By Jillian Risberg
“The woods have felt like home to me for as long as I can remember,” says artist Allison Tyler. “Being among the trees and animals made me feel I was surrounded by friends, and I was safe, so I spent as much time there as I could.”
The ephemeral quality of life fascinates Tyler, and how her creations quickly and intentionally cease to exist.
“I like knowing what I do might never be seen by another person,” she says, adding that her process is simple: make something; possibly video the process; snap a photo; then walk away to let it return to the Earth.
“It’s fun to think about someone randomly finding one of my sculptures while hiking and stopping to take another look,” the artist says. “I intentionally build them to blend into the landscape, almost as if Mother Nature made them herself, so they can be hard to notice.”
After moving to Morristown in 2018 the first park she explored was Jockey Hollow and fell in love with the place.
“There’s so much history there, so much beauty,” says Tyler. “I have spent countless hours hiking and creating on that land both because it’s what I do wherever I wander, but also as a way to connect to my new town and leave surprises for my neighbors.”
Art can connect people in unexpected ways. In the early days of the pandemic, she met a woman who had walked off course in the park and gotten lost.
With her car at Lewis Morris, it was too far to walk. Tyler offered to drive her before any of us knew about proper COVID protocol. She reluctantly agreed and sat in the back seat of the car.
They talked about how the hospital system (the artist’s full-time job at Atlantic Health) needed supplies that were becoming impossible to find.
The woman thanked Tyler for the ride, and the two exchanged contact information in the hopes of someday hiking together.
“Shortly thereafter a donation of 4,000 surgical masks from the organization she was affiliated with arrived at Morristown Medical Center,” the artist emotionally recalls it was such a gorgeous and generous thing for her to do. “Our encounter only happened because I had gone to the woods to play with sticks.”
She’s always been drawn to create in nature.
“I’d build all sorts of things using flowers, berries, leaves, bones, bug carcasses, moss, egg shells, rocks, sticks, owl pellets — anything I could find,” Tyler says.
She has dabbled in digital art, food styling, weaving, assemblage, cake decorating, collage, animation and stained-glass mosaics. More recently; graphic design, drawing and oil painting.
“I flit from medium to medium based on what’s calling my attention, though my passion for environmental art has been a constant,” says the artist.
She’s made a conscious choice to have as close to a zero environmental impact in the process.
“I do not dig up any living plants; do not harvest any living thing; do not destroy anything or pollute in any way to make my land art; and I do not bring anything to use as tools other than the occasional little saw blade on my Leatherman and once, a big hole punch,” she says. “I use only what the trees/plants/animals have naturally discarded and only if I find them at the location where I decide to build,”
Materials can be anything — fallen leaves, decaying trees, seed pods, twigs, fungi to feathers to recently, a deer skull.
“The past few years I’ve made hundreds of two particular structures I call ‘ladders and stitches’ using twigs and sticks,” says the artist. “People often comment ‘the fairies’ must love climbing my ‘ladders’ and it makes me laugh because that was pretty much my mindset when I started doing this decades ago.”
Occasionally, she leaves one of her painted or stained glass mosaic stones near the structure as a keepsake for whoever finds it.
And Tyler likes to revisit locations where she’s built; sometimes there are remnants of a few sticks or colored leaves.
“Most often nothing remains and that’s how I like it,” she says. “Conservation and a deep respect of Mother Nature — the OG artist — are very important to me.”
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but often it’s simply of the moment, based on what the artist sees while she’s hiking… an interesting fork in a tree’s structure, a downed log with a cool gash, the exoskeleton of some critter, the way the sunlight is shining on a clearing, the sound of the breeze and the way it moves tall grasses, or a collection of fallen leaves or Tulip Poplar blossoms.
“My attention will be pulled towards something and the next thing I know I’m crouched down, hands dirty, making a structure,” says Tyler.
The artist is often asked if she uses glue or nails, but says only her hands, plus hefty doses of patience, balance and luck.
“There have been times I’ve spent a long while building something I think is coming along great and it falls apart before I can finish it,” Tyler says. “Often I rebuild until I get it right, but sometimes it doesn’t want to be built and I accept that. I embrace the precarious nature of what I’ve chosen to do.”
She was creating environmental art for herself long before she was influenced or realized anyone else did it; and the very nature of her structures pay homage to the great originators of the land art movement from the 1960s and her contemporaries: including Agnes Denes, Michelle Stuart, Andy Goldsworthy, Nils Udo, Nancy Holt, Wolfgang Buntrock and Robert Smithson.
“I also adore and take inspiration from Fernando Botero’s luscious figures, Otto Dix’s grotesques, Frida Kahlo’s magic and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s fantastical compilation portraits,” Tyler says.
The artist’s breathtaking connection to nature is raw.
“I love everything about creating environmental art, but have never endeavored to get paid for doing it,” says Tyler. “I do it for the love of it, and because I can’t not do it.”