Highlighting humanity’s role in destroying the environment
Forrest MacDonald hopes his artwork inspires people to reflect on how they can create change
Summer 2019 Edition
Three decades ago, Forrest MacDonald (j’89) was a new graduate from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He knew that he wanted to pursue photography for his career. After all, he was a photojournalism major and worked with the University Daily Kansan as a staff photographer and photo editor.
Initially a photojournalist, MacDonald worked with a local newspaper in Florida and flew to Jerusalem to take photographs during the Gulf War. Afterward, he realized he didn’t want to pursue that career route and turned to commercial photography. But his interest for that also faded, and he eventually found himself in the fine arts. MacDonald enjoyed the creative control and found a reason to do this type of work.
Now, he uses his photography and artistic abilities to express his thoughts, especially when it comes to the environment.
“My job, as an artist, is to hold the mirror up to society for good or bad,” he said.“The mirror I’m holding up is showing that we’re not using our precious resources to the best of our abilities.We’re not protecting the climate.”
MacDonald said he has always been interested in preserving the environment. Back in the ’80s, he found the idea of polluting nature and wasting resources disturbing. “I still feel that way, and now it’s morphed into other concerns like global warming and endangered species,” MacDonald said.
In his three latest environmental projects, MacDonald takes a closer look at how humanity plays a role in both the creation and destruction of the environment.
“Homage is a series of photographs about interdependence and the complexity of relationships between mutually dependent life forms, such as flora and fauna, humans and the environment, all the way down to single-cell bacteria.” – Homage artist statement
In this earlier mixed-media work, MacDonald photographed flowers, added other elements and painted over the backgrounds to demonstrate the above and below ground perspective — what is seen and unseen by the human eye.
In some pieces, MacDonald used roots and strings to symbolize the life forms’ interconnectedness while cardboard or glass suggests their separation. The whole series represents their dependence on each other and the complex nature of coexisting.
MacDonald said that each photo in Homage has a story, but it’s not important for the viewers to know every one. Instead, he wants people to understand the big picture: the fragile balance between two desirable beings and how it can cause the failure of these systems.
The last line of Homage’s artist statement drives the point home. “Growth and life — however coerced and deceptive they may be — struggle to survive despite degradation and corruption.”
Recipes for Disaster (2012)
“I constructed and photographed miniaturized landscapes of domestic environments exploding that reflect our insatiable appetite for sensationalized images of violence and destruction.” – Recipes for Disaster artist statement
The Mayans predicted that the world would end in 2012. With so much focus on chaos and destruction, MacDonald wanted to create huge cinematic pieces on what he thought the end of the world could look like.The end result was “deconstructed landscapes [that] display the fragile and transitory nature of existence.”
Not only does Recipes for Disaster show how terrifying and tumultuous destruction can be, the series makes the point of how humans view it as a grand spectacle of disaster, MacDonald said. Advancements in telecommunications has made it possible for people to watch the tragedies of others around the world right “in the comfort of [their] own homes.”
By using various photographic techniques and Photoshop, MacDonald’s goal was to create natural and manmade disasters that were frightening and fascinating, yet also artificial with a sense of realism.
“Although these created sets are from my imagination, the nightmare these photographs represent is not far from the images I see on the nightly news or in the movies,” MacDonald said in his artist statement.
Wired Up (2016)
“Seven figurative sculptural characters created using fragments taken from deconstructing broken obsolete technologies and various types of wiring.” – Wired Up artist statement
MacDonald’s most recent work stands in stark contrast to his previous two.
Wired Up is a series of seven distinct and quirky characters that seem to have animated personalities of their own. The irony is that MacDonald used broken and wasted pieces of technology, like laptops and phones, to give them new life. Each sculpture even has its own name because MacDonald believed it would give them a human element and “solidify traits they might have.”
“I took [items] apart and I kept seeing different components that would make sense to use as a robot,” MacDonald said. “I found inspiration in the fragments of those pieces.”
One of the messages of this series is that technology has become easier to replace. MacDonald said people are constantly updating their items and want — but don’t need — the latest models. Technology is quickly changing; new versions are created while the previous items are thrown out and already forgotten. Although that is the reality of the industry, MacDonald saw the opportunity to create and celebrate life rather than focus on waste and destruction.
What also made Wired Up unique was the viewer engagement that MacDonald received from it. The series was featured in an outdoor exhibition in Orlando called “Art in Odd Places.” He had to create art that could be displayed on a sidewalk but would not block it. He solved the problem by elevating the sculptures on PVC pipes.
To make it look more visually interesting, MacDonald printed off graphic illustrations to cover up the pipes, and provided markers and colored pencils. People passing by were encouraged to color in the illustrations and finish the work that MacDonald started. With Wired Up, the boundary between the artist and the viewer disappeared.
“Sometimes we only show work in the museum and galleries. You lose touch of the everyday person,” he said. “I was really happy how many people would actually stop and color or look and comment about the work.”
Currently, MacDonald works at the University of South Florida where he teaches subjects such as photography, design and drawing. He would eventually like to become a full-time artist.
MacDonald said that even though his older works were centered on despair, chaos and destruction, his newest work is more about hope.
Trying to solve huge issues like global warming is going to seem overwhelming and especially daunting at a time when science is being questioned, actions are delayed and corporations have too much control, MacDonald said. He suggests focusing on smaller, plausible actions that can be done.
“If you think about what you could do in your area to help with any environmental situation, any aspect of it — collectively, we could do better,” MacDonald said.
Just like the last 30 years of his life, MacDonald said he does not have the next 30 years figured out. However, he has enjoyed the freedom and ever-changing nature of creative art, and he hopes to continue it. MacDonald plans on revisiting some of his older environmental pieces and create new art based on them. As shown in his previous works, MacDonald said his style of art is always evolving and changing based on what he’s trying to do.
“Part of me can’t 100% know my artwork because I get bored with it,” he said.“I have to have this undiscoverable element to it for me to stay in it.”
Through his work, MacDonald said he wanted to a make a point about the delicate nature of the environment and how humanity competes for resources, yet also wastes them. MacDonald consciously tries to lessen his impact and encourages others to do the same.
“If people just woke up and started thinking about little changes they could make, that would have a huge impact,” MacDonald said. “I’m trying to start the ripple.”
– Angel Tran is a May 2019 graduate from Wichita, Kansas
To view more photos of MacDonald’s artwork, visit his website here.