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Photo by Timothy Schenck

A Collaboration with Nature: An Interview with En Plein Air Artist Sam Falls

By High Line Art | November 20, 2019

Our group exhibition this year, En Plein Air, examines and expands the tradition of outdoor painting. The title refers to the mid-19th century practice of en plein air painting (French for “in the open air”). The artists in the exhibition expand well beyond the historical plein air lineage. They not only bring painting outside but imagine nature as context, subject, and collaborator. We interviewed En Plein Air artist Sam Falls, whose contribution, Four Arches, has quickly become a visitor favorite.

HIGH LINE

Hi Sam! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. When I first saw the arches, I was struck by the play between hard and soft elements—the rusty, industrial rail tracks contrasted with the watercolor-esque painted ceramics embedded with plants. Is balance, or contrast, something you’re normally interested in with your work?

SAM FALLS

Yes, I would say balance over contrast. A lot of my work considers aesthetic precedents in art and architecture and how to move the dialogue forward into the present with contemporary concerns, like the environment. For example, the arches partially developed from my interest in Minimalism and its accomplishment in form and how viewers relate to the art object. But I’ve always felt a lack of warmth or consideration for time and the individual in Minimalism, so by merging the form and industrial material with the natural subject matter and medium of flora and clay respectively, I feel there’s a way of updating aesthetics or balancing art history with the present.

Aerial shot of arches in a garden

An aerial shot of the archesTimothy Schenck

HIGH LINE

Why the shape of an arch for the High Line?

SAM

Balance! Beyond the above I also liked the idea of creating something not only to walk under but to connect the plants from one side of the path to the other. One of my favorite things is old dirt roads where the trees have created a natural arch or canopy over the road, it always feels more like a symbiotic relationship with natural surroundings rather than a takeover.

HIGH LINE

The arches have been very popular for visitors to take photos with. Do you have any thoughts about the arches as frames or gateways?

SAM

Definitely as frames—I think nature is always the best frame for a picture, with or without people!

Four arches in a row

The arches as framesTimothy Schenck

HIGH LINE

I know this was a year-long process, and they use our old rail tracks, so it’s almost like these arches are time capsules. Can you talk about the importance of process and time in your work?

SAM

Yes, time is very important in both the creation and the viewing of all my work. I think there’s both a supportive or encouraging element to this work that highlights the beauty of the individual plants and natural oasis of the High Line during the spring and summer when the arches are surrounded by blooming gardens. On the other hand, during the autumn and winter they serve as a melancholy reminder of time past and aging, as well as the perpetually disappearing natural landscape in the developing urban environments. Hopefully it comes full circle and engages viewers with the importance of plants and the environment, not only in havens like the High Line but also the bigger picture.

And yes, specifically with this work the rail tracks are wonderfully site specific and a historic reminder of the High Line’s original form and function. I grew up in Vermont and we used to take the Amtrak Vermonter to and from New York City; it’s such a beautiful trip through forests and along the Hudson. When conceiving this work, I kept thinking about the unique way railways cut through nature more intimately than most roads and how it’s a great historical perspective of the North American landscape.

HIGH LINE

We’re publishing this post in the fall, and this may be cheesy, but any particular memories or feelings about fall as a season (or any of the other seasons)?

SAM

Well, growing up in Vermont I have a strong sense of fall and for some reason it always makes me very emotional, like excited and melancholy at the same time; it’s a funny feeling but maybe common? I think it’s the combination of newness or beginnings tied also to the acute sense of time passing and aging. I’ve always thought of fall more as the death of leaves than their bright colors for example, the smell of fall rather than the sight of it. Melancholy or not, I miss the emotions of fall now that I live in Los Angeles where the seasons change very subtly.

HIGH LINE

I’d love to hear about the arch fabrication.

SAM

I spent some time walking the High Line and photographing plants that not only felt iconic and beautiful but also would work well in the ceramic production. Then I worked with the fantastic High Line production team and horticulturists to have clippings sent weekly from spring through fall to my studio in LA where we rolled them into the wet clay and fired them to produce the tiles. We worked seasonally with the plants, but also the glazes, to create the sense of seasons with colors rather than by mimicking the actual colors of the plants. The arches were fabricated in New York with original train tracks from the High Line and then the tiles were shipped out and installed into the arches. It was really a great process.

A close-up of an arch with plants embedded in it

A close-up of the plants embedded in the archTimothy Schenck

HIGH LINE

What is your relationship to outdoor work? And outdoor painting specifically?

SAM

I’d say the best metaphor is camping. That is, if you think of Land Artists as excavating land and developing it or building a house, and working in a studio as moving into an apartment, then I’m basically camping. I go out into nature for periods at a time, I’m inspired by it and collaborate with it, but then I leave no trace.

HIGH LINE

This isn’t the first time you’ve used plants, flowers, and leaves in your sculptures and paintings. Can you talk about bringing plant life into your artwork? And the role nature plays in your conception of your work?

SAM

It began as a way to work with site specific subject matter, a way to describe a place organically. It was conceptual and I often used only one native species for the entire work to make an “all over image.” I was also interested in using the sun or the rain as the medium—as contemporary art has become more engaged with technological tools like digital cameras and printers I fear it can become exponentially alienating for the viewer and too concerned with its making or medium specificity than the subject. So by working with the environment and plants I found I could create contemporary work that tied into my aesthetic and subjective interests while also being relatable and immediately engaging with any viewer. The more I’ve worked with nature the more I’ve become interested in environmental issues and protection as well as portraying the landscape—so the compositions and mediums have evolved with these interests over time.

HIGH LINE

Any favorite historical en plein air artists?

SAM

So many—all of them—Georgia O’Keeffe, Fairfield Porter, John Singer Sargent, Renoir, Cézanne . . . also living champions like Lois Dodd and David Hockney, among others.

HIGH LINE

How is, if it all, Impressionism relevant to now?

SAM

I think every historical movement is relevant in one way or another—anything that progresses and opens up art and aesthetics. Specifically I think the lasting advancement of Impressionism is that it truly opened up the vernacular subject as a serious focus in art, from landscapes to shoes. Adjacent in time and place to Impressionism, I find Symbolism and its relationship to the metaphors of nature very relevant or at least interesting to myself these days.

HIGH LINE

What are you working on next?

SAM

I’m working on a show for Galeria Franco Noero in March 2020, I’ve been thinking a lot about the moon…

En Plein Air
April 2019 – March 2020
Various locations

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