering all of the negatives that come with being apart of any organization that in five years I could remember only the good memories with my friends. It hasn’t been a full year since graduating Truman and leaving APO, and I’m already thankful for my experiences and all of the drama and nonsense is fading. 

Super Tuesday Disappointment

Being apart of a major university system offers me an immense amount of privilege. I’m even more thankful for my leftist oriented program where students are free to explore their socialist ideologies (I’m yelling about Nazis and the environment, it’s great). 

Currently, I’m living in Toronto. So, beyond my largely liberal identifying colleagues, I’m also surrounded by a major metropolitan area with people from all walks of life. Most of whom benefit from leftist social programs, such as free healthcare, low costs for secondary education, and a somewhat regulated housing market. To many of the people I encounter on a daily basis its unfathomable why the United States isn’t drumming up support for Bernie Sanders. And I agree. Tax the rich, stop unnecessary wars, stop putting children in prisons, legalize marijuana, free college, etc. 

I could go on and on about why we should support Bernie, so I will. But, using a real life example from the art community.

The Art Workers’ Coalition was formed out of art world controversy that artists should have control over their own work. The group made a list of demands ranging from representation on Boards, free admissions to museums, diversity inside of the gallery, and adequate payments to artists. And then they protested to get what they wanted. Major artists considered that others were not being fairly treated in the art world, so they did something about it. 

Now, this has nothing directly to do with Sanders and his policies. 

But let’s think this through. 

Major art world individuals (think Lucy Lippard and Carl Andre) of the 1960s got together to better their community not only for themselves but for struggling and future artists. These artists had to protest for their rights, and even still some of them were not granted by the art world. But the solidarity of these artists tried to make things better for everyone—that’s important and sounds a lot like something Bernie would do.

In the USA everyone is so concerned about finding a candidate that represents them, particularly white, cisgendered middle aged Americans. They ask stupid questions like: is this candidate the same gender/race/religion/age as myself and then latch themselves to said candidate for superficial reasons. If you want to be like the Art Workers’ Coalition and advocate for everyone, then you must choose the candidate who does not look like you. And if you’re not advocating for someone with less privilege than you, you probably should reconsider your voting strategy.

If you are in the majority, it is your duty to advocate to give spaces to those who cannot make space on their own. And that’s exactly what the Art Workers’ Coalition and Bernie Sanders are doing. 

Bernie knows he’s a white Boomer from Brooklyn. He ‘looks’ like so many people that I was surrounded by growing up, but he’s still the best candidate. 


Because he has immersed himself in communities of veterans, LGBTQ, women, and other minorities to find their struggles and then advocate to fix it. He doesn’t tell them what their problems are. He listens, then does his job as a politician. 

I’m so tired of my friends struggling to pay rent because they have student debt, and not going to the doctor when they’re sick, or otherwise struggling in a country that has the means to support them. 

Bernie is the only way out of this struggle for so many.

Let’s Try Curating

Everyone finds their way to art history differently. Many find their way in through studio art programs or MFAs. Not me. As much as I love looking at art I have no desire to pick up a brush or pencil and create a masterpiece.

Other art jobs I can never see myself doing: being a curator. Curating is such a valuable career path, but for me it is too closely related to artistic practice. I’m not an artist and I’m not overly creative so the idea of being a curator is mentally exhausting. 

This is ironic as I’m in an art history MA that focuses on curatorial practice. Even though I don’t want to be a curator per say, I understand its intrinsic value to the art history community. As art historians and critics it is imperative that we understand how hangs, wall texture, and exhibition organization influence our interpretation of art and exhibitions. Plus, curatorial programs often include many studio and gallery visits (for free!), and I don’t know anyone in the art world who would be opposed to that. 

Anyway, this term I’m taking a course called curatorial practice where we explore contemporary trends in the field. Including using children’s toys and games to create virtual exhibitions. Having never considered curating an exhibition of my own I was grateful that I was paired with two great partners to co-curate our virtual exhibition. 

The curatorial vision behind our project was to juxtapose environmental art alongside images from a board game called Northwestern Passage. The game is a trope of the fabled Northwestern Passage that could connect the Atlantic to the Pacific via a waterway that enthused voyagers for centuries. Due to climate change, the ice caps are melting and providing passageways for cargo ships—bringing this exhibition into the twenty-first century. This exhibition is intended to educate viewers not only on the board game but also on relevant artists who produce art that focuses on climate change and ecological politics. More conceptual (and totally unfinished) this exhibition is meant to be continued over time both referencing new artists and breaking ecological news.

Obviously this assignment was just a way for us students to get our toes wet into the world of curation, and is by no means an accurate representation of what a day in the life of a curator is like. However, just this small deep dive into curatorial practice further assumed my disinterest in curatorial practice and opened my eyes to the huge endeavor that goes behind creating an exhibition.

