Singing stones & bundled bees

Two alumnae artists interpret the natural world through music and visual art—
and investigate the complex relationships between humans and the world we live in.

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Two Mills artists explore the interrelationships between nature, beauty, and humanity 

By Linda Schmidt 

A pile of stones.

A twisted tree branch.

A scattered handful of seed pods.

An empty shell on the beach.

In the right hands, these natural objects provide both inspiration and material for creative art. In the hands of Esther Traugot, MFA ’09, they become precious sculptural jewels. For Cheryl Leonard, MA ’96, they reveal a secret symphony.

Both Leonard and Traugot aim to evoke an appreciation for a somewhat idealized sense of nature. Although neither set out to deliver a specific environmental message, it’s nearly impossible to experience their works without considering the human relationship with nature and the changes we impose on the world we live in. The profound notions of climate change, the extinction of life forms, and the protection and exploitation of nature resonate in the natural art of Leonard and Traugot, and their creations provide both aesthetic pleasure and the opportunity to ponder far-reaching questions.

“My work’s abstractness creates space for inquiry and discussion,” says Traugot. “I hope to elicit curiosity about the forms and appreciation for my handiwork, as well as to spark a bigger conversation about the human relationship with nature—even a consideration about the spiritual dimension of that relationship.”

Leonard sees the power of nature—and art—to draw people together. “We’ve got all this media, we’re on our iPhones and in our own separate worlds and often miss connecting with other people. There’s a real hunger for community,” she says. “I like to connect people to the natural world, to show some of the wonder of what’s out there, and perhaps inspire them to appreciate and take better care of it.”  

Cheryl Leonard started music early. “I liked to write my own songs even when I was a kid–although I was very shy and would only play them when nobody else was home.” Piano lessons in second grade led to learning flute, guitar, and viola. She earned her BA from Hampshire College and eventually found her way to Mills. “After working for a while I decided to pursue what I’m really passionate about, and Mills was clearly the best option for me,” she says. At Mills she found both an openness to experimentalism and an encouragement of individualism that suited her well. “I loved working with Alvin Curran. We shared the sensibility that any sound has the potential to be musical.”

The wider Bay Area further nurtured her growth as an artist. Leonard studied free improvisation and began playing in experimental sound groups and noise bands, where people frequently incorporated found objects—mostly industrial-type items like car parts and scrap metal.

Her most transformative moment, however, happened not in the classroom or studio, but in the woods. “One day, a friend and I were up in the Berkeley hills playing an improvised string duet in the forest,” she says. “We’re playing and playing, and we spontaneously started trying to bow things in the forest. All of a sudden, we wondered: ‘What happens if we bow the lichen? What if we bow a leaf?’ You can bow a lot of things, actually. Some of them are quiet, others are horribly screechy…. It was a magical moment.”

Since that moment, Leonard has coaxed music from rocks, icicles, driftwood, feathers, and bones, often creating beautifully sculptural instruments from these materials as well. “Pinecones were a pretty fun discovery,” she says. “You can get different pitches from bowing each of the individual little petals, and it’s different depending on if you bow vertically or horizontally. It’s a whole orchestra in your hand.”

Her compositions integrate these sounds with traditional instruments and field recordings gathered in locations as near her San Francisco home as Golden Gate Park and as far away as Antarctica. “I really like cold places,” she says. “There’s something about the starkness, the limited palette that you get in cold places. If I went to the tropics, I’d be overwhelmed by so many animals, so many sounds. I like the austereness of an environment where your options are limited and you’re inspired to listen more deeply to each thing.”

In 2009, with a National Science Foundation artist’s grant, she was able to travel to Palmer Station in Antarctica, where she spent five weeks recording, observing, and collecting— and learning how to pilot a Zodiac boat. The water, land, and animals provided a kaleidoscope of material. “I was surrounded by a lot of small islands, and things would change every day depending on the weather and what was happening with the glacier, or if a big iceberg washed in, or whales came into the area,” she says. While there, she gathered material that resulted in a xylophone of limpet shells and arrays of mounted penguin bones, as well as an audio library of howling winds, bellowing seals, and creaking glaciers. “I usually try to find some essence of the thing I’m recording or playing,” she says. “I develop my compositions to highlight details that I find fascinating about any particular sound.”

