Cecil Howell —
Design, Art, and Research
Cecil Howell is a designer, whose practice ranges from mapping, to product design, to landscape architecture. Her work is an exploration of place: how it evolves, how we connect with it, and how we can design it. Growing up in the woods of New York, her love of land is rooted in childhood walks through the forest, observing a successive ecosystem regenerating over remnant stone walls and farmlands.
Cecil approaches her work through studying how spaces are formed over time through the dynamic layering of cultural and ecological forces. Through research, model making, writing, and drawing she is interested in creating narratives that tell the multi-faceted stories of a place; expanding our perspective and dialogue. This type of analysis is the point of departure for her work as a landscape architect, where she uses her research to generate creative and community-driven designs.
After 9 years of working for multiple award-winning firms, including Hargreaves, Future Green, and Margie Ruddick Landscape, Cecil created her own studio and collaborative: Object + Field, in order to expand her practice beyond the built environment and into artistic explorations of the human imagination.
A Biography of a River
“Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And, of course, this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care. ”
— Iris Murdoch
By Murdoch’s definition, beauty is not a state of being, but rather a relationship between two objects. It is also subject to timing, revealing itself with the flap of a wing and the shift of an eye. This series, which captures a 3 mile section of the Flathead River from 1945 until 2015 (based on data collected by the Flathead Biological Research Station) explores the undulations of an untrammeled floodplain. On the ground, a floodplain landscape can be chaotic and confusing, with pockets of dense scrubby vegetation, stretches of barren river rocks, and eddies of debris. There are no scenic vistas and it is hard to take a photograph that captures the life and beauty of the space. The Everglades was the first national park to be created in order to protect a vital ecosystem, otherwise we often rely on grand vistas or distinct landforms to guide our conservation efforts. But this approach obviously has its limits: it ignores landscapes, often vital ones, that don’t appeal to our cursory glance, and is, at its core, human-centric. Maybe, like the slow food movement, we need a slow beauty movement. A movement encouraging us to see more and look less, a counterpoint to the commodification of landscapes on social media. Inspired by Murdoch’s thoughts on beauty as a moment in time, this series pairs the path of the river with monoprints of snow melting, the same process which feeds the Flathead River.
Cartographies of Time and Movement
“Some say that we have reached a dead end of imaginative invention, that no poetic image, no brushstroke is possible that isn’t derivative of something already done. Certainly one effect of the enclosure is a sense of limitations: there is only so much in the garden. But I interpret insistence on this as a sophisticated form of deflection. We may have enclosed ourselves, but this puts us on an interior threshold about which little is stale or familiar. Whether it’s the paradox of being responsible for our own footing, the challenge of imaginatively graping the effects of enclosure, or the disappearance of landscape itself as we have known it, this is not a dead end. Rather it is a beginning, in which the human imagination is in its early days of finding itself, in which we know little, in which all is to be discovered.”
Suzannah Lessard, The Absent Hand
Representing landscapes is a process of drawing ambiguities. Landscapes are infinitely old and constantly emerging, but a map represents only a moment in time. They are continuous yet fragmented by the artificial boundaries we project upon them. They are bound to the reality of their bedrock, yet our perceiving minds interpret them through a cloud of emotional and visual references. While scientific cartography can exquisitely define immediate realities, the emerging, temporal, and experiential qualities of a landscape are often best explored through the arts. This atlas exists at the confluence of these two fields, between science and the arts, between the abstract and physical landscape. Within these pages are a collection of cartographies inspired by Isle Royale National Park, a remote archipelago in Lake Superior. These maps will not help you navigate, nor will they serve as a comprehensive guide to Isle Royale, rather they are intended to help visualize a place from perspectives often not considered in traditional cartography.
Water as Cake
The following is an excerpt from a publication in Burnaway Magazine that explores the aquifer which underlines much of the south. The full essay and graphics can be found at this link.
Translating complex systems such as aquifers into policy guidelines requires editing out nuances and drawing averages. This loss of intricacy occurs as one converts system to science and science to policy, which is then further warped by the intersections of history and culture. Compared to the complexity of reality, the language and laws we use to describe water appear alternately as humorous, poetic, or absurd. In Mississippi v. Tennessee, hydrological and geological experts testified for both sides, bringing their detailed knowledge of aquifers to bear upon the case. As court proceedings are recorded in text, the visuals that were presented to support the oral arguments were described in detail by these experts, adding another layer of distortion as image is rendered into word. These collages are my own interpretations of the phantom visuals and terms presented by the experts and lawyers on both sides of the case. The work is not an attempt to articulate anything factual, or a winning argument, but rather draw out the ambiguities of the case using the language of law and mapping to explore the paradoxes and limits inherent to borders and ownership, especially when it comes to water.
A 400-acre dairy farm in upstate NY. The goal for the masterplan is to provide a framework for the long-term stewardship of the land. The plan allows for the sensitive, low-impact development of new residences and roads to allow family members to develop smaller, more cost-effective homes. A critical component is to ensure the long-term environmental health of the land by addressing current environmental issues (run-off, nutrient depletion, lake water quality) and planning for future uses.