Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Line separating art and activism blurred in local artist’s work



Dana Lossia is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected].

The first time I spoke with Chicago artist Lee Tracy, she said “I’m blurring the lines between activism and art.” And I knew I would like it.

In 1996, Tracy, who teaches at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, made a trip to Oregon that brought her face to face with a 10-acre plot of clear-cut forest.

The emotional response the spattering of freshly-cut tree stumps evoked in her was the foundation for a project called “Red Trees.” Tracy covered 250 stumps with squares of red fabric.

“Wrapping the first stump, I thought ‘What am I doing?'” she said. “I had to keep calling up the original impulse.”

Through the process, Tracy gained a deeper understanding of her work — and she continues to recreate its meanings.

“It came from wondering how useful art is, and reaching people,” she said. “You want to create something that can go beyond the object — creating change and awareness.”

Envisioning the future of “Red Trees,” she says “I do see a permanent memorial to this natural resource. We’re all so focused on the present. With this project I’m living in the future.”

Tracy wants “Red Trees” to record reactions people today are having to the destruction around us. Like a time capsule, the display will inform future generations that some of us were opposed to logging — that we share in the anger and loss they must feel.

The owner of the land where Tracy is working is one of the voices she hopes to record. He attempted to buy the property before logging began but couldn’t raise the funds in time. Now he has purchased what is left and is working on his own form of restoration.

After months of exposure to the sun and rain, the center of each swath of red fabric has faded to a kind of salMonday, while the fringes maintain their boldness.

This August, a year after the fabric was laid down, Tracy will remove each sap-stained, dusty piece and her project will enter phase two, whatever that turns out to be. “I don’t know quite where I’m going with this, and I’m okay with that,” Tracy says. One possibility is creating a large quilt and maybe adding text.

Tracy also is thinking strategically about where her work could be displayed. Our first conversation was prompted by a mutual interest in hemp. “Red Trees” started Tracy thinking about alternatives to lumber, and she realized that — properly placed — her artwork could lend a hand to the struggle for eco-friendly crops and help challenge the politics behind the U.S. ban on hemp cultivation.

This summer, a series of photos in Adbusters will bring Tracy’s project, and the fate of surrounding forests, to public attention.

“I want to believe there are a lot of people who want to do something,” Tracy tells me. “Its hard in this world. There’s a lot of distraction. It’s just hard sometimes to get beyond yourself.”

By examining the world and responding to what they see, artists and activists create new frameworks for reflection and change.

The more blurred the distinctions between art and activism the better. It takes both to bring our world into focus and to push us forward.

Hopefully, that’s what Tracy’s work will do.

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Line separating art and activism blurred in local artist’s work