One of the most startling moments during her sojourn occurred as she returned to Punta Arenas, Chile. “Even before you got to land you could smell the plants growing; it was mindblowing how green things were in contrast with Antarctica,” she says.

Leonard’s compositions for natural- object instruments have been performed worldwide and featured on several television programs as well as in the video documentary Noisy People. She has been awarded numerous grants and residencies as well as commissions from such groups as the Kronos Quartet.

Cheryl Leonard’s sculptural instrument of
driftwood and penguin vertebrae

Esther Traugot spent her childhood years living with her family in an intentional community in rural Tennessee. With as many as 1,500 members, the group was fairly self-sufficient, running its own school and vegetable farm. “We didn’t have much contact with town because most of our needs were taken care of right there,” says Traugot. “We were guided by the idea of simplifying life, living close to the land, not making money a priority.”

It was an idyllic environment and, with little distraction from television and other appurtenances of typical American life, Traugot found plenty of entertainment of her own. “I walked to school through the fields and woods. I worked in the garden. I was keenly aware of the seasons, and I became very interested in the plants around me. I loved collecting seeds,” she says. Her habit of inquisitive observation paralleled a natural artistic bent and, she says, she enjoyed creating with anything she could get her hands on. At the same time, she learned to crochet and knit practical items like a scarf or a hat. A high school art teacher suggested that crochet could be used to create sculptural objects; but at the time the idea didn’t take root for her.

She went on to pursue studio art, primarily as a painter and photographer, at UC Berkeley. There, through a contemporary art theory class, she learned of Hung Liu, now professor emerita of studio art at Mills. “I was drawn by the desire to study with Professor Liu,” says Traugot. “Her work resonated with me more than that of other modernist painters—she has an artist’s touch, mixing figuration with landscape and history and memory.

“Much of modernism wants to focus on concepts and ideas and social implications—which are all good conversations— while rejecting standards of beauty and aesthetics,” says Traugot. “I found a kinship at Mills, where the appreciation for aesthetic value and the quality of making things are both still alive. The question is not does beauty have value, but what is it, how do we each see beauty?”

A serendipitous class assignment brought Traugot back to some of her early interests: she tried an experimental project crocheting a formfitting skin of yarn around lengths of branches and became fascinated with how the wrappings seemed to illuminate the objects and with the prospect of utilizing a craft technique to produce a work of fine art.

“On campus, of course, eucalyptus pods were some of the first things I worked with,” she says. “Then I found a dead bee on the windowsill of my studio and I thought ‘Wow, what if I can wrap that?’ It became a real challenge and an exciting investigation for me.”

Soon Traugot was encasing seeds, shells, stumps, and eggs in a layer of rich, hand-dyed ochre thread. The color, she says, is fairly natural, but brings brilliance and vibrancy to objects. “It’s like sunshine or gold leafing. It adorns these objects and makes them more special,” she says. “And the time involved in stitching around them becomes an act of veneration.”

Traugot invests considerable care in producing each piece, and the result highlights the delicacy and vulnerability of each object. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries from the Bay Area to New York and Paris, and she has received commissions from Neiman Marcus department stores. “I’m just fascinated with covering objects and how this transforms common items into tactile, sensual objects.”

The creative process of both these artists balances a focused awareness with an openness to chance. For some projects, Leonard may undertake significant amounts of research and experimentation. For a composition based on the sound of melting ice, she developed a process to manufacture icicles in her freezer. “The cool thing about that piece is that the drip rate is completely dependent on the climate of the room. When I rehearse with them in my cold, uninsulated San Francisco apartment, they drip much more slowly than in a venue full of people, where accumulated body heat makes the ice melt more quickly and speeds up the tempo of the piece. It’s actually a perfect analogy for the real effects of climate change.”

