Stephanie Heit is a poet, dancer, and teacher of somatic writing and contemplative movement practices. She is a Zoeglossia Fellow, bipolar, and member of the Olimpias, an international disability performance collective. Her poetry collection, The Color She Gave Gravity, explores the seams of language, movement, and mental health difference. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan where she creates Turtle Disco, a somatic writing space, with her wife and collaborator, Petra Kuppers.
How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?
Notice. Follow curiosity. Tune senses. My interaction, my dialogue with landscapes began at a young age. Growing up in Michigan, I had the beautiful opportunity to walk the Lake Michigan shores and swim in the waters as early as I can remember. As someone who later fell in love with movement and words, those early moments staring at waves, observing the breath of the lake, and feeling its gentle and fierce capacities in my muscles, definitely shaped my way of being and relating. Rhythms. Tides. Undertows. I am a disabled poet and dancer. But those disciplines aren’t separate. And when I say disciplines, I mean being bipolar, a poet and a dancer. These all inform who I am in the world and how the world shows up in me. There is an interdependence between my interests and my relationship with myself and my environment. I rely on the natural world to model and remind me how to navigate the shifts in energy, focus, mood that come with mental health difference. I often say water is an anchor in my life. I love the tension between the rootedness of fluidity. This dance is one I return to: the flow between movement and words. I dance as a kinesthetic source to write; I write to make dances on the page. The other element so elegantly mapped by mycelium and other symbiotic critters is collaboration and mutual support. My wife, community performance artist and disability activist Petra Kuppers, and I have a lovely practice of 5 minute dances in the water. It is indeed a trio.
Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it respond to.
I’m currently working on a poetry series, “High Water Detours,” which documents the effects of Lake Michigan’s rising waters through somatic engagement. Climate change and high water levels have dramatically shifted the landscapes around Lake Michigan that have been a part of my world from the beginning. These poems come from physically engaging with these sites and the sites’ memories; this may mean walking the edge of the lake and noticing erosion’s traces, or visiting the local lighthouse and writing down a list of all the washed up trash. I enjoy embodying different aspects of the landscape through poems that personify a wave or a now underwater stretch of beach. In addition to incorporating exploration and time spent in some of my favorite places, this project has also led me down many internet searches to learn more about sturgeon’s barbels (sense organs) or the endangered pitcher’s thistle or the vocabulary of waves.
Consider how to make a sustainable practice; something that will support you and the environment over time. Engage in awareness exercises to sensitize and train your senses. The richer your capacity to attend and notice, the more you have to offer in this collaboration. Invitation: The next time you are outside, take a moment to be still. Notice the temperature of your skin, the sounds you hear, any tastes or smells. Notice what you see. Track your sensations. Track any thoughts, memories, images that arise. Try this exercise in different body positions – lying on the grass, standing on cement, sitting on a bench. Most importantly, keep breathing and enjoy.
Visit Stephanie Heit's Website
“Tendings: Creative Practice as Self-Care” essay with Petra Kuppers in Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly (text with audio file and image description)
Stephanie Heit's Green Point Dunes Nature Preserve, Benzie County, Michigan, USA as part of Sounds of the Forest.
Mita Mahato is a Seattle-based cut paper, collage, and comics artist, whose work explores the transformative capacities of found and handmade papers. Using collage and paper-making techniques, she builds multivalent images and stories that center on issues related to loss—loss of life, identity, habitat, and species. She is the Associate Curator of Public and Youth Programs at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery.
During my childhood, I spent afternoons and weekends wandering what seemed like expansive lands and shorelines that were in reality neighboring lots, traffic islands on suburban boulevards, or irrigation systems. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI—and my experiences with the natural environment there were often mediated, whether I understood it that way or not. I have a strong memory of being sticky hot and barefoot one summer and burying the garden hose nozzle in some loose soil in the front yard. I pressed my feet into the mud that formed, shifting from side to side and wiggling my toes, feeling my way around the wet and cool textures. I was always trying to connect with my surroundings in spite of the artificial bounds that partitioned the land and structured its value and use. As I began developing my collage practice years later, I saw that drive for connection weaving into my work. And the processes of loss and transformation inherent in the collage medium became a channel for issues especially related to climate crisis and species extinction. A long way of saying that I guess I’m unclear about a starting point; it feels like a lifelong affinity!
“Lullaby” is a comix poem about the Southern Resident killer whales—a unique culture of orca that is endemic to the Salish Sea and makes the Puget Sound region where I live its home for much of the year. Their population has been decimated to 74 individuals due to the short and longterm impacts of human activity. Each spread of “Lullaby” places one of these activities (river rerouting, chemical and pharmaceutical usage, industrial and recreational boating, oil hunger, and art) within the context of the fragmentation and degradation it causes to the whales’ habitat. I include art as one of the activities because the way we represent natural environments influences or frames our relationship with the planet and the many species it houses. Art can exploit, overdetermine, decontextualize, manipulate—and art materials and practices also can have a deleterious effect on ecosystems. It was important for me in this piece to acknowledge my complicity with art under capitalism even as I take industry under capitalism to task.
Be quiet and still and stay awhile. Offer space to let the ecologies you inhabit speak to you. Art can be deceptively aggressive and self-gratifying and become more about the artist than whatever the artist takes as their subject (the verb “take” in the phrase is interesting to note). There is some inevitability here; because art is representational, it can be far removed from the ecologies that inspired it and indelibly colored by the one translating it. It’s important to stay reflective of this displacement and keep the voices of the ecologies that inspire the art in front of mind. For me, that has meant acknowledging and welcoming and wondering at my continuing entanglements with the environments through which I move and their entanglements with each other.