Challenging Problematic Systems to Improve Relationships

Artists as Activists  By Saad Ghosn

Rod Northcutt uses animals and nature to reference social concerns

“Once your eyes are open and awakened to social reality, you cannot escape it anymore,” says Rod Northcutt. “It stays with you and your innocence is gone.”

Northcutt became acutely aware of social issues when he moved to Chicago for graduate school. He was confronted for the first time with poverty, homelessness, crowded housing, environmental decay, the many human and physical problems of a large city. They remained with him ever since and found their way into his art.

Rod Northcutt carving. Photo by Scott Allison.

A visual artist, he teaches sculpture at Miami University, Oxford, OH. He has a BFA degree in drawing and painting from the University of North Texas and a MFA degree in sculpture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Northcutt grew up in rural Texas, intimately connected to the land and to animals he raised and tended to. It triggered in him a lifelong interest in biological and social systems that he explored, compared, and illustrated in his work using analogs between humans and the natural world.

“My sculptures, drawings, paintings, all speak of human relationships,” he says. “I use animals as surrogates to construct allegorical tales referencing social history, philosophy, labor movements, manufacturing, revolution…”

He also resorts to nature-related metaphors to raise awareness of the various societal ills.

Initially destined to become a medical illustrator, Northcutt soon realized he was in reality a maker and that he liked to craft and create things; also that he enjoyed setting his art in nature, interacting with its environment, doing sculptural installations. His work, as a result, grew along these lines.

In his interior gallery work, he functions like a fiction story teller, combining animals with study of the sciences or humanities. This allows him to empower the animals, understand them, especially understand human resemblance to them and what humans owe them; also to apply his meticulous craftsmanship skills to his projects. Northcutt would design an imaginary tale, halfway between truth and lies, connecting animals to human history and to real events. He would then craft related physical objects, “relics” that look real and legitimate to give support and validity to his story. He would display all in a natural history museum-like setting, thus playing with the line between fact and fiction.

“I consider myself a ‘writer’ of historical fiction,” Northcutt says. “The events I cite are grounded in history yet diverge humorously from known archives by combining with current social concerns, such as outsourcing of labor… My work is carefully hand-crafted and often suggests a ‘backwater’ answer to difficult social questions.”

He used for instance native woodworkers and builders such as beavers, woodpeckers, and termites, to devise an alternate history of building and manufacturing in the United States, pointing to their inherent problems. His displays have variably included relics and tools from beaver lodge architecture in the 1950’s, dioramas illustrating a 19th century American Luddite movement among beavers, Dutch-style shoes supposedly carved by woodpeckers and beavers… At times, he also featured natural ceramic workers such as potter wasps and barn swallows.

Northcutt quickly realized, however, that his conceptual gallery work did not reach common individuals who, confronted with real daily problems, could not afford the luxury of frequenting galleries. He felt the need for a different venue to touch them and resorted to outdoor installations, easily seen and experienced, and good vehicles for his social concerns.

He would research a site specific area for his work, become familiar with its environmental problems (for instance diseases affecting its trees, gypsy moths, predator insects…), and propose a piece that speaks to its ecological or social issues. Nature and its elements would thus become proxy for humans and their life.

In his installation Arborvention (a composite of arbor and intervention), he placed orthopedic braces around damaged dying trees. He was calling attention to the scarred trees and their condition, but also indirectly to the care needed for vulnerable, diseased, possibly disabled and neglected individuals in society.

In Near-shore Fish and Flotsam of New York City, an installation he did on the shore of East River in Brooklyn, he made, out of floating garbage collected from the site (Styrofoam, wood, plastic…), model sculptures of the various fish that live in the river. He accompanied his sculptural installation with a didactic display that included, in addition to pictures of the indigenous fish, pictures of the discarded elements and information about their constituent chemicals. The toxic chemicals we throw away became like the new fish of the battered environment.

To raise awareness about consumption and recycling, and working collaboratively with Material Exchange, a green/sustainable collective, he built with materials recovered from various Chicago dumpsters, a temporary miniature golf course on which passer-bys played for 2 weeks.

In one of his pieces he used bird watching as a metaphor for racial prejudice in selection and categorization, birds sought after being usually the only bright colored ones; and in another one, bird migratory pathways to reflect on Mexican migrants, natural migration patterns, in his mind, all similar and legitimate.

“In my art I try to facilitate conversations that challenge habitual, often destructive, ways of thinking and living,” he says. “I want my art to make an enabling and ennobling change in both the artist and the viewer.”

Near-Shore Fish and Flotsam of New York City, mixed media sculptural installation with annotated diagram. Installation and Photo by Rod Northcutt.

In addition to his art, Northcutt uses his teaching to convey his concerns. In the classroom he discusses social and environmental questions, how to research them and express them. He involved his students in developing a material resource data base to understand materials being discarded into the land, differentiating, according to the environmental theory ‘cradle by cradle’, the naturally degraded biological from the technological needing recycling. For the past 3 years he has also taught traditional, non-electric, woodworking skills through a making-based traveling course, Unplugged. He would like to offer the course, free of charge, to kids in various parts of the country, giving them access, opportunity, and ability to become creators, the creative act, according to him, “allowing unfolding and reaching the spiritual.”

“With my work, lectures, and teaching, I always challenge problematic systems,” Northcutt says. “I would like my work to improve relationships between people, animals and the earth. I want to get into people’s heads; I try to do it through humor, beautiful craft, an active experience. “