Report from the Galapagos

SP Weather Station recently interviewed Katherine McLeod, SPWS weather interpreter for October 2013, about her recent experience in the Galapagos.

SPWS: How did you find yourself going to the Galapagos?

KM:  The whole idea to go to the Galapagos came from an artist I met while on residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Christina Seely. She’s doing some amazing work on climate change, on how it alters natural rhythms in ecosystems. One of her projects involves comparing the arctic to the equator, and so was traveling to the Galapagos to finish it, and need help—that’s where I came in.

I went down there to try to learn about the community that has formed there. The Galapagos is such a mythic place, and all of the publicity that surrounds it hardly ever mentions the people. But since the 1970’s, a lot has been happening in the towns there. Before the 1970s other strange and interesting spurts of population existed, but most of those died out. Initially the main economy was fishing—people came over from mainland Ecuador in search of jobs—and more recently all of the industry is centered around tourism. Families are growing and now there are more and more native Galapagosians.

I went with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek idea to try and find a way to relate to this community that has formed on such a mythic place: to gather information for the ‘Galapagos Complaint Department’. I had in mind to talk to full-time residents of the Islands about what in their daily lives irks them, since life living on an environmental celebrity can’t be easy.

SPWS: Yes your idea of a Complaint Department does seem like a nice and funny way to engage people and find out what is going on.

KM: Yes, and in many was I fully expected it to be very different than whatever I envisioned for the place before I arrived. The system for finding formal complaints is not so easy to access, and government is organized very differently there. And, most inner workings such as that are decidedly separated from the tourist community. For example I spent a fair amount of time trying to find the municipal dump, to no avail—they keep it behind walls and were not comfortable with me being there.

SPWS: Ah yes—plans adapt when the real world intervenes!

KM: The project now has really become a meditation on change. These Islands have been made famous by their methods of change, and the most apparent thing to me upon arrival there was how fast and interestingly things were moving in the cultural world. There is a lot of construction going on…personal homes mainly, with very beautiful and creative architecture. The kids there have a lot of worldly outside influences (the Galapagos are a huge surfing destination, all the kids surf there). It just become clear that complaints were not the most interesting thing to focus on. One thing that became apparent was the lack of junk on the islands, no “junk” stores, no dusty shelves with anything old on them, or alley ways with useful trash.

SPWS: Wow the lack of junk is surprising. What about stuff washed up on beaches?

KM: There are many many beautiful beaches, and there’s no junk washing up on them.  There is some trash around, but generally very little. There are a few old architectural remnants from things past, but very little trash on the streets or in most of the nature areas. They just use everything…and they don’t have too many decades of junk accumulation. I found myself searching for something that was like junk or refuse or something worn in or at least something cluttered…because I wanted to do a few still-life paintings of objects from the area, just as some sort of travelogue.

I kept gravitating towards were these striped plastic bags that they have there. They are from the stores that aren’t located on the main tourist streets. I kind of had to search for them and many mornings I could find them stuck to a Darwin statue or something. I think that refuse is a big issue there, and because the islands are regulated by different organizations, they pay a lot of attention to trash.

Bags All - K McLeod

Katherine McLeod, Galapagos Bags All, 2012, 6 x8 in. watercolor on paper

SPWS: Are they for groceries? Or would you get say a fish in one, or dry goods—shirts, clothes?

KM: They are for anything I think. There aren’t too many stores on any of the islands, they all use these bags, but there are many color variations, and I ended up just using these bags as the subject of paintings for the rest of my time there. The main question that I think about as I’m painting all of these plastic bags is this idea of what change means to these islands. There are a lot of different forces trying to shape them, and some people are trying to keep them in a sort of pristine status, while others are looking for something more malleable.

SPWS: And so the bags are kind of a rumination on trash—a question mark about how to deal with this in the future?

KM: Trash, yes, but I was thinking of them more as something still in use, not discarded yet but man-made and acting on the surrounding environment, and also very beautiful. I’m hoping that as I do more of the bag paintings that they get more and more abstract. ‘Bag13’ is my favorite so far and it looks the least like a bag I think. They are a way for me to think about change as an integral part of the islands.

Bag 13, K. McLeod

Katherine McLeod, Galapagos Bag 13, 2012, 6 x 8 in. watercolor on paper

I find that painting objects from a location I am visiting helps me connect more to that place and helps me identify what I’m interested in. It is something strange to finally go to such an epic place like the Galapagos. I was raised by biologists, and I grew up always hearing about the islands, but never really considered going. So I think it is taking a while to process it and make the art about it.

SPWS: Yes your biologist parents—did you spend time in the field with them as a child—is that science process you were exposed to informative to your work much?

KM: My mother was an immunologist who worked with sharks. My father was a speed-boat racer turned biologist turned physicist, my family definitely influences my art a lot. All members of my family work in the sciences, and I learned very late that a person could have a job that was not science related. But once I learned that I decided to lean in a very different direction, but so much creative thinking goes into both fields.

SPWS: Exactly, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the fields are really not that different, or anyway not in all ways, or don’t have to be.

KM: Definitely.

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