Lauren Redniss (MFA 2000 Illustration as Visual Essay) is an artist and author whose new book, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West, due out next week, tells the human stories around a proposed copper mine on sacred Apache territory in southeastern Arizona. A former Guggenheim fellow and American Museum of Natural History artist in residence, 2016 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, Pulitzer Prize nominee, PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award winner and Parsons School of Design faculty member, Redniss is known for her illustrated works of visual nonfiction, which tackle historical themes and pressing issues in the contemporary world.
Oak Flat is the latest in a string of high-profile projects for Redniss. Her 2010 book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, a National Book Award finalist, was adapted into a movie directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and starring Rosamund Pike; it opened in the UK in March and is now available on Amazon Prime. And the New York City Ballet hired her to create the latest installment of its interdisciplinary Art Series, in which visual artists create site-specific works for the company’s Lincoln Center’s home; Redniss′ 100-plus portraits of behind-the-scenes NYCB workers were on view in February.
Earlier this year, Redniss and I spoke about her new book, the concept of success and her personal connection to the NYCB project.
How did you get started working on Oak Flat?
I read an op-ed in The New York Times that outlined the situation around the development of a copper mine on land considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache, and I decided to look further into it. Native issues are some of the most overlooked and underreported in the U.S. Something like 90 percent of what’s taught about Native people in our schools covers a timeline that ends before the 20th century even begins. Recently, the country has been grappling with the legacy of slavery and white supremacy. The story of the indigenous people of this continent, and the injustices of settler–colonialism, has been—not entirely, but largely—absent from this conversation. It’s an ongoing story. Many of the injustices of the past continue to be perpetrated against Native communities today. Oak Flat tells one such story.
What surprised you during your research?
It’s hard to name just one or two things. Reporting always yields surprises.
In addition to the Apache family that I profile in the book, I spent time with three generations of a mining family who live in Superior, Arizona, the small town where the proposed mine would be located. One afternoon, I stepped into the town’s one little café on Main Street, where two older residents were having coffee. They noticed me, because they know everyone in Superior, so an out-of-towner stuck out. They invited me to sit with them and talk. And in five minutes I was hearing all these incredible stories about their family and about Superior. The Gorham family arrived in Superior in 1918; Patrick Gorham was the town’s first sheriff. This was what they called “the rip-roaring days”—a colorful and violent time when Superior was a kind of frontier town without much of anything that resembled a real government. Over the course of the three or four years I was reporting the book, I would go to Superior to see the Gorhams. We’d eat empanadas, talk, look at family photos and papers. They’d tell me stories of working in the mines, marriages, births, deaths, vigilante justice, recipes. ...
I learned a lot about the choices that are pressed on a town like Superior. The people who make decisions that affect these communities—the executives of multinational corporations—are totally removed, geographically and emotionally, from the places where the mining occurs. But of course they’re the ones who will reap the massive economic rewards. That’s not exactly a surprise, but it still points to dysfunction in the system and shows how environmental injustices are perpetuated.
Presenting human stories from multiple sides and leaving it up to the reader to take a message from it seems to be a commonality among your books.
I’m interested in complicated situations. I’m looking at social and political issues, but in an oblique way, and through a human lens. To connect broader questions to real people and real lives in a way that’s not didactic or moralistic.
I want to tell stories where there is nuance and tension. That gray zone feels truer to me, and I hope that it’s a better reflection of reality. I think there are systemic problems on the level of governments and institutions and corporations that are worthy of criticism; I’m less interested in casting blame on individuals.
One of the reasons I was interested in looking at copper itself is because it’s not a fossil fuel. It’s not something that’s as easily villainized. Copper is an important component of clean energy—we need copper for solar and wind power, for instance. We need it for our smartphones, high-speed Internet, cars, planes, subways. It’s been called “the metal of the information age.” I wanted the book to ask us to grapple a little more deeply with our own choices. In ways big and small, we’re all linked to communities we may never think about—to places where the minerals and other natural resources we rely on in our everyday lives are pulled out of the ground.
Pivoting to your NYCB project—are you or were you ever a dancer? The collaboration seems like a natural match, since your work has such graceful and expressive lines.
My mom put me in movement classes when I was very small, and I studied ballet for most of my life. My mom is now a ballroom dancer. My approach to drawing and my sense of anatomy are all very much linked to my history of considering the body in space.
