The Ephemeral Nature Of Nature

ARTIST FOCUS — Scotty Craighead

Story By Meg Daly
Photos By Scotty Craighead + Tristan Greszko
scottycraighead.com

When artist Scotty Craighead envisions a landscape, he doesn’t look out toward open vistas and towering mountains. Though he is inspired by the venerable tradition of Western landscape art, from Thomas Moran to the contemporary painter James Lavadour, his gaze falls to the terrain under our soles. By focusing on these oft-overlooked perspectives of the natural world, he contributes a unique investigation of the land itself.

“Not a lot of people focus on what’s under your feet,” says Craighead, who is particularly fascinated by edges where land meets water, like the crusty minerals on the lip of a Yellowstone hotpot—or the feathery blossoms of ice crystals decorating the edge of a stream. On a cold, bluebird day in Jackson Hole, while many people are swishing down mountainsides, Craighead can be found wading in the Snake River, taking photographs of ice.

He utilizes macrophotography—photographs of very small things displayed at larger-than-life size—to create images for his multimedia collage work. For his ongoing series, “Ice Chronicles,” he uses a special format camera, hip waders and kneepads to get down to the level of the ice and capture the prisms and shapes he finds. “I’ve seen the ice change as I’m out there,” he says. “There’s a constant ebb and flow. I go out the next day and the shapes and formations are different.”

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Intricate layers of ice crystals form a surreal, abstract terrain in this image by Scotty Craighead.

The ephemeral nature of nature becomes the subject of his work. Though the singular images he creates can be knockouts on their own, that’s not always where the artmaking stops. Back in his studio, he may decide to create a kind of collage. First he enlarges the image, prints it, and then “shatters” it—cuts it into abstract geometric shards. He then reassembles these shards into what he calls abstract landscapes, compositions that look as if they could be found in nature but are just slightly unusual.

Craighead prefers to work at a very large scale: 3 square feet or larger. He covers the finished collage with a clear acrylic paint, adding texture and gleam to the flat surface.

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The artist created this invented
landscape by collaging together geometric
fragments of his photographs of a Yellowstone
hotpot.

“By taking an aspect of nature and deconstructing it and then reconstructing it, there’s an element of surprise,” he says. Form out of chaos.

Inherent in the work is a tension between site specificity and universality. It’s hard to imagine capturing a more precise location than the tiny edge of an ice formation at a particular spot on the Snake River. Yet, when printed, the image exists out of context and is relatable to the viewer’s location and experience.

Craighead has been gazing at, cataloging and digesting the topography of the Jackson area since he was a child. Raised in Kelly, Wyoming, he spent his youth tromping around the mountains and rivers of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is now an avid climber and angler. His family has deep roots in the region: His grandfather, John, and grand-uncle, Frank, made important contributions to grizzly bear research in the 1960s. Scotty’s father, Derek, founded the wildlife research institute, Craighead Beringia South. (His mother, Sophie, is featured in “Natural Integrity” on page 46.) Being up close and personal with nature is as natural to him as breathing. He hopes his art will inspire viewers to take a more intimate look at nature, deepening their sense of connection to it.

“By examining nature up close, I think we can learn so much so fast,” he says. “Nature has the answers we as humans need right now. We can look to a plant’s structural system for cues on how to build an efficient system. In nature, there is always a harmony between give and take. It can teach us how to create responsible relationships in human life.”

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The four-panel piece, “Ramble,” is a serene meditation on melting snow and riverside ambling.

At 28, Craighead is at the beginning of his career. He has shown his work locally at Teton Artlab, the Jackson Hole Land Trust and Daly Projects, and he has an upcoming exhibit at the Center for the Arts in December as well as a December group show at Visions West in Denver.

For the Center for the Arts exhibition he has decided to show stand-alone images from “Ice Chronicles” rather than collage work. The images he has captured are surreal and unusual enough to warrant close contemplation on their own. He says searching for compelling ice shapes and forms is like hunting for rare, temporary gems. He wants to draw viewers into that heightened experience.

“The state of mind I get from going out and photographing the ice is like a meditative practice. What I try to do is bring people into that.”

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Craighead employs hip waders and knee pads to capture striking, otherworldly images of ice.