ExclusiveArtist Alicia Escott’s intensely humane explorations of loss, longing, commercialism and ultimately, love.
“The best way I can express this is that I have lost enough hope to find a new hope.”
San Francisco-based artist Alicia Escott tells me this over coffee at The Summit, a popular cafe in the Mission District. We’re talking frankly, not philosophically, about pragmatic challenges of creativity and environmental issues, specifically, how one can retain any sort of optimism, much less focus, in the face of the enormous ecological challenges we face. (There have been six great “die offs”; we are poised for another.) “I heard an environmentalist being interviewed once,” she is saying. “The journalist asked him how he was okay with eating meat or some other destructive behavior. He answered, something like, ‘You know, you wake up in the morning, you take a shower then you walk around the corner to get coffee. It’s 9 a.m. and you have already walked over a mountain of skulls.'”
Escott is thoughtful, though not measured. She pauses for fresh lengths between questions.
“I function with a dichotomy that is extreme in a sense – I both think it’s perhaps ‘too late’ for humans but I also think about things from an evolutionary point of view,” she says. “Humans came out of great tumult. We are on the verge of another tumult. So I feel daily heartbreak; yet I also feel hope.”
Escott has already made a name for herself in environmental circles for her subtly captivating pieces that use disposable packaging as a medium for transcribing objects of both life and destruction. There is a bear on a bag seemingly expiring in undergrowth, a trout as litter in a stream (literally a fish out of water), and an atom bomb test on a to-go sushi container. (The last was too popular in a sense, says Escott. “They are so optically beautiful they trick you. That was a distraction from what I’m really wanting to talk about, so I did not make more.”)
The work, most notably that created on plastic sacks and film, is so fragile as to be temporary; the fleeting hand-drawn images are something like a compassionate catalog of the living past, or what will soon be our past. The art will not survive, and in fact, is not meant to – Escott has entire series expressly created to be recycled. But to describe her as an environmental artist or to view her work as somehow ironic is to miss the point.
“My approach is one of a thoughtful person, not only as an environmentalist, activist, or green advocate,” Escott says. “I am very hesitant about labels. I think we are making mistakes, and I have a lot of pain around these issues…but it’s really not for me to say. Us poisoning our oceans may return us, simply, to a primordial soup. Perhaps something better can come out of it. So my approach is holistic.”
There are eternal, contextually unsettling and shamanistic themes in Escott’s work. In a recently commenced series, she sends “Love Letters,” dated from the past, to acquaintances and friends alike. The letters include faded sepia and black and white photographs of simple scenes like children in yards and flocks of birds. The letters are poetic, eerie, profoundly haunting – and just slightly creepy. “It’s interesting playing with that tension,” she says with a mischievous smile. It’s clearly also enjoyable. My own Love Letter (“Love Letter to a Thick Billed Ground Dove. Extinct 1927.”) begins with “Last week I set the clock on my iPhone to December 18th, 1914” and includes the following line:
“Then came rock n roll. More than anything I wish I could show you rock n roll, you would love it, I’m sure. And there was the telephone, and then answering machines and call waiting and then caller id, and now you can have that with you always. Honestly.
There would never need to be these distances anymore.”
My notebook contains this list of words I jotted down before meeting with Escott, and I share them with her.
I ask if the Buddhist tendency is intentional. I’m the first writer to do so, and she considers it for a long moment. “My work tracks the heart – attachment, loss.” There is an unmistakable healing quality to the approach. “I work from the perspective of the human condition and more so the condition of life,” she says.
“I used to talk more about the evils of plastic and was focused on didactic aims,” Escott says. “Now, I am talking about something more esoteric, I view plastic as [among other things] a metaphor for talking about the packaging of our lives. Ideas are virtualized. They are commoditized – they are Likes on Facebook.”
The works’ comment on contemporary culture’s materialism and collective isolation is a compassionate treatment. She says she deals with complex issues simply, but her creations are pure more than anything else. Hence the trouble with labels.
“Consciousness must occur on many layers; it’s not just green. It’s easy to get bogged down by categories – but we shouldn’t stay too long.”
Images courtesy Alicia Escott. Works featured are from the series Littered Drawings.