In 2016, she worked with scientists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography to learn about sea level rise, storm patterns, and predictions for the future as the basis for an interactive installation in a La Jolla gallery. Her piece illustrates the factors that come together to produce extreme high sea-level events: a high tide, a storm, and long-term oceanic cycles, such as El Niño.

“I really enjoy diving into something new and learning about it in depth,” she says. “When you can make something beautiful and engaging, even about a challenging issue, it can draw people in and provide an educational component.”

On the other hand, some pieces begin as happy accidents. “I could just kick a rock and notice that it sounds great! I like that it happens both ways; what you thought might be interesting could be a complete dud. You never know when inspiration might strike you; it’s important to remain open to other possibilities.”

Traugot’s creations typically rely on her intrinsic response to an object and her ingrained sense of caring for the environment. “The objects themselves usually provide the inspiration; I get my materials from odd places,” says Traugot, who lives and works in Sebastopol. “Walking around town, I might suddenly be drawn to a bunch of acorns on the ground. Or I could be out at a restaurant having mussels and see the shells and think ‘Ah, that’s pretty interesting!’ Rather than taking leftovers, I’ll take the empty shells home to work with them.”

One of her largest projects was prompted when she found a clearing filled with dozens of manzanita stumps. The color, texture, and relationship of the fragments fascinated her, and she was moved to share their story. “I made 52 pieces, all crocheted up the sides, three to 11 inches high. They were installed spread out on the floor in a natural pattern, like a little clearcut,” she says.

She takes an intuitive approach to the technical difficulty of the wrapping process, subtly adding and subtracting crochet stitches as needed to matching irregular organic shapes. “The core of it is working directly on the object and responding to it as I go,” she says.

These two Mills-trained artists are motivated to share the respect and responsibility they feel for the natural environment while also recognizing that many people live lives far removed from such a world. “I like to invite people to open their ears and listen to the world in new ways,” Leonard says.

instrument of limpet shells

“Sometimes I’m simply excited about the sound itself or the instrument I built, and the visceral appreciation of the unique characteristics of that thing,” she adds. “But over time my pieces have become more environmentally focused. You can’t make music using materials from the natural world without noticing what’s going on in that world. Especially the issue of climate change: in the polar regions, you may look at a map and see a peninsula, but when you go there you see that it’s an island because the glacier has retreated. You cannot ignore that.”

Says Traugot: “My work is a very personal expression of how I see the world—and that includes loving nature and considering how we can best live in harmony with nature. I also see that people might have different ideas and viewpoints. Is nature something to be cared for and protected? Or is it something to conquer? Is it a commodity or a resource to utilize for humanity’s purposes?

“We manipulate things for our own needs, from genetically modified food all the way up to global weather patterns,” she says. “At the same time, scientists are always discovering that nature has already developed the most ingenious solutions.” Velcro, for example, was inspired by burdock burrs clinging to an engineer’s clothing (and dog) after a hike, and new adhesive technology is being developed based on the amazing gripping ability of gecko toes. “The modern relationship to nature is complex and somewhat contradictory.”

Looking to her future projects, Traugot plans to extend the concept of protecting nature to more actively healing that which is damaged, based in part on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in the imperfect or in creating a whole from broken parts. “I’m thinking about ‘patching’ broken eggs. I also have some tiny rodent bones and deer bones, and I want to try to put together a skeleton,” she says.

For now, Leonard is staying a little closer to home than the Antarctic, using skills in field recording and mountaineering to pursue a project about California glaciers, which are affected both by rising temperatures and by the state’s drought. “They’re melting away, so I want to visit and record them before they’re gone.”

“Living in our urban world where we’re constantly flooded with inputs and obligations, it’s very easy to lose touch with the power of nature and a sense of where we fit in the grand scheme of things,” says Leonard. “There’s something beautiful about going out into the world and focusing on what is essential— that you have something to eat, some shelter. It’s both empowering and humbling.”