An Exploration of the “More-Than-Human World”

Interdisciplinary artist Skye Gilkerson ’04 has traveled the world to refine and share her creative practice. The dynamic between nature and the human experience has largely shaped her work and journey as a maker.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

March 14, 2022 | 1:30 p.m.

Interdisciplinary artist Skye Gilkerson ’04 in her studio.

Interdisciplinary artist Skye Gilkerson ’04 in her studio.

Many people describe Midwest farmlands with words like “nothing” and “nowhere,” and interdisciplinary artist Skye Gilkerson ’04 doesn’t disagree. She grew up on a farm in South Dakota, and the landscape—vast and open—took hold of her. “The feeling of looking at the night sky and sensing your scale in proportion to it was a big part of my upbringing,” Gilkerson says as she describes her artistic influences. Her work tends to focus on recreating that experience using different mediums—like paper, ink, newspaper, abandoned architecture, and much, much more.

Gilkerson’s upbringing influenced both her sense of place in the universe and her desire to explore through making. She comes from a family of scientists and farmers who studied the natural world because their livelihoods depended on it. She took this interest and poured it into a creative practice—one she started really honing during her time pursuing her B.A. in Studio Art at Bethel. Professors of Art like Ken Steinbach, Jeff Wetzig, and Wayne Roosa inspired Gilkerson to search for the ideas behind art along with material exploration, craft, skill, and making. They tied together the conceptual and physical elements of art making, which helped Gilkerson develop her ability to generate and pursue fruitful ideas.

“Something cool about Bethel is that, as a liberal arts school, you're taking other courses at the same time as your major. I value that because I think that the most interesting art intersects with other disciplines, whether it's literature or history or science. So, I think it's great to be able to be exposed to and pursue these other disciplines while developing as an artist.”

— Skye Gilkerson ’04

One of those fruitful ideas has been a term coined by ecologist and philosopher David Abram: the “more-than-human world.” While the concept can be simplified to “nature,” which is definitely applicable to Gilkerson’s work, the term intentionally includes human beings. “It's beyond the human experience, but not separate from it,” Gilkerson says. “Being able to have time to really invest in making work in diverse environments has helped me realize that a big theme for my work is wanting to bridge that made-up gap between the human world and the more-than-human world.”

After she graduated from Bethel, Gilkerson attended Cranbrook Academy of Art just outside Detroit, Michigan, to pursue her MFA in Sculpture. After spending time at Bethel broadening her perspective and collecting ideas like Abram’s, her graduate program helped her focus on making. She could dedicate her time to bringing the skills she learned at Bethel to life through this concentrative development of her creative practice. She’s grateful she had both experiences, which have profoundly impacted her and her career.

Total Solar Eclipse (left) & Quadrantid Meteor Shower (right) | silverleaf on unfolded page of the New York Times

Total Solar Eclipse (left) & Quadrantid Meteor Shower (right) | silverleaf on unfolded page of the New York Times

Since graduating with her MFA in 2009, Gilkerson has largely spent her time exploring the more-than-human world through residencies across the globe and teaching up-and-coming artists through online courses, private art lessons, and advising individuals building their art portfolios. One residency right out of graduate school was at Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colorado. The three-month residency felt like a “bonus semester” according to Gilkerson, and here she started uncovering her connection to places and landscapes and connecting the interest to her childhood in South Dakota.

One project, which she showed at Bethel a few years ago, directly connected to her upbringing. She started by using an X-acto knife to cut out the punctuation in newspaper pages for a collage, and once she had finished, she realized she had a remnant of a newspaper with tiny, consistent perforations. She then took black ink and drowned out the original text with its own medium, leaving behind little windows that looked like the night sky she had observed in a vast South Dakota field. “I wanted to somehow create a correlation with this wider cosmic reality alongside these much more minuscule details of the human story,” Gilkerson says, referring to the news cycle.

Wounded in West Texas (left) & Something Was Missing (right) | unfolded page of New York Times with punctuation removed, ink

Wounded in West Texas (left) & Something Was Missing (right) | unfolded pages of New York Times with punctuation removed, ink

While living in Baltimore, Maryland, Gilkerson says she was inspired by “this really interesting phenomena of trees growing out of abandoned architecture.” She decided to wrap solar string lights around these trees. “Decorated this way, these trees recalled their carefully tended counterparts living in parks and by sidewalk cafes, highlighting the difference between maintained and monitored spaces, and those on the periphery,” Gilkerson explains. “It felt like this chance to be in awe of the fact that trees will grow out of the cracked mortar of an old building and the resilience of the more-than-human world.” Since the lights were solar, when the sun would go down, they’d flick on and glow in the ruins. 

No one in the neighborhood knew what she was working on, but as soon as the twinkle lights appeared, a few construction workers down the street said there was some kind of constellation right there against the buildings. A fellow artist who walked her dog down that alley every day suddenly one night noticed a glowing tree. “I loved that it was integrated into the neighborhood and felt like a secret gift for anyone paying attention,” Gilkerson says.

Dislocate | solar string lights on found tree

Dislocate | solar string lights on found tree

A more recent residency on a small island off the coast of Kenya greatly impacted Gilkerson’s work, setting in motion a leap from exploring grid-based work using newspapers and architecture to organic forms and natural systems. Since there wasn’t a lot of electricity in the small fishing village, people were dependent on functioning according to natural rhythms. They woke up and fell asleep according to the sunrise and sunset. Since the afternoons were so hot, they settled in for a siesta. They built their homes right up to the water, so when the tide was in, water came right up to their front doors, and she had to monitor the tide so she wouldn’t be stranded in another town when the beach disappeared. Gilkerson adapted to a lifestyle dependent on the sunrise and lunar cycle, just like the fishermen.

“It felt like this dream that I had been pursuing with my art of creating a connection between the human world and these cosmic cycles. And then I was in it,” Gilkerson says. “And it was just a magical month. It was incredible to experience this thing that I had been pursuing with my work for so long—like it was suddenly surrounding me.”
10au.03 at 10 seconds | suminagashi ink on paper

10au.03 at 10 seconds | suminagashi ink on paper

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