Bunnell Street Artist in Residence Nina Elder wants your rope.
Specifically, she wants found, frayed and damaged marine objects like rope, anchor lines and nets that have washed up on Alaska shores. In residence at Bunnell through February, she invites people to set up an appointment — masked and taking COVID-19 safety precautions — to visit and show her what they’ve found. Participants can leave it or she will take photographs.
Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the 39-year-old travels the world seeking to create from, research and study changing ecologies. She’s particularly interested in geologic change either caused by natural processes or human intervention, like the Kennicott Mine near McCarthy.
“I look at the way humans and the geology primarily are interacting on each other, both geologic influences on humanity and the human influences in geology,” Elder said last Thursday in an interview at Bunnell.
Since 2013 she has been spending summers in McCarthy and winters in Albuquerque.
“I like 62 degrees. That’s the average Albuquerque winter and a McCarthy summer,” she said. “I’m like a sand hill crane. I know what I like.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she traveled more. Lately she’s been doing a lot of lectures and workshops remotely.
“It’s interesting to be a migratory artist during COVID. Its fascinating,” she said. “… I tried everything I can to stay mobile and keep doing everything I’m doing. I think it’s really important if we’re talking about change to witness these moments of huge social destruction and upheaval and connecting people through it.”
Doing talks on remote platforms like Zoom turns out to be something she loves, she said.
“When I give a talk now, my Alaska friends can show up, my European friends show up. I’m not jumping on an airplane,” she said.
Most recently, through the Anchorage Museum, she has been working on a project called “It Will Not Be The Same, But It Might Be Beautiful.”
“I’m doing research — thinking the big thoughts and seeing how it turns into art,” she said. “It’s not immediate. It’s not like I’m out there drawing the landscape. I’m really thinking. I’m taking notes, taking pictures.”
That mindset drives her art.
“Something I think about a lot is that people think that the earth we see now is permanent, that it’s always this way,” she said “I’m always trying to find ways to show that change is really constant, one thing leads to other things. It’s not linear. … That we can learn more about ourselves as humans and the impacts if we can learn to see change.”
The daughter of a father who worked in the Secret Service doing military contracts, Elder grew up in Colorado Springs, the location of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and Cheyenne Mountain, a granite mountain excavated to hold a nuclear-bomb resistant alternate command center for NORAD.
“Growing up in the shadow of a hollowed out mountain that held all the government secrets and having a Secret Service dude as my dad made me always want to pick at society and understand it better,” Elder said of her childhood.
In the late 1980s her father worked on decommissioning Alaska radar and early warning sites like the White Alice sites, including the Diamond Ridge White Alice site associated with the Ohlson Mountain Air Force Station. The Alaska early warning detection system included Distant Early Warning, or DEW line stations. Elder has visited DEW line sites in Alaska as well as Ohlson Mountain.
“It’s a weird fascination of mine,” she said.
Elder got her bachelor of fine arts in painting from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and her bachelor of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. She’s exhibited in solo and group shows in the Southwest, Colorado and Anchorage.
For her McCarthy project, Elder worked with cinematographer Michael Conti to film glaciers and a geologic form called puzzle stones. Puzzle stones are rocks that have been shattered by rapid temperature fluctuations. They’re found around glaciers.
“I was realizing the things that touch me and help me understand both the past and the future — they’re much more intimate and they’re much more smaller scale,” said said. “Climate science and data can be so overwhelming. I started really seeking out metaphors for what’s broken, what we can understand of the breaking, and we can try to put back together.”
Elder collected puzzle stones and brought them to Anchorage. In a workshop done during the pandemic, and with everyone taking precautions, she asked people to handle the puzzle stones.
“I had this idea of asking people to pick up a puzzle stone and to try to do it with so much care and so much love, but the inherent truth is, picking it up actually destroys it,” she said. “There’s this thing that I feel like we’re trying to do in the world where we’re acknowledging that it’s broken: socially, racially, economically, health care. And to actually put our hands on those problems we have to admit it’s broken. There’s some crumbling and some stuff that’s going to happen.”
Elder then asked people to try to reassemble the puzzle stones.
“Some people tried really hard. Some people started doing creative things with it,” she said. “It revealed the futility of putting things back the way they were.”
From those attempts, Elder then made large scale drawings of the stones.
“It started to make something beautiful out of those fractured pieces,” she said. “There’s something about futility but also about creativity. There’s something about acknowledging the brokenness but not throwing it away when it’s broken.”
Her frayed rope project comes out of the puzzle stones idea.
“I really got inspired to think about when the things we depend on break,” she said. “These social fractures, these economic fractures. Some of these are things we’ve worn out. Some of them are things that were flawed and broke. Some of them are things that were depleted in our society.”
Using donated objects or photos of them, Elder will then make drawings. One work is already in progress, a blown up examination of a piece of frayed rope. For her media, Elder uses marine grade graphite lubricant, “like greasy sand,” she described it.
“All my drawings are made out of weird stuff,” she said. “… This is such a delight to draw with.”
Elder rubs the lubricant into the paper, then draws into that using erasers — removing the pigment — and charcoal pencils.
Her residency won’t end with a gallery exhibit, but people are welcome to visit and see her work and bring in found objects.
“I’d love to see that stuff,” she said.
To schedule an appointment, call or text Elder at 575-779 8121.
At the close of her residency she will do a Zoom talk. She did a Zoom talk last Friday with Conti as well. To see that talk, visit https://www.bunnellarts.org/inspiration-and-adaptation. To register for her Zoom talk at 11 a.m. Feb. 26, visit https://www.bunnellarts.org/nina-elder-exhibit-and-artist-in-residence-february/