Q&A with Michele Oka Doner

Tra Publishing sits down with renowned artist Michele Oka Doner to discuss creativity in nature, the influence of Miami on her work, and her recently published title, Intuitive Alphabet.

How did your childhood influence Intuitive Alphabet in particular, and your work in general?

I grew up in a time and place — Miami Beach, Florida — that was filled with pulsing, aggressive nature. One of my early memories engages all the senses: a huge mango tree that dominated the backyard of our first home. Cycles of flowering, fruiting, and decay seemed to take up the entire space. From a child’s perspective, the tree occupied too much sky, blocking sunshine, creating deep shade. Countless fruits dropped seasonally, too numerous for a family to consume, and inevitably, the smell of rotted mangos permeated everything. Bees arrived in droves to feast on the sap and juice. To this day the scent of mango trees in bloom stirs me, bringing me back to childhood, and leaves me somewhat uneasy.

Your work is prolific in scope and range— from sculpture, furniture, jewelry, and video to costume, set design, and large-scale public art installations. Is there is a common thread running throughout?

The common thread running through my oeuvre is my lifelong study and appreciation of the natural world from which I derived a formal vocabulary.

Intuitive Alphabet is not specifically a children’s book, yet it is accessible to children, a book to be shared by generations. How can we encourage children to examine, consider and respond to the world around them?

The exploration of nature into language has fascinated me since childhood. It seems almost magical, like incantations. It is also universal, as most of us see. Intuitive Alphabet reminds children, as well as adults, to look at the natural world, to understand how much we depend on nature for sustenance in all ways.

How does language influence our relationship with the natural world and visa versa?

I have always been a hunter-gatherer, first and foremost. Translating my finds into clay allowed me to expand the impulse. No longer was the peach pit extracted from the ripe stone fruit just detritus, I could take it to the studio, study the interior structure, and a landscape emerged. Bones from Cornish hen and ox tails, also were extractedfrom the nightly dinner table to meet this scrutiny. (The vertebrate from the spine of the hen became a wondrous crown as seen in the Burial Pieces poster.) My collection of seeds and pods evolved over the course of a few years, and as I worked, the intense awareness of form moved me in the direction of pictographs. I thought I could imagine, almost touch, the impulse to write that sparked our ancient ancestors, that led to the first glyphs. I began to notice symbolic language everywhere, in branching twigs, twisted coral, water worn rocks and even the organs of our very human bodies. I was creating my own archaeology, developing language for life’s ongoing dialogue. The intense awareness of form and ensuing consciousness moved me in the direction of pictographs. I thought I could imagine, almost touch, the impulse to writing that sparked our ancient ancestors, that led to the first glyphs. I began to notice symbolic language everywhere -- in branching twigs, twisted coral, water worn rocks and even the organs of our very human bodies. I was creating my own archaeology, developing language for life’s ongoing dialogue.

Can you tell us more about the collector’s edition of the book?

The Collector’s Edition is an oversized version of the First Edition Intuitive Alphabet. Each cover has a hand-written title and is crafted of handmade paper that has a naturally deckled edge. The Collector’s Edition is designed to celebrate the traditional form of bookmaking in its purest sense. The spine is left raw to reveal the sewn-together pages. The uncoated textured paper is 100% recycled post-consumer overlaid with transparent sheets.

Why are proceeds from the Collector’s Edition of Intuitive Alphabet going to Oceana?

Oceans cover 71 percent of the globe, and are home to most of the life on our planet and play a central role in the world’s natural systems, like regulating our climate. We have already altered or destroyed marine ecosystems and driven million-year-old species to the brink of extinction. All proceeds of the collector’s edition will go to benefit Oceana’s efforts at protecting the earth’s 1.6 million square miles of ocean.

Michele Oka Doner is an internationally renowned artist whose artistic production encompasses sculpture, prints, drawings, furniture, jewelry, public art, functional objects, video, costume and set design, and artist’s books. She is well known for such permanent art installations as “Flight” at Reagan International Airport, “Radiant Site,” at the Herald Square 34th Street Subway Station, and the mile and quarter long “A Walk on the Beach,” the bronze terrazzo concourse at Miami International Airport.

Luis Angeli