The connection between life and art is something that has long been contemplated and studied. We know that art imitates life just as often as life itself mimics art. In fact, the relationship between the two is so deeply interwoven that even those inherent parts of life with which most people struggle – change, loss, impermanence, death – become not only important but extraordinarily beautiful and necessary moving pieces in the artistic whole of our lives.
In this issue of Art Motif Magazine, we are excited to feature Day Schildkret. Day is known internationally for Morning Altars and has inspired tens of thousands of people of all ages from all over the world to forage, build and be awed with Earth Art. Day is igniting an international movement by sharing the art, teachings and spirit of Morning Altars as a tangible creative and spiritual practice that renews and redeems our relationship to nature, creativity and impermanence.
Below, Day shares a few of his stunning altars and describes his artistic practice and his devotion to the pursuit of impermanent beauty and how that can become nourishment for life to continue. Day is also thrilled to share that Morning Altars is being published as a book coming out in the Fall of 2018. Please join the book mailing list at morningaltars.com.
What is essential to your work as an artist? The supplies I use for Morning Altars are all growing in my neighborhood. They are the autumn leaves falling from the tree in the most spectacular splash of orange, red, green and browns. They are the turkey feathers left from the migrating birds who sleep in the trees down by the creek. They are the layers upon layers of twisted bark that peel off the redwood tree. But what is essential to my work as an artist is the fact that my art is impermanent and is not meant to last. Every single Morning Altar I have ever created has been destroyed. The sun dries it up. The wind blows it around. The animals eat it. The core purpose of this creative practice is to relate to change everyday and to know that because my art is made of the earth, it lives and dies.
What works, events, or moments in your life have influenced your art? It was a significant break up with my previous boyfriend that got me building Morning Altars everyday as a practice. I was so immersed in my grief that I truly had no capacity to do anything except walk my dog at first light. We would go on a walk into the hills of Wildcat Canyon and one morning, as the fog was rolling through the hills we came across a eucalyptus tree with a cluster of amber colored mushrooms that exploded at its base. For some reason, I decided to sit down and stare at the mushrooms which were glistening in the fog. They looked like they were painted with water color. Without thinking, I began rearranging the mushrooms and some of the eucalyptus caps and bark that had fallen from the tree and after an hour passed, there was a beautiful Morning Altar under the tree. It was the first time since the break up that I didn’t feel so burdened with grief. Almost like the beauty-making metabolized the grief. The power of that has helped me see Morning Altars as a resource to help me and others through uncertain times.
How do your background, cultural roots, and/or sense of identity manifest in your art? My ancestral roots are Jewish. I was a religious Jew for my entire adolescence. I was even the Executive Director of a Jewish school for teenagers for almost a decade. Judaism has always been at the core of my life and culture. While I was living in Israel in 1999, I was very close to a bus bombing that could have taken my life. In the same year while living in Jerusalem, I came out of the closet and took a big step away from my religious orthodoxy. But my spirituality got even stronger. With the success of Morning Altars, I’ve continued to ask myself how does Judaism manifest in my art and the more research and learning I do into my people’s history, the clearer it becomes: While modern Jews like to consider themselves a people of the book, our ways of prayer and devotion are older than literacy. Shrine-making on mountains, rivers, trees were how the people pre-Bible would communicate with their deities and make offerings to the land. When I make a Morning Altar, I definitely feel a very, very old connection to an ancient lineage. I don’t know how it survived this long but I see my art and expression as a way of carrying this ancient form of prayer, connection and devotion forward in a modern time.
How has your artistic practice changed over time? It’s funny. When I look through my early altars, it seems like I am looking at prehistoric art. There are a lot of sticks, stones and bones. My earlier work is messier, less exact but there’s definitely a voice and soul that wants to be expressed. Over time, I have really allowed my perfectionist to find his stride and it is evident in my art. It’s remarkable that I have found a way to take nature – which is rarely symmetrical – and make it look geometric and refined. This has been a practice of cultivating patience because just when I think I’m done and I’ve gotten it exactly where I want it, the wind blows it all away. The impermanence is also the most important companion for my perfectionist because without limitations, it would never be complete. My artistic practice continues to change over time because I’m always exercising my relationship between what I want and what nature wants.
Are there any themes you gravitate towards more in your works? I tend to lean toward symmetry. I like the way it feels on my soul and in my nervous system. It just lets me relax and open up to what is being expressed. There’s less trying to figure something out intellectually and more permission for the beauty to come into the body. Plus, symmetry in nature is just such a rare and wonderful thing.
Do you have a preferred genre/style/medium? My preferred genre is the ephemeral. Anything from nature that is born and dies. I like creating at that edge.
What inspires you? I am inspired by bare earth which is my blank canvas. Depending on where I am (the grey clay of California versus the red sands of Southern Utah) and the season of the year gives me a completely different base to work on. I tend to never work on grass!
What is your creative process? What does a typical day of creative expression look like for you? Wake at dawn when everything is still so quiet. Take my basket and go off into the neighborhood for a forage and wander. Everything is dictated by the treasures I find. After about an hour or so, I come back to a spot I love by the creek and I sit with it for some time. I let myself listen to the place. The place speaks very differently at different times of the day and different times of the year. I let myself get a little closer to witnessing where I am. Then I take a brush and sweep the canvas so that it becomes bare earth. Then I create. And when I am complete, I photograph it and walk away and let it change and go back to the earth. I then edit the photograph and post it on my social media. I love inspiring other people all over the world to build their own. People send me Morning Altars from all over the world: Australia, Peru, Iran, England…it is incredible!
Different people perceive and respond differently to art. Do you recall any memorable response by others to your works? While there’s an infinite number of responses to draw from, the one that is coming to mind right now occurred last year when I was building a large scale Morning Altar at a conference. It was a 20′ circular altar and a little girl about 3 years old left her mother’s hand and came up to the altar and watched. She then went on to mimic what I was doing and built a little version of the large altar I was building. It literally looked like a planet and a moon. The mother said this was the first piece of art she ever made by herself. It was moving to remember how easy and accessible building earth art is.
What piece of advice would you give other aspiring artists? Art must be in service to the time and place we live in otherwise it’s just more entertainment. In the face of so much destruction, we artists must keep creating the world alive again and again. It is a burdensome privilege to carry this responsibility of creating art, but one that is desperately needed in these dark times. Be courageous and do not fear. Create every day. Create remembering how needed you are.
Your favorite writers and/or poets? Each year I memorize new poetry. Last year I focused on Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. The year before was David White’s profound words. This year I am going to learn some Langston Hughes.
Your favorite painters? He’s an earth painter: Andy Goldsworthy. And Monet.
Your favorite composers? Bach, Debussy, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Gershwin, Elliot Moss, Sufjan Stevens and all the old traditional Georgian music.
Your favorite heroes/heroines in real life? I’m amazed by wildlife and that wild deer or plantain or skunks or mugwort or coyote are still living free in the middle of an unending human assault on the wild.
Your favorite heroes/heroines in fiction? I’m a big fantasy nerd. So, Frodo.
Your favorite motto? “I’m listening.”
Your idea of happiness? Watching the miracle of life creating itself – in whatever form.
To learn more about Day and see more of his exquisite altars, click on the following links: