Margot Anne Kelley is an educator, artist, and advocate—and Orion’s new Chair of the Board of Directors. An accomplished photographer and author, she taught literature and visual arts at the college level for more than two decades. Now, she is the Executive Director of the K2 Family Foundation. While visiting Great Barrington for Orion’s annual board meeting, Margot sat down with me to talk about how art helps us navigate scientific and historical data.
You joined the Orion board just a year ago. How did you come to know about Orion and what inspired your decision to get more involved?
I had been a reader for a long time, and I was already on the board at Unity College, which, as an educational institution, is aligned with the kinds of concerns that Orion has. There, I got to know Mitch Thomashow, who had been the president of Unity at the time, and who is also on Orion’s board. And I run a small family foundation, which is also closely aligned with Orion. Our focus is on encouraging art that elucidates scientific issues, increasing educational access, and supporting creative solutions to living more sustainably. So the things that I think about as a philanthropist and the things that Orion addresses echo each other. I was really excited to join the board and step up after (former chair) Alison Hawthorne Deming.
What are you most excited about for Orion‘s future as you begin your tenure as chair?
I’m excited to be part of a moment of taking bold steps, which is what Orion’s future is all about. I love that. The magazine right now, as it exists, is beautiful, and it’s serving a really important need, but everyone wants to do more. And any time an organization is at a point where it says, “We’re ready to kick it up a level”—that can be an exciting time.
You’ve been writing and making art and photographs for a long time. Are you working on any new projects?
I am. My projects tend to take a long time, so I try to also have a little side project as well, so I can feel like I’m actually finishing something every once in a while. I just finished a lyric essay about Cuba. By sheer chance, I was there the week that Raul Castro announced it was his last term in office. The messiness between the US and Cuba won’t end until there’s not a Castro as president, so whatever happens next, it’s going to be a fundamentally different relationship between the two countries. The other thing happening the week I was there was the first cholera outbreak since 1833. It got me thinking about all of the different ways nations interact with each other, species interact with each other, and people interact with other species. So I braided those reflections together in the essay.
The big project I’ve been working on concerns a meadow in Carlisle, Massachusetts, and I’m doing that one with the photographer Barbara Bosworth. She just finished up a project as the first artist-in-residence on the Park Service’s New England Trail, which goes through the Connecticut River Valley. We’ve been working in the meadow for a couple of years, and we invite scientists and naturalists to come to the meadow with us and share their particular fields of expertise. I write, Barbara makes large-format photographs, and we integrate those with material from our “guest-teachers.” We’ve had all sorts of experts come—someone who studies ants, a firefly expert, two archaeologists, a food forager, a lichen person, a mushroom person, and others. We even asked the man who co-owns the meadow to do a set of night-sky readings to get luminance data.
How are you incorporating all of those disciplines into your research?
I’m not entirely sure yet. We’re still in the discovery stage. But we are learning a lot that we know will work its way in somehow. For instance, from the Massachusetts Archive, we got maps of Carlisle and Concord from the 1700s and 1800s so that we can superposition them and see what that land looked like, and how people over time have used it differently. And thanks to the experts who visit with us, we’re finding out that there’s a lot of biodiversity there, more than I ever would have realized on my own. The day we went mushrooming we found thirty-six different kinds. And we set up two different pitfall traps for ants and found twenty-two species.
We also had two phenologists come out and compare data from Thoreau’s journals with more contemporary bird arrival dates. Scientists use this to look at climate change, but for us it’s also a question of “How do people use data?” And how do they use that to look at a place?
Many of your art projects are centered on place, especially as a point around which time flows—or perhaps vice versa. How does studying the intersection of place and time influence how you see your surroundings as an artist and as someone concerned with environmental issues?
That’s a great question. I wrote the Afterword for a book about a project at the Harvard Experimental Forest—which takes this really long view and thinks about how time impacts any piece of land. And thinking about the forest made me think about how I seed-save and grow heirloom vegetables, which I do because I want to maintain those seeds in production. That’s not something that directly makes its way into my art, but it is definitely tied to my environmental concerns.
E.O. Wilson said that people are just DNA’s way of making more DNA. That’s possibly a little cynical, but not untrue. And it’s not just human DNA, but other species as well: I pick seeds that used to grow in New England, and I try and make sure they keep growing. If I’m growing these adorable little white cucumbers, you could say I’m just being a foodie, but I’m growing them because they used to be grown in Booth Bay Harbor in Maine and they used to be an important part of the foodshed there. They’re delicious, but they don’t travel well, so they fell out of production. But I think it’s really important to maximize biodiversity where we can, to do our part to not let them go extinct. And it’s all the better that they happen to taste great!