Madeline Cass is an American artist who earned a BFA in studio art with an emphasis in photography from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2017. Besides being the title of her series, Joshua Tree is her current base in California. Her work examines the multitude of relationships between art, science, nature, and humanity. Her art practises follow mycological metaphors of growth and decay.
Could you tell us about the relation of your artistic activity and endangered landscapes? How much is it affected by your place of residence?
As a naturalist, ethnobotanist, mycologist, and artist, I am driven by a fascination to explore the natural world. A central part of my art practice is to walk in wild places (a “saunter” as Thoreau would say), which feeds me artistically and spiritually. For me, sauntering is a way of walking that is not for scientific inquiry, exercise or any specific outcome except nourishment of my soul. Through that, observation, meditation, solitude, and writing all play important roles in the creation of my work.
I am a native of the Great Plains (of the midwestern United States) and have learned to embrace the nuanced beauty of understated landscapes like the prairie. Wild spaces are quickly disappearing, and with them, human recognition of our role within nature. We need this connection more than ever. The effects of climate change and the rise of “fake news” are a terrifying combination. It will be almost impossible to sustain life on earth unless we seek meaningful and passionate relationships with our surroundings. In order for us to protect our environment, we need an emotional connection and a sense of agency with regards to the place we want to protect. I want my work to inspire this kind of connection and action. Biological diversity, no matter how subtle or rare, deserves investigation, conservation, and celebration. I want my work to evoke a new consciousness: one that is alive with nuanced, ecological awareness blooming from a type of making that is focused on a long-view of time.
All of that being said, I recently completed a body of work and published a small edition of a book, both titled How lonely, to be a marsh that examines an endangered salt marsh outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, my hometown in the midwestern United States. It is a project I worked on for nearly three years, and it’s very close to my heart.
You have a specific color palette in your work. What were the key elements to your photographic education? I don’t just mean photographers—I’m thinking of key life experiences or other forms of art, such as cinema/painting/sculpture?
I began teaching myself how to use a 35mm camera when I was 13. My father handed me his old Nikon F camera (that he’d bought in Japan in the 70’s), sort of vaguely described the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, and set me free. The first roll of film I shot was accidently double exposed somehow. I immediately loved the wildness and spontaneity and sudden meaning through juxtaposition that was created. I’d like to get back to shooting more film someday soon, when time and money permits. I am shooting mostly digital at the moment, but the palette of films like Kodak Portra are always in my mind while editing.
Psychedelic drugs have undeniably played a key role. I love the artistic history of the 60’s and 70’s, from DIY underground newspapers to Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. I am a mycologist (studying mushrooms) and this interest did begin with psychedelic ones, though that fascination grew into studying the entire kingdom, rather than just one tiny group. I’ve been teaching myself about mycology for the last 7 or so years. My obsession with fungi is highly visual and metaphorical and I love having my mind regularly blown away by the beauty of them.
“Poetry and photography go hand in hand – visual and descriptive, interpretive and abstract all at the same time.”
Bubblegum pink Wolf’s Milk and bright yellow Physarum polycephalum slime molds growing on a log are such a surprise. The glee in finding of a crazy red-orange Amanita muscaria, or yellow-orange Chicken of the Woods – tuning your eyes towards the ground and towards the trees, one begins to see the whole world a bit differently, I suppose.
Always and forever, walking in nature will be one of my main modes of dreaming and seeing in this world. While I was a horticulture major during my undergraduate studies, I spent time sneaking into the campus plant greenhouses and making work in them. It felt like a secret night-time affair, working alone and in the dark, minus the light from my strobes on the towering orchids or banana leaves, tropical plants in the midst of a prairie. The color of chlorophyll, of life. Both reading and writing poetry feels like spelunking in a cave. I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going but I am really enjoying it. (Bring a headlamp. Use your sense of touch. Be lost for a while.) Poetry and photography go hand in hand – visual and descriptive, interpretive and abstract all at the same time.
In almost all your projects, including Joshua Tree, we see a successful combination of vibrant colors and -slightly underexposed- black & white photographs. Why do you choose this route?
In the Joshua Tree work, I am trying to be more cognizant of my use of color, and feel like I’m chasing a lot of sunsets and sunrises in Southern California. The summers are brutally hot (thank goodness autumn is finally here), so the best time to be outside while I’ve been shooting this work has been early or late in the day. I’ve never been one to shoot much at night, but am pushing for more of that. The underexposed photographs perhaps represent an element of the unknown. Making perfectly exposed photographs can be kind of boring.
Can you elaborate on the presence of self-portraits in your series?
Some of my very earliest images were self-portraits – I’ve always found myself drawn to making them. There is some kind of simultaneous shame and pride in that act, because to be honest, I fear being perceived as vain. I don’t make them because I want to portray myself as beautiful, but rather an expression of my current state of being. Looking at any self portrait transports me to a time in my life and the emotional state surrounding it. It’s my hope that maybe a viewer can get a glimpse of that too.
What are your future plans for Joshua Tree? Do you intend to publish a photo-book or do you think it matches more the nature of the exhibition walls?
I could imagine a potential combination of prints and sculptures and sound, perhaps even smell, could all play a role in reflecting my relationship with this place. That being said, it’s definitely my first instinct to begin laying out the work with book format in mind. I love sequencing work.
What are you working on now?
The Joshua Tree work is still very much in-progress. I’m continually trying to find ways to broaden the interdisciplinary nature of my practice.
Do you listen to music while photographing/editing your series?
I do love to listen to music while making and shooting in the studio. Anything I can dance to. Missy Elliott, Princess Nokia, Cardi B, Lizzo, Kelsey Lu. Old school soul music. Chances with Wolves. Though most of the time I’m in the mood for something without lyrics. Artists like Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Alice Coltrane, Wilburn Burchette, or classical music (I grew up taking violin lessons). Otherwise, I typically don’t listen to music while I’m shooting out in the world. My goal is to observe and integrate with what is around me. Let’s learn more bird calls in 2020.
More on her website.