Cecil Howell —
Design, Art, and Research
Cecil Howell is a landscape designer and artice, whose expansive practice includes visual art, design, and landscape architecture. Her work is an exploration of place: how it is formed, how we are entangled 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 interactions of geological, cultural, and ecological forces. The start of any project begins with questions which eventually leads towards examining spatial data, scientific research, journalism, and historical narratives. Through research, model making, writing, and drawing she is interested in creating narratives that tell the complex stories of a place; expanding our perspective and dialogue. This work is the point of departure for her landscape projects and the basis for much of her visual art.
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.
Cartographies of Time and Movement | 24” x 15”
2021. Beech Leaves | Acrylic, Clay, and Pastel | 72” x 36”
The Lost Flora
The following is an excerpt from a publication in Wonderground Magazine that explores the North American plant species that became endangered or extinct since colonization. The magazine can be found here.
They were last seen in the wild along the river, shortly after their seeds were collected, as if the act of possession provoked their disappearance. The seeds, perhaps dipped in beeswax or pressed carefully between sheets of paper to protect them for the long journey from Georgia to Pennsylvania, survived and eventually germinated in the Bartram Garden, where William Bartram impressed upon them the name Franklinia alatamaha, the Franklin Tree. It’s a gratifying story, well-worn in the halls of botanical conservation, with the fate of a species resting in the hands of a botanical explorer. But the serendipity of the survival of this one species is undercut by currents of loss; what happened to those trees along the river? Were they cut down or did a disease from lands far away wipe them out? And is a species still alive if it only exists as a vestige in gardens, on display for our visual entertainment? The narrative of this one tree hints at all that is missing; roughly 600 plants globally have become extinct since 1753 according to Aelys Humphreys in a 2019 article published in Nature. Plant populations are especially difficult to track; they can disappear and then reappear years later after a disturbance and can easily exist in isolated patches outside of human awareness. In their research, Humphreys and her colleagues discovered that almost as many species have been declared extinct and then rediscovered as have gone extinct. Even this extinct-extant binary is complicated with plants which, unlike many animals, can also be preserved and propagated, in labs and botanical gardens, even if they have ceased to have a viable wild population -- a state known as ‘functional extinction’. More and more plants are headed towards this purgatory, as we continue to invest in collecting and storing the seeds of species, while simultaneously diminishing the capacity for these same plants to survive in situ. This is the case for the Franklin tree, which is now relatively widespread, but in such isolated instances that its existence hardly registers. We haven’t lost the species, but rather the potential of a population.
Cypripedium acaule | Watercolor, Graphite, and Pastel | 48” x 30”