"IT'S LIKE the artist's version of the environmental impact statement," says Portland artist Leif J. Lee of her work with local arts collective Environmental Impact Statement (IES), so named for the government-mandated document. Before getting the go-ahead on a potentially invasive project, developers must file this form, but Lee isn't talking about Portland's latest abominably ugly condo block—she's talking about Mt. Hood.
Artist Lisa Schonberg, Amy Harwood (who's also interim executive director of environmental advocacy group Bark), Lee, and their IES colleagues seek to document development and change on the mountain. This week, the group begins a stint guest-curating a show for artist-run project space Surplus Space, which will include work that seeks to fill the gap between Oregon's environmental tourism industry, and what Schonberg, Harwood, and Lee see as a general lack of awareness about Mt. Hood's changing landscape.
"Even though there is this interest in nature and in environmental issues, I would say that the [lack of] depth of understanding is just profound in American society," says Harwood, when the four of us meet for coffee in North Portland. Case in point: Do you know what a timber sale is? I didn't either! In a timber sale, the US Forest Service sells land parcels to logging companies. "A lot of the time, these timber sales [cover] little bits all over the place," rather than one bigger cut in a single location, explains Harwood. "They require this enormous road network to get to them, and the roads themselves—particularly in an area like the Clackamas—cause a lot of damage to the watersheds, and so even though the timber sales themselves have their own impact, it's oftentimes the roads that really start to have an even greater impact on the landscape."
How many roads are there on Mt. Hood? Roughly 4,000 miles, says Harwood, and there could be up to twice that number, factoring in decommissioned or undocumented roads. Most of these were built "really quickly and really sloppy and really fast" during the 1950s. "That's the road network that we're kind of stuck with now," she says.
So what does this have to do with art? "I really believe that the environmental movement has done a lousy job of creating a cultural movement within [it]," Harwood explains. "A lot of social justice efforts have a cultural element... if we don't include artists [in] the work that we're doing, we're not going to be able to communicate better about environmental issues."
For the artists of EIS, this starts with first educating themselves—the collective treks out to timber sale sites to survey the damage up close. Their work isn't site-specific, but the mountain serves as an incubator for it; Schonberg calls it a "lab site." The artists exhibiting at Surplus Space this month have all shaped their projects in response to those journeys.
An art show by itself obviously can't slow the effects of logging on Mt. Hood, but activists have found success in efforts to limit timber sales' impacts, or to decommission logging roads. Lee recounts a visit to one former road, which the forest had visibly reclaimed in the intervening years. "I wouldn't have even noticed," she says. "There was so much growth that has happened just in 15 years."