Alum Matilda Essig on a horseName:  Matilda Essig (Tilda)

Graduation Year: 1977

Degree:  Sterling School – Grassroots Project Other Degrees: Reed College – BA 1983; Art Students League of NYC 1986; Tacheria School of Interfaith Spiritual Direction 2005; Institute for Electronic Arts, Alfred University 2007

Current Hometown: Elgin, Arizona

Employment:  Self employed at the almighty ME – Artist; Volunteer chorister (alto II) at St Phillips in the Hills Episcopal Church, Tucson AZ

Can you tell us about your current work?

As a fine artist and agriculturalist, I seek to communicate the ever-present beauty of the natural world to new audiences. My current work, focusing on the native grasses of the arid Southwest – specifically the Apache Highlands eco-region –  expresses both the botanical beauty of these intricate lifeforms, as well as the stewardship knowledge of the ranchers that work to keep these watershed landscapes alive and healthy.

I create large format portraits of these native grass characters, so that we may explore them as fellow beings, larger than life and in monumental scale.

While my original training is utterly traditional (oil painting, charcoal drawing), my career has straddled the great digital revolution that the visual arts have borne witness to the last 25 years, and my method became hybridized when I began to work in natural science illustration for various Sonoran Desert conservation organizations. When I turned my sites to the grasslands, the great open spaces of the American West, I embraced the newest tool on the horizon, a high resolution scanner, to portray the voices of the grasses themselves, independent of my hand, even.  

You can learn more about my work at Matilda Essig – Studio on Facebook.

Artist pictures of grasses

How did Sterling influence your current career path?

Experience. Nothing compares to the power of direct, experiential learning. I will forever be grateful to all of the instructors who took such great risks to give us authentic experiences. Not only did I believe, at the time, that I was doing something exceptional (compared to other school programs), but the integrity of my newly gained knowledge gave me a different kind of intellectual grounding – a traction in my beliefs, which have grown, over the years to bear enormous fruit.

Blue Grama HeadOne particular influence worth mentioning is reading Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac.” It was one of three required texts for the year, the other two being Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle.” “Almanac” sank into the core of my being, and without realizing it even, years later, I bought a home on five acres of badly-damaged grasslands, and set about restoring the native species to learn from my experience. I observed every detail, every stage of growth with the same loving attention that Leopold did. I chronicled it with images, instead of words. I healed the earth, and the earth healed me in return. I wound up presenting my work at the Quivira Coalition special Leopold Conference, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sand County Almanac, and sat on a panel with his descendants, who became friends and colleagues.

Another book I bought and read that year was the first edition of “Culture and Agriculture” by Wendell Berry, who instantly became my hero. What an honor to follow his voice throughout my career, and then finally meet him, and be invited to present my grasses at the 30th annual Prairie Festival, at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, alongside he keynote address. To have The Berry Center partner with  Sterling for the Wendell Berry Farming Program is an affirmation of all of the good that is at work in the universe –  a reason for hope –  and I look forward to becoming further involved with it all again someday soon.

What is your most memorable course or “out in the field” memory:

Asking Bonnie, the Belgian draft horse, to stop and start with just my voice in command was one of the greatest gifts in life. The willingness, based on mutual respect, ultimately, it what its all about (between humans too), but there is an extra level of honor when another species complies with your request and is willing to work with you. And work hard. It’s an act of permission, each and every time. If only all of humanity could all know such cooperation and respect, not to mention patience.

If I were going to give the squeaky wheel all of the grease, I would have talked about getting my fingers frostbitten during Expedition, which almost gave Dave Brown a heart attack. But I’ll save that tale for another column!

Any words of wisdom for current Sterling students?

The world has never needed Sterling graduates more than it does right now. The challenges to our shared earth are accelerating at a rate I could not even have imagined during my student days in the 1970s. So my advice will be renegade: take the bit between your teeth and RUN with it. And don’t stop till you reach your goal, or drop. Do the best you can. It may take you 50 years to even begin to realize what you have done, but perhaps, then, you can be satisfied that you have made a difference. Never give up.

Matilda’s show “Native Grasses of the Apache Highlands” is displayed at the Tucson International Airport, Center Gallery through March 27th, 2019. She can be reached at [email protected]

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