Posted September 14th, 2022 by Russ White
In photos, drawings, and installations, Ojala crops in tight on the mud and the muck of our natural world – finding beauty we ignore at our own peril
This is the first in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2020 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2020 cohort includes Eric J. García, Seitu Ken Jones, Catherine Meier, Teo Nguyen, Meg Ojala, and Maria Cristina ("Tina") Tavera.
Photo by Rik Sferra
Early last year, in Côte-Nord, Quebec, a river became a person. Legally speaking, that is: in a bid to stave off further development on the Magpie River, the indigenous Innu band of Ekuanitshit and the local county municipality together granted the river legal personhood, complete with a list of rights. If you have been paying attention to activists and water protectors here in Minnesota over the past few years, it will be a familiar argument: if a corporation can be a person, why can’t a river?
The legal ramifications of that question are interesting to consider; it’s a hell of a chess move. But taken further, to consider what it means for an ecosystem to have agency – intellectually, emotionally, metaphorically – you might find yourself sinking even deeper. And there you will find Meg Ojala and her camera. Ojala’s practice takes her into these natural spaces – rivers, bogs, and fens – to report back glimpses of their personality.
Typically, landscape painting and photography takes the long view, literally grounding itself with the horizon line, providing perspective with the curving edge of the Earth. But Ojala ignores this urge, instead taking photos that upend our orientation. Her images are tightly cropped, face to face with the woods and the water, no escape in sight. Trees emerge at odd angles, criss-crossing each other into an impossible plaid of branches and their reflections. Entire compositions are flipped, as though we are either falling headfirst into the waters or about to emerge from beneath them. She leaves our instruments spinning, trying to read up from down.
From the series River Says.
“I wanted to give a sense of what the river sees or what the river might experience,” she explains. Her goal is not so much to document but to embody. Less of a landscape and more of a portrait. “What does the river know? What will the river remember?”
Ojala’s installations compound the experience, as viewers interact with these large-scale images not in a tidy grid on the wall but scattered throughout the gallery. Large prints are mounted on the floor, from the ceiling, hanging at angles, and curved in a corner. To view the work is to interact with it bodily; you find yourself looking all around you, similar to how you might move through an actual wilderness, watching your step one second and looking up to the treetops the next.
And true to that wilderness, not everything is picturesque. Ojala embraces a muted palette of browns and greens, of mud and muck. Chunks of driftwood sit on a silty shoreline on the right half of one composition, cut nearly down the middle by a coiled stripe of decaying plants washed up on the beach. It’s not exactly what you’d call “pretty.” But there is beauty to be found if you spend time with the picture. In an intricate mosaic of forms and tones, the character of the water’s surface takes shape in the reflections of pale white sky shot through with veins of chocolate-green. This is not a postcard; this is a river being a river.
In another picture, she offers us a muddy scene of Renaissance proportions: light dances on the surface of this sodden, soggy landscape in a thousand different spots. Near the top of the frame, haloed in yellow sunlight, a piece of junked hardware juts out of the mire, one of the only man-made objects discernible in her work. Is it a trailer hitch of some sort? An old animal trap? Hard to say. But taken with the branches and roots, this lost garbage makes you wonder if this isn’t some wretched battlefield slowly swallowing its dead.
From the series River Says.
This particular river is the Cannon, a tributary of the Mississippi that runs near Ojala’s home in Dundas, Minnesota, where she has lived for almost forty years. But it could be nearly any river, really. There are no didactics on the wall or explanatory paragraphs. All that the artist provides to the gallery-goer, aside from these bold, stern vistas, is a poem entitled “River Says.” It is a long, first-person screed delivered with a dispassionate anger. “I don’t feel you. I am / not lonely.” “I do / take lives. / I don’t mean anything by it. And I don’t obsess.”
The poem is Ojala’s response to the countless ways in which we use these ecosystems for our own purposes – from dumping trash (“I wrap your sopping mattresses around cottonwood trees”) to ready-made serenity (“I make sound not to thrill you or calm you”). “And heaven knows,” the river continues, “I am not female!”
The artist has given the river a voice, a persona ironically, with which to scold our personifications of it. Another of Ojala’s bodies of work centers around bogs, and she is currently working to tease out the text for that personality as well. “I think it will be much more tender.”
“I really want the bog and the river to have agency,” she says. “It’s maybe really arrogant of me to suggest that I can speak in the voice of the river or the bog, but if I can elicit empathy from a viewer, that’s really important.” Her reservations have made finding the bog’s voice a little slower, but like any good art teacher will tell you (Ojala taught at St. Olaf College for 35 years): just go for it. “I do sometimes feel funny about that, but I also think I need to kind of let it rip.”
In Dundas, not far from St. Olaf, Ojala lives and works out of an old general store originally built in 1866. You can still see the hand-written inventories jotted down in pencil on the wooden jamb at the back door, a delicate bit of historical flavor that could have been sanded away or painted over at any point over the years. But not on Ojala’s watch. She has an interest in deep history and small details – it is part of what has drawn her attention to the bog, where waterlogged sphagnum moss creates peat at a glacial pace. (Fitting, since the bogs of northern Minnesota first grew out of glacial melt.)
