As a printmaking student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Jordan Kendall Parks started questioning the amount of waste involved in making art. Acrylic paint turns to plastic when dry. Drawing tools are made from layers of plastic tubes. The traditional form of printmaking requires multiple proofs for the artist to hone their sketch. “I hated how much work and waste it took to be perfect,” Jordan says. “I started making woodcuts from fallen trees, highlighting all of what we consider to be imperfections.”
It is these imperfections that make Jordan’s woodcuts feel revelatory. Hewn from broken paddles and found branches, stumps and salvaged lumber, each piece is intricately carved with attention to the natural features of the wood. On a tree trunk, a skunk stops to smell the flowers. Bears hunt across a riverscape, partially camouflaged by spaces between wood slats. A wolf wanders through a plywood field, carrying mountains and rivers and forests inside her. Many of Jordan’s woodcuts return to a central idea: that we are bound up with the places we inhabit.
Jordan’s work is energized by her unfettered curiosity—a trait that emerged in childhood. By the time she was 17, Parks and her mother had lived in six states. She spent a lot of time outside in each place, sketching what she saw and finding patterns in nature. “Art has been the most constant thing in my life. It was always there for me, no matter where I was,” Jordan says. It was this inherent connection to land through art that inspired Jordan to move her work beyond the white walls of a gallery—outside.
In 2017, through a Kindling Fund grant administered by SPACE Gallery in Portland, Jordan developed and curated Surface First Tilts West, a temporary collaboration with artists such as Isabel Neal, Chris Battaglia, and Jared Haug that included a poem hung from a tree, a painted tarp shelter, and giant floating oyster shells, all mounted on Little Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. Inspiration for the idea came through Jordan’s experience as an environmental educator and kayak guide in the area. She hoped the exhibition would help people discover the easy access to islands in their backyard and serve as a touch point for those who might not otherwise venture outdoors.
For Windward Exhibition, a summer 2019 project in which Jordan, along with visual artists Susan Bartlett Rice, Lucy Kilbreth, Louis-Pierre Lachapelle, Miklos Pogany, and Jos Ruks, created a moving gallery on 22 SailMaine sailboats, Jordan painted oysters on her sail as an ode to middens—discarded heaps of oyster shells left by the ancestral Wabanaki of Casco Bay. “My art process led me to Maine’s rugged coast, and my curiosity led me to dig deeper, to understand my relationship with the land I was working on,” says Jordan. As she put it in her 2020 Brookie Award acceptance speech: “Whose existence has been hidden for me to exist here now, and how can I uplift them?”
Winning Natural Resources Council of Maine’s Brookie Award—which biannually honors six young environmental leaders of Maine—helped Jordan see her work in a new light. “I was kind of blind to the fact that I was leading environmental conversations through my art,” she says. “The whole process really made me realize that my art does have power.”
That it took Jordan until now to truly understand the impact her art was making may come as a surprise to some, but the conversations her work encourages around place, existence, and belonging go bone deep. Her art reflects the many identities she embodies. “Being a biracial artist and an environmentalist does give me a new perspective,” Jordan said in her Brookie Award speech. “I’ve always been connected to the outdoors. It’s always been a place where I didn’t have to question who I was.”
Jordan says she’s seen a rise of “art that says something” in the last four years but most notably during the pandemic, when people have been cooped up in their own homes and minds. For her part, she wants to raise awareness about how climate change most substantially impacts black, brown, and Indigenous communities first. “I really want to have a message behind my art about what I believe in,” she says.
But Jordan never loses track of the joy art brings. “Sometimes I remind myself that I am a black female artist, and I just get to make art, too. I make art because it’s what makes me feel like myself.”
For more of Jordan Kendall Parks’ work and to order prints or commission art, visit her website: www.jordankendallparks.com.