Raw explores the tranquil transformation that occurs when inner emotional landscapes are given space and allowed to exist, without constriction. It connects what happens within with our surrounding landscapes: how these physical atmospheres influence our mental states and wellbeing. In this way, Raw underlines the interconnection between humans and environment as essential to our wellbeing, and how this acknowledgment is essential in rekindling the relationship we have with nature, particularly urgent in the current climate scenario.
This “topography of the interior” emerged from the observation of water ripples by the seashore, during a calm, contemplative regular practice. Each painting symbolizes a specific emotional state and the inevitable evolving quality of said emotion in our bodies and minds, in a similar way to the impermanence of water phenomena.
The water observations in my work result from a long interest in the factors that define the quality of the attraction that nature has upon us, from the dual perspective of our wellbeing and its protection. Coming from an urban design background, some of my previous work was the study of the intangible forces that define our perception of public spaces meditating nature and urban areas. Our sensory experiences are highly complex and correlate with natural attributes, landscape integration and sensible design practices. By deepening my understanding of these mechanisms, I aimed to contribute to a framework for the design of these vulnerable coastal areas that preserves its poetic attributes and inherently integrates nature’s preservation and regeneration towards the improvement of Portuguese seashores.
I was particularly interested in something that has been more studied in architecture, related to atmospheres; as well as bringing front a gender-based perspective – a difference I am aware daily, as soon as I step into the street. Integrating emotions and perception was a natural step forward in my work. The design of atmospheres anchored in empathy, preconceiving emotional reactions, sensible landscape integration and by addressing all our senses simultaneously is part of the architectural practice, namely by Zumthor and Pallasmaa. These principles should be further extended to the public space realm - something that seldom happens, and by which the design and the life of our cities and territories would be enriched. Other than its functional, aesthetical and symbolic aspects, the perception of space is deeply rooted in our senses. This view of the body as transcending the rational and experiencing space in a multi-sensorial way is central to Pallasmaa’s work (2005, 2014, 2015), who noted that the study of these qualities, together with atmospheres, hasn’t been much analysed in architecture nor planning. On the neuroscience arena, Damásio (2017) considers that the field of affection, sentiments and emotions is understudied in how they motivate human’s cultural activity, being the unidentified presence on cultural discussion. This author goes further in considering that feelings and emotions mobilise the intellect, a process in which also intervenes creativity, our memory, philosophical enquiry and political concerns.
How our bodies and senses perceive space in terms of intimacy and scale, proximity and warmth have been explored by Gehl (2011), as well as questions about the pleasantness of places, related to security, weather, aesthetic quality and a sense of place. The sense of place within our perception of the urban space as highly subjective was analysed by Bailly (1979); while Sennett (1994) noted the sensorial privation of cities, explaining its historical perspective. And recent studies relate the subjective relationship we establish with the environment by linking it with neuroscience data (Goldhagen, 2017; Eberhard, 2009). The relationship between humans and the environment has been studied throughout the centuries: indigenous knowledge informs us that the current events related to climate change signal a need to have the bond between people and nature restored - a time for kinship (Whyte, 2021).
Our capacity to learn from ancient practices and observation methods, considered outside of the western science (but with which they share so much), will be fundamental to successfully apply the necessary measures in the face of the challenges we are currently dealing with. Fortunately, some western academic circles are valuing and integrating indigenous knowledge in their own curriculum, and the dissemination of knowledge regarding both indigenous and traditional innovation practices on living in symbiosis with nature is gaining traction, such as explored by Watson (2019).
Regarding our senses beyond sight, research indicates the benefit of being in nature for human’s wellbeing (Miyazaki et al, 2009) – namely in cognitive functioning (Sahni and Kumar, 2020). Morse, Gladkikh, Hackenburg and Gould (2020) studied nature’s beneficial effect on the coping ability of Vermont residents during the Covid-19 crisis, with the results suggesting a large potential of nature in helping people with resilience and recovery from challenges. Qualities of nature have been further explored outside the typical outdoors natural environment, although connecting with it through mindfulness-based practices. One example of this is by integrating the water element, with positive indicators regarding the improvement of the participants’ wellbeing (Andrahennadi, 2021).
Water areas benefits for our health have been subject to studies (Depledge 2012, 2014), with further insights being carried on by the EU program BlueHealth 2020. Researches linking public spaces rich in sensory qualities with positive health outcomes are few, much less from perspectives that acknowledge the diversity of how people experience space and natural environments - namely black, indigenous, people of colour, transgender and non-binary people, gender-expansive, women and people with disabilities.
Several variables determinate the atmosphere of a place, and I find these to be often more easily approach indirectly, through the metaphorical language of poetry and abstract art, which may evoke the sensory aspects that strongly determinate our perception of place: feelings, sound and movement of waves, seaweed and maritime olfactory composition, etc. This may present a sensory geographical map, highlighting nature’s features while calling for our simple enjoyment of it and a sensible, less-is-more design approach.
I conducted this work from a physical place where, through its public space, there is a somewhat harmonious dialogue between nature’s wilderness and urban settlement. This is mostly due to the peripheral condition of the small town where I’m living, and to limitations to its land development due to legislation regarding natural areas - not for the quality of its territorial planning and urban design per se. These conditions have allowed the relative preservation of landscape sceneries, traditional productive activities such as salt, and natural habitats.