“Things happen very, very slowly in a bog,” she says with relish.
In her studio, large pictures from these various locales intermingle – moments from the river and the bog are tacked on the walls and laid out on top of her flatfile, very clean and orderly in spite of their subjects. Alongside the Cannon River’s muddy vistas and crooked trees are large format close-ups of pitcher plants or yellowing sedge half-trapped in ice. The bog’s sphagnum moss expands out into little forests of purple, green, and golden spikes, half in and out of focus. These are tender portraits of what appears to be alien life.
Top: Pitcher Plants in Mary’s Bog near Otter Lake, north of Grand Rapids, May 2017. Bottom: Sedges in Ice on Crane Lake north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, March 2017.
It’s not just photos, though: mixed in are drawings as well. On her worktable, tupperwares of homemade inks take their own time stewing – some black walnuts in one, hibiscus in another, and some of the mossy peat itself in a yogurt container. With these, Ojala creates abstracted compositions of splatters, stains, and scrapes, monochromatic records of her experiments with these physical materials.
“They’re my imagined peatlands, really,” she says of the drawings. “The bogs are so vast in certain places – thousands of acres. It’s unknowable. You can walk in a little ways, a mile maybe, but you can’t fathom it all at once.”
The drawings complicate this body of work – leaving behind any hints of the documentarian and leaning hard into more abstraction than is possible with merely a shallow depth of field. There is a simplicity to them, similar to Ojala’s poetry, that suggest they might even be the bog’s own crude attempt at self-portraiture.
And then I notice them, tacked up on her studio wall in between all the photos and drawings: two little postcards of Joan Mitchell paintings.
A view of the artist's studio. Photo by the author.
It’s kind of hilarious to see Mitchell’s monumental works essentially reduced to thumbnails, but even from across the room their energy and personality are obvious. They are little maelstroms, a thicket of expressionistic brushstrokes exploding out from the center of the canvas. And through that lens, Ojala’s photos and drawings come further into focus. Her wispy strands of sedge grass trapped swirling in the ice suddenly look familiar, zoomed-in moments of Mitchell’s own intensity, not created in a studio but discovered in a wetland.
And the connection is more than surface deep. In a letter from 1958, Mitchell writes, “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves with me.”
What it leaves with Ojala – and, in turn, with her audience – is a quiet menace, a complicated beauty, and a warning of both nature’s power and humankind’s poisoning influence. Her previous bodies of work include Catastrophes, featuring flooded lands and broken buildings, and The Plant, which documents a concrete form factory – another realm of mud and muck – owned by her brother. In all of these pictures, there is a sense of bleak emptiness or, at least, humanlessness.
And that may be something which the bogs and rivers, if they were to be personified, might look forward to. Lord knows we’re not making things easy on them. This year, at the invitation of scientists from USDA Forest Service's Northern Research Station, Ojala visited and photographed the Marcell Experimental Forest in northern Minnesota. There, in a project dubbed SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments) that is funded by the Department of Energy and run by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in collaboration with MEF, sections of the bogs are cordoned off in chambers, and the thermostats are turned up on both heat and carbon dioxide to see what will happen. The results are, as you might guess, not good. Peat bogs are one of the greatest carbon sinks on the planet, a resourceful ally if ever there was one in the effort to halt our climate crisis, and even they are struggling with what is to come. “The poor bog,” Ojala sighs, thinking ahead to her writing project. “I want to see what the bog has to say about this.”
Near the end of our conversation, Ojala sums it up nicely. “A lot of landscape photography is an elegy. It’s what’s there, but it’s changing so quickly.”
The great lesson that she has taken from the bog is the value of slowing down, but it’s tough to embrace that approach when so many of our crises seem to be speeding up. There are mysteries to ponder over the long haul but also questions that need urgent answers, not the least of which is what role these places, these potential persons, can play in our solutions. The developments being staved off at the Magpie River, for instance, are hydroelectric dams. Surely such projects would disrupt habitats and ecosystems, but perhaps they could also help supply relatively green energy to our voracious appetites. It's about balance, but when it comes to consumption, we just can't seem to help ourselves. For all the agency we give to these systems, manmade or otherwise, the biggest question is whether we will ever find some of our own.
Meanwhile, the river keeps flowing. The sphagnum moss continues its slow, productive decay. The artists make art, the poets craft poems, the researchers run their experiments, and the activists raise hell. As a postscript to “River Says,” Ojala quotes Louise Bourgeois, another exceptional artist from an earlier generation: “To unravel a torment, you must begin somewhere.” ◼︎
My Patterned Peatland, ink on paper.
Banner image from the series River Says. All images are courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
Editor's note: Corrections have been made since publishing for accuracy around how long Ojala has lived in Dundas and the organizations involved in the Marcell Experimental Forest.