Friends and Neighbors: Kari Englehardt

This month’s interviewee is Kari Englehardt, a local artist, who shares her time between San Antonio and Marfa. Her first Marfa solo exhibition is opening this weekend at Wrong’s Do Right Hall (the gallery in the old church), titled “Hortus Siccus Opinata.” The opening reception is February 15, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

We met over three years ago, when you were renovating your house here in Marfa, and since then we’ve been friends. Can you tell me how you made your way to Marfa?

Small towns hold an important place in my heart. Over the years, despite where I have lived, I had this ideal list in my head of the type of small town that I would want to move to. At the time I was living in New York, and Marfa kept hitting the radar, nagging me to come and check it out. However, it wasn’t until we moved to San Antonio in 2010 that I made my first trip to Marfa. Immediately I sensed there was something special about Marfa and that it possessed much of what was on my “ideal small town” list. In 2016, I purchased and renovated an adobe.

What are your favorite things about Marfa? 

Marfa as a place has this big open sky, open land and wide horizon with amazing native plants that thrive in this environment. I love taking in the vastness of the landscape, but appreciate there is also an intimacy to the people and community of Marfa. The individuality of people here, their stories, their interests and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and help each other out. You couldn’t have Marfa Studio Arts, Marfa Public Radio, the library, the Sentinel or any of the assets that Marfa has if people didn’t invest their time, their intellect and their energy. Marfa is this outsized cultural outpost you just don’t find in a small town.

How has your relationship with Far West Texas and Marfa influenced your present work?

The broad sky, the wide horizon and the plant diversity shaped the direction of my work and its focus. In 2013, I planted a native wildflower and grass meadow at my studio in San Antonio. I was captivated by how those native wildflowers represented time and place, their beauty and individual form. In comparing what thrived in my San Antonio meadow versus the native plants in the Trans-Pecos region, I started realizing that nothing in the natural world is static. Everything is changing, evolving, adapting. The environment and ecosystems are responding to the challenges thrust upon them by humanity. Specifically the rhetoric about constructing ‘“the wall” between Mexico and Texas made me consider the impact that would have on ecosystems in the Trans-Pecos region. Being out here and seeing plants competing for resources and how the border is, of course, arbitrary to them. This led me to investigate a deeper understanding of how species migrate, adapt and evolve, and to study Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This was happening at the same time as the global reality of immigration and the way nation-states were reacting to the unprecedented movement of people. I started to make a connection between plants and people.

I’d like to talk about your current exhibition… What has inspired this work? 

Continuing with this connection between plant and human migration, I wanted to use native plants as a metaphorical tool and delve into imaginary botany. I have created a herbarium of sorts where plants from disparate regions of the world have self-hybridized and adapted into a single neo-native species. This exhibit focuses on merging plants from around the world to native plants found in this region. The works are based both on census data and actual Marfa residents and their origin stories.

What is the relationship of your plants and subjects?  

If we look at our own personal stories, at some point an ancestor migrated to the United States. Migration is a shared history. Within this immigration debate, it is my way of introducing a visual metaphor for inclusion. Separate from the works based on census data, I wanted to highlight some of the Marfans I have met and visually express their origin stories. In hearing their histories, it reinforced the diversity within Marfa that I love. The works represent migrations from Zimbabwe, Iran, Mexico and Hungary. As well as work reflecting domestic migration from California, and a piece of rootedness, where there is no self-identity of migration.

I’m super delighted to be one of your subjects. I got the chance to look through the progress of your work, which is very layered and process driven. I wonder, what materials and technique are you using?

The materials I work with and the substrates are intentional and are part of the narrative. I have used roofing felt, rice paper, wax, resin, oil pastel and white pencil, and the pieces incorporate both drawing and collage. In addition to the plant specimen works, I also have two large drawings that were made with graphite, dirt, pollen and a brew of rusty water on stitched and wadded canvas. The use of wax and resin is very organic, it feels very natural and allows me to build up layers. The choice of roofing felt feels humble, and the dark depth of the tar weights the works in a different way from traditional herbarium specimens on white rag paper.

Given this trajectory of your work, where to next? Any future work explorations? 

Continuing to intersect with people and their origin stories. I appreciate the narrative value behind the work. I would like to create more series specific to other areas of the country. The way the native plants from various regions would inform my imagined botany would be interesting, and I think there is work to be done on mitigating negative attitudes towards immigration.