Separation of Reality and Political Theater

We’ve all seen it, at the State of the Union Speaker Nancy Pelosi literally ripped President Donald Trump’s speech to shreds. Toting this as a protest against ‘lies,’ Pelosi confidently lacerated numerous pieces of paper from Trump’s speech on live television. Her act of protest quickly became a meme, and was critiqued internationally. 

Certainly Pelosi was aware that her outburst would be documented by global media; hailed by liberals and scorned by conservatives and of course dissed on the Commander in Chief’s Twitter account. However, bringing her actions to reality, Pelosi’s actions were no more than a sorry attempt at political theater in an attempt to recover her ego from Trump’s acquittal. 

Even in Canada we couldn’t escape the drama from our southern neighbors. The cover of our newspapers were shrouded in pictures of Pelosi mid act. I couldn’t look past her calculated smirk. This was a woman on a mission—a mission to dutifully restore democracy to America. Except, it’s more than that. I’m certain Pelosi believed that her actions were radical and life changing because that’s just how her supporters saw it. But in reality, her so called ‘radical’ act was just to save face and start controversy. 

Pelosi’s spectacle was unfortunate and annoying, but surprisingly started conversations in the art community. The art world tries to be progressive and often supports liberal ideology. Therefore, many hailed Pelosi’s act as a radical statement against hatred and bigotry in the United States. As problematic as that is, some even believed that her performance could (and should) be considered art due to the performative and ritualistic nature of the spectacle. In fact, knowing that I’m an American and what my research interests are a colleague was surprised to find my disinterest, and frankly annoyance, in Pelosi’s act. 

My academic research involves Happenings, performances, and Actions, otherwise known as performance art, by politically engaged artists. Artists like Joseph Beuys use their platform as artists to advocate for political change. Many of Beuys’ actions involve repetition, as well as elements of ritualnot unlike Pelosi’s spectacle. Many performance artists have a flair for the dramatic and being over the top to push the definition of art forward. 

The biggest difference between artists such as Beuys and Pelosi is that Beuys is creating a spectacle that is advocating for the betterment of society, whilst Pelosi is drawing attention to herself in an attempt to discredit the President. It is evident through her actions that this was not an act ‘for the people’ but for her own ego. I’ll be the first to admit that Trump is a sorry excuse for a political leader, but so is Pelosi, and neither is fundamentally different from one another. Furthermore, her actions cannot be considered art as she isn’t advocating for real change. Instead she crowned herself Queen of American Political Theater, proving her close associations with Trump’s political flair on Twitter. While Trump rages on Twitter, Pelosi’s platform is now on the spectacle of live TV. Both politicians are one and the same. 

Artists make art that functions in the art world. They create a commentary based on real life events. However, Pelosi’s spectacle takes place in the real world. She is using her platform to further split the divide between the Left and the Right, and further her message of superiority within the Democratic Party. That’s not art, that’s political theater. 

Political theater and art have much in common, but the two function in different realms. Both take place in the ‘real’ world but political theater actively harms its viewers. In this Pelosi example, instead of doing her job working for the People, she is now in the midst of a scandal of her own design. She is taking valuable time away from her cushy tax payer funded job to create unnecessary drama in hopes of rallying the Liberals against her spiteful tryst against Trump. Performance art harms no one as artists don’t have a direct stake in politics. Artists do not work for the people, they work for themselves and occasionally for private institutions that represent them. Certainly, viewers may be offended by elements of the performance but artists are private citizens who can comment on politics however they wish—without repercussions—a element that doesn’t exist if you’re a politician, especially if you’re Speaker of the House. 

Stop congratulating Pelosi for her silly act. Remember she didn’t do this for you or even the Democratic Party. She wasn’t brave, or even a patriot. She wanted nothing more than the inevitable attention that would come from the Pro-Trump community that would hopefully unite the Democratic Party for the upcoming presidential elections—a unification which would mean the election of another centrist who wouldn’t engage in any sort of radical change in our country. 

Reframing Gender

Rooted in historical exhibitions, Reframing Gender starts where other shows leave off. Instead of ignoring the Other, Jason Cyrus brings the experiences of BIPOC and trans* individuals experience with clothing to the forefront.

This small exhibition explores what fashion means to us culturally and historically, and how we represent our identity through clothing.

The clothes themselves explore difference between ‘masc’ and ‘femme’ clothing ideals of the twentieth century, as well as traditional marriage outfits. The clothing primarily comes from York University’s Theatre Department and the curator and his friends. While not intended to create a complete model of fashion of any period, the clothes instead are used to be physical manifestations of popular clothing tropes, which are discredited in four videos that are playing in the gallery.

Cyrus aims to bring the words of the interviewees to life by placing quotes from their interview on the walls in lieu of didactic information. While these quotes are relevant to the exhibit as a whole, those without a deep understanding of fashion and contemporary discourses surrounding gender could be confused.

Aside from those grievances, Cyrus makes a very personal exhibition come alive. The curator is everywhere in the exhibition, from the inclusion of his own garments, to his hand painted walls, Reframing Gender touches the hearts of many of us who see our clothing as a direct representation of our identities.