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"Folding Into Nature"

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Art with a Heart for the Planet

Alisa Looney Uses Enamel to tell Stories About the Environment

The palette of an enamel artist includes more than colorful paints. Enamel is a medium grounded by the earth, made of compounds like flint, sand, soda or potash. For Alisa Looney, materials such as steel and mica keep her further rooted and inspired to tell the story of caring for the planet.

Alisa fell in love with metal arts as a silversmith in her early years, received a BFA in Design, and began welding in 1998.  Enamel, a process by which powdered glass is fused to a metal substrate at high heat, was a way to express the colors and textures of the natural world. The process itself begins with raw materials and requires patience and layering. As her work evolved, so did her observations about the changing climate and a recognition that her work could have a higher purpose to tell the story of the planet. Enamel is an especially adaptable storytelling medium. The softness of the fusing lead-free vitreous glass flows atop steel masks and sculptures in a way similar to the way water flows over dense rock of the Deschutes River.

Enamel also allows Looney to merge sculptural design with narrative, and her most recent work explores the human connection to nature and to each other. “I am interested in how we as humans are coping with the environmental and cultural challenges we are facing,” she says. “I am particularly interested in wild free-flowing rivers, the source of all life, and planting trees that provide clean air to breathe.” Her explorations of art, self, and environment led her to create the work “Healing Tree,” inspired by TreeSisters, a UK-based social change and reforestation charity with a mission to plant millions of trees in the tropics to absorb carbon and combat climate change. To date, they have planted more than 22 million trees.  Alisa’s other sculptures each hold meaning, including human empowerment and those featuring movement in reference to Alisa’s background as a dancer. She created an ongoing Memory and Gratitude Series to honor life experience through commissioned sculpture.

Since 2018, Alisa and her husband, woodblock artist Wade Womack, have made their home south of Sunriver. Their studio called River Art Adventures is a place where they have offered workshops and inspiration to other artists. Today, her work can be found locally at Red Chair Gallery in Bend, and Hood Avenue Art in Sisters, plus in both private and public collections, such as at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington.

Three questions for Alisa Looney

How do you use your art to tell stories?

“I shape and fabricate metal into open, flowing form, portraying movement and the expression of life. Beginning with sketches, the 3D form is designed while working with heavy paper, creating a model and adjusting the pattern until I find the right balance. Then it is plasma-cut from steel, ground, hammered into shape, and welded into the final form. I clean and prepare the surface for layers of kiln-fired glass, spraying, drawing, and painting with fine detail, which adds an illustrated story to the sculptural form, creating depth and complexity.  

I create a wide array of work, ranging from 6 to 8 feet tall powder-coated public sculptures to tabletop enameled sculptures, wall works, and small pieces of jewelry. I tell stories of what it means to be human, how we connect with and care for this earth and all living beings.

I also enjoy working with clients to tell the life story of a loved one, and to acknowledge the contributions that they have made.”

What are the current influences on your work today?

“In the process of making, I seek a wild freedom with purpose.  I want to remember the unseen mycelium, the seeds, the pollinators, the water, the birds, the salmon. I strive to give back to earth and be a good steward, to give voice to the earth in the form of images leading to restoration. Climate change is my number one concern. I am interested in ecological and social healing and I am committed to partnering with organizations who work toward these goals.

I spend time outside every day I can, observing, drawing, painting, or capturing photos of life and transformation through the seasons. I look for movement and the connection between things growing and changing. I especially find wonder in signs of new life pushing through obstacles, like a baby ponderosa coming up through a rocky lava bed, or signs of life composting, a twisting root slipping into the river, with water swirling, re-absorbing it. I am very interested in capturing movement, a moment in time.

I also engage in an expressive art practice each week with two dancers on zoom. We each embody a concept through movement and drawing. This creates a wealth of material to work with. I often portray the body as deeply immersed in nature, as part of the ecosystem. A consistent theme is the human body in relation to trees, roots, and the mycelium network that all life depends on.”

What does the intersection between art and environment mean to you?

“I have experienced a deep connection to nature from an early age, growing up on the Spokane River, in Northern Idaho. The living world has been a source of both material and subject matter in my art for as long as I can remember, creating a sense of calm strength.

The earth needs us now, and I want to do my part. Climate change is moving quickly. The more I study the science, the more urgent it becomes to do everything I can to help mitigate the situation. As an artist, I feel it is my responsibility to communicate messages that inspire care for our planet, to support the planting of trees, and protection of our rivers.

In addition to making studio work and commissions, my husband and I both enjoy teaching students to draw outdoors under our grove of Ponderosa Pines and observe reflections in the water. This allows them to connect to nature on a deeper level, and we hope it might also inspire their own vision of protection and care for the earth.”

  • "Folding Into Nature"
  • "Bird Woman"
  • "Body Memory"
  • "Barefoot"
  • "Healing Tree"
  • Artist Alisa Looney