Invasive Fertility

Now that I’m back in my studio after years of science-based residency work, I’m revisiting a series about invasive species and female human fertility. The two topics have often weighed on me as a mother and contributor to the decline of our ailing environment.

I started this series (titled Invasive Fertility) between having my first child and a miscarriage, and before having my second child. In the midst of the powerful experience of creating life, I was learning in detail how our booming human population is devastating ecosystems and threatening a global mass extinction. The list of ways humans facilitate environmental degradation is hard to keep track of. One way that has become visually glaring to me in my own city is human introduction of non-native plant and insect species. Invasive vines are blanketing urban forests of enormous mature trees surrounding my neighborhood. The emerald ash borer is worsening the problem by targeting Ash trees. The threats go on and on.

As the situation unfolded in front of me, I did what living things do – make more of themselves. Being pregnant three times was, dare I say, a cosmic experience. I later wrote: “This cup cradled a human-scale big bang that set in motion an expansion of life, stardust encoded to make toes and eyelashes, memories and consciousness.” Nothing I’ve ever experienced has been more powerful. Unfortunately it turns out, that power uninhibited can be destructive.

And so I’m putting the two thoughts on paper (both the painted and written variety), to sit together uncomfortably. Like good therapy, there’s some reprieve in getting these thoughts out of my head and into a physical form, even if the problem still exists. Stay tuned to see the finished works, and keep reading to get to some prose…

One of Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil's pelvic paintings in progress   Four of Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil's pelvic paintings in progress

Just Bones
The young studio visitor asked, “Why are you painting bones?” The artist comes down to eye level and leans in. “Because they’re magic. This one here. This is a female pelvic bone. Every human being who ever existed and every one that ever will is cradled in this vessel. It’s life’s first home. And see this part? This opening? That’s the doorway to life on this side. This bone is an unimaginably powerful thing, and you have one. That must make you unimaginably powerful.”

Courier of Foreign Objects
How did this once complete set of legos scatter from a box in the basement to under the beds, the silverware drawer, inside my shoe, the fireplace, the vegetable garden? The courier is a kindergartener busy making make-believe wherever his whim takes him. These plastic building blocks give mobility to his creations and taint surroundings with hazardous foreign objects.

How did this once balanced ecosystem scatter from its native home oceans away to foreign old-growth forests, fields of food, city parks, garden centers, our backyards? The couriers are grown ups sailing shipping vessels, checking international luggage, hiding stowaways on the soles of shoes. These fungi, beetles, serpents and diseases hitchhike on building materials of prosperity and personal effects that facilitate wanderlust. Upon arrival they mount an aggressive coup to overthrow the hand that feeds us.

No more is the intact lego fire truck or the native forest. Their original forms have disappeared in the dilution. Foreign parts have dispersed and disrupted the native landscape leaving only shapeless monotony everywhere.

New work, new direction: “Broken Waters”

For over two years I’ve been fully immersed in data about the state of the natural world. Being in science labs and “in the field” has filled me with overwhelming worry and dread about what’s to come for my kids, your kids, anyone alive today or yet to be born. I’ve often had to think about the appropriateness of the resulting artwork for general audiences, but now that my last residency is wrapped up the filters are going out the window. It’s time to process in my studio what it means to be human, fertile, godlike, destructive, panicked and deeply, profoundly grateful.

In this new chapter you’re going to see more provocative work. I’m eager to focus on difficult truths versus leading with agreeable aesthetics of the natural world. Allowing myself to dig into (or perhaps wallow in) the darker trains of thoughts about human impact on nature has also inspired me to write about the work on my easel. And with that, I give you the first finished painting and two written reflections. I hope to hear what it elicits in you.

painting titled "Broken Waters" by artist Ashley Cecil detail of painting titled "Broken Waters" by artist Ashley Cecil detail of painting titled "Broken Waters" by artist Ashley CecilBroken Waters
36″x48″ acrylic and oil on canvas
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One Water
All of the water on this planet is all that’s ever been. What was once frozen in a glacier now pumps hot in your blood. What once festered in a swamp now comes out of your showerhead. The water of Jesus’s miraculous wine is still here, now in your toilet.

Until our upper hand on nature, water was self-purifying. The stones and roots and currents and clouds cleaned it as cycled between piss and holy water.

We’re steeping this substance of life like a tea, but no creation of god can remove the bits and pieces and blackness. No, now like a drop of ink in my paint cup, the darkness will swirl in tiny hurricanes until it dissipates between every molecule – a little everywhere for everyone.

Hell’s Cold Restart
Demons and their disease featured in your fiery scripture to keep children in line wait in unexpected places. Places of uninhabitable cold.

Undertakers frozen in their tracks and flattened by the weight of earth’s crust patiently wait their turn. They wait for us to signal for them with our digging and fires. We’ve gone mad looking, actually looking for them.

Down we’ve gone to exhume the flora of another era. We bring it up to the land of the living and light it on fire – a smoke signal to summon them. It wafts in the atmosphere, swirling in place like a snuffed candle into a glass dome.

Now their glacial and permafrost prisons crumble. You can hear the locks click open just before the ice calves into the sea. These first warnings are usually for coastal inhabitants – beware of rising water! But that’s simply their lure to get us to huddle together inland where the dying will circulate faster.

All this water that was once holdup at either ends now invites the vectors of disease to carry the likes of anthrax and bubonic plague to your crowded elevated refuge. There, all manners are death, both of the body and mind, are highly contagious.

The fire we started was an invitation to the devil to reign over this warming eden, a hell of our own making freed from ice.