Vila Real de Santo António has the special feature of having water surrounding three of its sides: on East, the Guadiana river, a natural border to Spain; up North, the Natural Reserve of Castro Marim Marshlands; and to its Southwest, the Vila Real de Santo António Dunes National Forest, after which the town beaches are located. Experiencing immersion in nature and observing water features is therefore on a walking distance from my studio – qualities that, together with the slow pace of this Southern town, make it even more accessible in daily life. This makes the contemplation of water patterns part of a continuum of scenic stimuli that call for all the different senses, and that I experience daily while processing it in and out of my professional practice. In some ways, I made mine the local atmospheres and natural features of the place where I’m living. And some of this places’ peripheral condition matches my own: as a woman in public space, as a woman artist outside the established productive cultural centralities - physically, symbolically, structurally. As much as it is a contemplative practice, my work is a resistance to the same structures that produce my context; I came to appreciate the woven texture between the two.
Having an ingrained practice of relating my work to the place where it’s developed, even an abstract conceptualisation such as Raw derives from this relationship between individual and location. In this case, the place is both the physical landscape of peripheral pristine beaches, where I made my walks and they gained significance, in a large part, because of the same qualities of this environment. To which it adds the feeling of being so well received in this land, in an emotional sense, contributed equally to the series developmental success – reasons more than enough to be grateful to this land, to its people.
I wanted Raw to represent the changing nature of inner emotional landscapes, as they play such a significant role in our wellbeing. Mental health remains a social taboo in Western society, and I felt compelled to approach the lack of emotional vocabulary our society has and the challenges we have in dealing with emotionally charged issues, with the often denial of difficult yet normal emotions such as grief, anger, fear, disgust.
Aware of the complexity of our inner emotional landscapes and of society’s even more complex dealings with those, I aimed to reflect on the fluid nature of the emotional phenomena, while designing a simple model of relating this to the natural environment. Thus, Raw mirrors the human experience of emotions, and how the potential handling of those in a calm, natural environment can contribute to our ability to skilfully address said emotions. Each painting represents then a constantly transforming inner emotional landscape, as seen reflected in nature’s water surfaces.
The connection of these inner phenomena with the natural environment should be understood not exclusively as an individual inner work, but as part of a collective, wider socio-political context, of public health policies and territorial planning. Granting people the proximity and access to quality public and natural spaces is an essential move towards human health, both physical and psychological; in an even wider scope, these same natural spaces and policies are to be integrated into the planning towards dealing with climate change. The separation line between individual and physical environment is, such as the Cartesian divide between mind and body, a limiting belief if we are to overcome the immense challenges we are dealing with on a global scale.
Form and Symbolism
The simple compositions of Raw relate to the direct observation of water ripples, but also to the symbolism of circles, seemingly common across cultures and centuries and used as a structural form within the arts & architecture. Geometer Fletcher (2004) writes that circles are associated with the concepts of wholeness, oneness, completeness and the origins of beginnings; noting,
The circle's circumference is closed and continuous and as such conveys continuous cycles of endings and beginnings. Circles may signify cycles of time such as: phases of the sun and moon; cycles of light and dark; and perpetual rhythms of sleeping and waking, birth and death, growth and decay, systole and diastole, and inhalation and exhalation. In its totality, the circle suggests the timeless whole. The moving point along the circle conveys the passage of time.
In contrast to the square, whose perimeter and area can be measured in finite whole numbers, the circle may symbolize heavenly, transfinite or transcendental realms.
The circle expresses justice and democracy, since all of its points are equally distant from the center. A communal form, it imparts no sense of social hierarchy. The circle may symbolize the collective.
Some Christian churches, tribal ritual spaces, and the instinctive way in which children gather to play—all take the form of the circle, drawing upon its magical and protective qualities and its sense of center and place.”
As representation of wholeness, for the purpose of this work, I took this as our connection to nature; a visual representation to meditate upon. In line with this idea, I was drawn to the intersection between circles (vesica piscis), as symbolizing the overlap of opposites: bringing together what was apart, as in reconciliation. A symbolic restoration of the fragmentation between humans and (our) nature through form, structure and tension. My aim is then to invite viewers to these inner and outer relationship processes; symbolising both the imperfect nature of our own inner processes and the contemporary reality of our separateness from nature. We are not finished, but a work in progress. There’s both a quality in the longing for improvement, and in the acknowledgment of our vast limitations. These seem to be good departure points towards addressing the urgency of our inner, and outer, issues that Raw entails.
I’m grateful to the Mind & Life Institute for the grant to attend the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute in June 2021. This SRI, under the title “The Mind, the Human-Earth Connection and the Climate Crisis” was pivotal for my research on indigenous knowledge, contemplative practices and the sciences of the mind in the face of our current environmental challenges, which conform a significant part of the background of this series.
I extend my gratitude to Rodrigo Coelho and José Miguel Rodrigues, from CEAU - Center for Studies in Architecture and Urbanism from the Architecture School of the University of Porto, who kindly reviewed and helped me improve a first (2018), and then a second (2019) draft of the ideas gathered in this text related to public spaces, in what was by then a Post Doctoral grant proposal on phenomenology and public space.
Andrahennadi, K. (2021). Advanced Mindfulness-Based Practices (AMBP) Programme: A Novel Eco-Contemplative Framework in Support of the Climate Crisis with the Methods of Mindfu