The discipline that dance requires has also been important to me. The visual arts don’t really have a formal structure the same way that ballet does—the daily class, the rituals. Painters don’t systematically get together at 10:00am in a room and go through a set of daily exercises, say. So I’ve tried to adapt and translate some of that discipline into my own visual art practice.
What does your own practice look like?
A lot of drawing. Drawing on location, drawing wherever I am. If I don’t draw something, I don’t feel like I’ve really observed it or taken it in fully.
What do you draw with?
Pencils. Mechanical pencils.
How involved were you in the making of Radioactive the movie?
The book was optioned; I didn’t have any formal creative involvement, which was perfect. They sent me scripts, I gave a couple little comments, but it wasn’t my project, which made the process pure pleasure—I had no work to do.
It was thrilling for me to sit back and see the movie get made. I was knocked out by the set designers and the art direction. For instance, for Marie Curie’s lab, there was all of this beautiful 19th-century glassware—test tubes, beakers—the costumes were incredible, the lighting was incredible, it was magical to walk into that transformed space. And just meeting Marjane and the actors on set—it was very fun.
What was it like to see your project becoming another person’s project?
I was pretty emotional watching the trailer. And it was wild to see quirky decisions that I made in the book realized on film. The structure of the movie follows the idiosyncratic way that I structured the book, cutting back and forth between a biographical narrative of the Curies and non-chronological leaps forward in time. That was really fun to see.
What is especially challenging for you to draw?
Well, I only see with one eye, so perspective is something I don’t actually perceive.
I have to push myself to draw deep space, and to consciously recognize three-dimensionality, because I don’t really see it.
What happened to your eye?
I had an accident when I was small. My grandfather was holding me, and we were in a pharmacy. One of the hooks that hold toothbrushes or packets of gum poked me in the eye. It was patched for a long time, and I guess it never fully healed.
I can imagine that’s been an asset for your artwork in ways that are impossible to quantify.
I’ve never known any other way, since I was so young, but yeah, I hope so!
You rarely include yourself as a character in your work but at the same time your work feels very personal, since the stories are filtered through your hand and mind. How much of that is intentional?
Yeah, my work is not confessional or memoiristic. But I feel incredibly invested in the people that I write about. I feel a deep sense of responsibility when someone trusts me with their stories or their time. So that feels personal.
Would you ever write about yourself in a first-person way?
I have thought about it, but there are so many other things I’d rather do. A big motivation for me is curiosity about what I don’t know. I prefer to explore places that I haven’t been, and talk to interesting people that I might not otherwise encounter.
You have had such a cool career, your books are so well-received, you have all these things going on and your art is so beautiful, and then there’s the MacArthur genius grant, and the Pulitzer Prize nomination. … Do you feel successful? Or at what point did you feel like you had arrived in the life you’re currently living?
Wow. Well, a few things: I definitely separate out recognition from how I make sense of my own trajectory. I’m grateful for it, and there’s no question that recognition has made it possible for me to do my work. It wasn’t always clear that it would be the case. The work I make is pretty weird, in certain ways. The first book I did was rejected by every publisher in existence, I think. No one returned my phone calls. I had like six different day jobs.
I try not to take anything for granted. I see the cracks in my work, I see what isn’t up to snuff and that’s what I focus on. Each project gives me ideas for the future; I see what I could have done. Going into any new project, I picture some kind of sublime ideal of what could be. Then I start working, and what I’m able to accomplish in the end of course never matches up to that ideal. But with each project I try to narrow that gap a little. If each project narrows that gap between the vision and the reality even a little bit, that feels like progress.
One last goofy question. Are there any weather-related details from Thunder & Lightning—my favorite book of yours—that still stand out in memory?
I think about fog a lot! About the actual phenomenon, but also fog as a metaphor. In some ways I think of a good portion of my life as living in a bit of a fog. And then feeling that fog lift at a certain point with certain things that have happened.
And now that I have kids, it’s a pleasure to have a bit of knowledge about the physics of lightning, or why dew forms, or whatever, to be able to talk about that. That’s really fun.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Edith Zimmerman is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has contributed to New York, The New York Times Magazine and GQ, and publishes the illustrated newsletter Drawing Links.
A version of this article appears in the spring/summer 2020 Visual Arts Journal.