Barbara Westfall is an artist, educator and curator specializing in creating and examining works of art that weave the connections between art, people and natural environment. Trained in installation and sculpture, she earned a BFA and MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Barbara makes her artwork from transforming natural fiber, plants, trees and entire ecosystems into contemporary art forms. She has organized symposiums on Ecological Art for the Society of Ecological Restoration. In 1993, Barbara was recognized by preeminent philosopher of Ecological Restoration, William Jordan III, as the first artist to work with University of Wisconsin Arboretum staff to explicitly interlace the routine acts of restoration ecology into a visual and performance art, a project resulting in […] “a ritual and an occasion for beauty.” (Jordan, 172) Barbara’s work is often described as Ecological Art because she frequently points out and/or offers solutions to ecological problems, such as loss of species habitat or global warming. Emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Donald E. Thompson, who is a specialist in ethno-history, art and iconography, writes about Barbara’s groundbreaking collaboration at the UW Arboretum as giving […] “dignity to trees” and describes the unifying theme […] “being the relationship between people and nature. This project carries the concepts of ecology and art to the coming generation, an essential undertaking if the message of ecological art is to have a lasting effect.” (Thompson, 34).
Her interdisciplinary approach to integrating art and ecology have provided her with the opportunity to work with a diverse population of professionally active faculty, scholars, artists, city, county and government organizations including the U.S. Parks Departments, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum, Art Department and Department of Forest Ecology, University of California-Irvine, University of Washington-Seattle, University of Waterloo-Ontario Canada, Dane County Parks, Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison College, Edgewood College, and the Madison Metropolitan School District. In 1993, at the invitation of The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Barbara was a guest artist for the exhibition, Fragile Ecologies: Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions, organized by the Queens Museum of Art in New York, developed by the Smithsonian Institute, curator Dr. Barbara C. Matilsky.
William Jordan III, The Sunflower Forest Ecological Restoration & the New Communion With Nature (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2003)
Donald E. Thompson, Wisconsin Academy Review, Journal of Wisconsin Culture, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (University Wisconsin Madison Publications, Summer 1994, Vol 40, Number 3)
I grew up in a large family on 20 acres on the periphery of Elgin, Illinois during the 1960’s. The fourth oldest out of six children, some of my fondest memories as a child were building entire villages out of sticks and plants for my dolls, picking berries in the woods, and riding horseback in the Fox River valley. Watching my father draw up blueprints and construct homes in my neighborhood, inspired a love of design and building. Viewing the monumental Picasso and Miro sculptures in downtown Chicago, opened my eyes to the idea of working large. When I was eight, my father died of leukemia and our family moved to a farm 30 miles southwest of Madison, Wisconsin. There I read books about local artists Georgia O’Keefe, Frank Lloyd Wright and John Stuart Curry and drew pictures of my new Wisconsin landscape.
My rural experiences instilled in me a love of nature and continues to inform my approach to making art today. Before enrolling in art school, I spent three years living near Los Angeles, an experience mingled with culture, art and adventures into the beauty and grandeur of the west coast National Parks. Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, informs decisions I make now about form and scale. I still draw upon the themes of interdependence between nature and culture, that I learned from essays I read by John Muir and viewing the Ansel Adams retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the summer of 1986 after hiking the ancient cliff dwellings of the four corner regions of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, and touring the museums and galleries researching local artwork, I developed a love of clay. In the fall of 1986, I was accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison and enrolled in the Art Department where I studied ceramics with Don Reitz, sculpture with Truman Lowe, and installation with Laurie Beth Clark. By the time I entered graduate school in 1990, I specialized in large scale installations using natural fiber, plants, trees and entire ecosystems to investigate themes that weave connections between art, people and natural environment and continue this form of artwork today.
As an artist I find nature to be my major inspiration. I never tire of sloshing in wetlands or navigating through branches in the woods, in search of experiences, inspiration and materials for art. Through my expression of the natural world, I have learned to further appreciate and enjoy the beauty and complexity of life on our planet. I am currently working on art that raises awareness about the current state of our environment, as a way to open dialogue that offers solutions to ecological problems.