How does ritual come to life in physical spaces? Where does art and nature intersect? How can we, in urban environments, utilize art as a way to come back into relationship with the natural world?
These are some questions that artist Day Schildkret explores in his project Morning Altars, a process of creating natural and impermanent large-scale altars. His practice consists of collecting myriad natural materials like stones, hermit crab shells, sticks and moss or fallen leaves, and creating dream-like installations.
To celebrate the launch of his book Morning Altars: A 7-step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit Through Nature, Art and Ritual, Schildkret hosted an event at The Assemblage NoMad called Dream Garden. Each participant was invited to plant four seeds within the altar—dreams of their future, dreams of their ancestors, dreams of nature and dreams of the world they hope to live in.
We sat down with Day to talk about about the invitation presented in his book, and how the themes of emotional alchemy and impermanence reinforce his approach to creation.
Emily Sause: What happened to that beautiful work of art we co-created for the event at The Assemblage NoMad?
Day Schildkret: This art is impermanent. We basically destroyed the piece; we folded it up—the soil, all of the shells, all of the seeds—and traveled to Central Park.
We secretly and quietly scattered the soil at the foot of Trump Tower, said thank you, and left it. Now I’m back in New York, a month later, and doing an event for the 9/11 Memorial Foundation.
I’m foraging in the park and I think, ‘Oh, I should just stop by and see if anything’s still there.’ I stopped by and it was all still there. Some of the hermit crab shells were filled with soil and sprouting. The seeds of our dreams that we planted in the altar were sprouting!
To me, it’s like this shell that once held life was filled again with new Earth, literally. Now there’s new life in it again. I want that to be true for our culture in our country, and I want that to be true for us as people and as neighbors.
I want to be able to take this shell of a culture that we’re in—that does not work—and fill it with new Earth and new beauty. I want to see the new seeds and dreams sprouting from that.
ES: It is mythical. This is what myths are made of—planting dreams and letting them take their course as they sprout and grow.
How does this concept reflect your process as an artist? Did you always dream of making art in this way?
DS: Six years ago, I had a major relationship breakup in Richmond, California, where I was living at the time. I was super grief-soaked and just wrecked from the breakup. All I could do is walk my dog outside. That’s all I did for four months. Along the way, I would always find something interesting on the ground. I’d see a crow feather. I’d see a cluster of elderberries. I was taken by those little objects. They were the little peep holes into a magical realm for me.
These objects provided little moments that pulled me outside of my own mind into something bigger than myself.
One morning, my dog and I were walking at dawn and the fog was rolling in through the Eucalyptus Grove in Wildcat Canyon. I was just sad. There were these amber-colored mushrooms underneath this eucalyptus tree and I started to rearrange the mushrooms, the eucalyptus bark, the caps. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by. It was the first time in four months that my grief was lifted. I felt lighter; I wasn’t in my head.
It was a real resourced moment. I made a challenge to myself—Can I return to this very spot for 30 days and make more beauty out of the land? My life depended on it. Really, it did. My job was falling apart, my relationship was falling apart, and I was crying all of the time. This practice was my lifeline.
And I did. I went to that spot for 30 days and made all of these pieces. So it began as a very personal practice and it was saving my life. But somehow, the morning altars started to escape me.
They started to get out into the world; people started to find them and photograph them, and this magic and mystery in the woods was helping their lives.
Then it started to blow up on Instagram. People all around the world were suddenly making altars in Russia, Iran, Poland, England, Canada, Brazil, Portugal, Australia, and Thailand. This morning I got [a message] from India saying, “You inspired me to pick up my ancestors’ Rangoli tradition and make a piece of land art in my house.”
Every step in the 7-step process is about slowing down and letting the place enchant you.
Let’s also note that the word enchant has the word chant in it; there’s a singing, an incantation to that word. There’s a rhythm to it. The land is doing that—it’s singing to us. If you’re moving around so fast and always self-directed, always thinking where you should go or what’s where, you just miss the song. Start to step out of thinking that you know and start to realize, ‘Oh, maybe that crow knows what’s up, or the wind knows what’s up.’ There’s a whole other language that sings to you and enchants you. That you’re learning the language of the place, which is just so integrated.
ES: You’ve said before that you followed your intuition as a kid in order to unlock avenues of inspiration and action. Impermanent art can often be seen as counter-intuitive. Can you speak to the role impermanence plays in our modern culture?
DS: The Earth Artists’ movement and the Land Art movement came from the 1960s and 1970s at the same time as the feminist and environmental movements. Trying to take art away from the museums— where everything is stagnant and permanent—the Earth Artists’ movement brought art back outside to the land where it was ever-changing and impermanent. It didn’t belong to anyone and belonged to everyone at the same time.
I do know that the benefits of this practice—of wandering, of sitting, of listening, of connecting with the greater-than-human world, of making something with your hands, of making something symmetrical, of telling the story of your life, of letting go and of letting something be impermanent–is an antidote to the woes and sufferings of modern human beings. I know this because I’m living evidence of that.
When I do this practice, I am healthier. My mind is clear. I am more inspired. I have a deep sense of connection. I feel more relaxed.
I hope that this practice can be a resource for people who are suffering from modern woes. The ephemeralness of this practice in a culture that doesn’t want to see things die….allows that culture to see that there’s an important place for endings. To learn how to exercise that muscle, and be in relationship with impermanence, is very important for us. We can have a better response to endings than fear and pain.
ES: I also hear how this practice can evoke the ability of art to act as a modality of processing emotion, for the metabolization of things like grief and sorrow, pain and fear. What was the phrase you used? That your grief had been lifted?
That’s what the word altar means. The etymology of the word means ‘to raise up, or to lift up’. This all began because I took my grief and literally put it on an altar and raised it up. Instead of it having absolutely no purpose besides inconvenience, it was like my grief was, how Leonard Cohen says, “the place that the light came through.”
I literally made beauty out of my loss and raised up the loss.
Art needs to reflect what’s real. And for most of us right now, what’s real is anxiety. What’s real is fear. What’s real is depression. What’s real is isolation. What’s real is overwhelm. All these things are real. Except that we live in a time that’s overly psychologizing everything. We think we have to either hold it, live with it, or talk about it.
Where’s the place in culture where we get to metabolize it by making something with it? That is the place that I’m devoted to. We need more beauty in the world. There’s a lot of grief. So, let’s become practitioners of grief; one of the ways to practice grieving and to grieve well is to make beauty with the grief. To really feel it, be it and practice it, and metabolize it by making things with it. I think that that’s what this time is about. We can’t just be collapsed right now. We’ve got to make things with all the things we’re feeling.
ES: So, you’re suggesting that we as a culture, when inundated with news that is disheartening and grief-inducing, can turn to this practice as a medium?
DS: Absolutely. Daily, weekly, monthly, whatever. I don’t prescribe it. It’s available. This practice wants to be in the world. That’s why I wrote this book about it being a practice. I didn’t just write a book about my art. I want to recreate an inspiration of a culture that is committed to giving and gifting. And I see these altars as gifts. I see this practice as food. I see this as nourishment.
One day, you won’t wake up, but you did this morning. To me, the response is to make something with that. Morning altars is a tangible practice—a 7-step practice. The wandering, the sitting, the clearing, the creating, the gifting, the letting go and the sharing.
This is a beauty-making practice. But if you read my book, I’m consistently on about not just making beauty, but living beautifully.