Questions, reality, and musings on a life of joy and wonder
Vol. 2, No. 8
August 5, 2022
Nature and the Arts
By Rich Holly
When I was a kid my family took an annual two-week vacation each summer, one year to
Maine, all the others to a variety of locations in the Adirondack Mountains. We had no shortage
of fun, enjoying the masses of trees, life on a lake, hiking, and so on. This was always a welcome
change from our neighborhood, a very typical New York City suburb built for post-WWII
veterans and their families built on what had previously been potato farms.
When I chose which undergraduate college to attend, I was encouraged to apply to Juilliard,
Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, and so on. Instead, I had my heart set
on, and attended, the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, on the western edge of the
Adirondack Park and with an excellent reputation for placement of their graduates and several
renowned faculty members. I knew I needed to be around trees, not concrete.
As the decades have flown by, I have embraced my need to be in or at least near trees more
and more. I have sought to purchase homes on wooded lots, and I choose my driving directions,
whenever possible, to be via the route with the best views and largest number of trees.
I sincerely believe that my love for nature has had a huge impact on my life, both personal and
career. I feel energized and yet calm when I’m outdoors among trees, which makes my next
workday or practice session even more energizing, too.
Now, I love visiting great cities, too. My wife and I make an annual pilgrimage to New York City,
where we take in concerts, shows, museums, and always take a walk through Central Park. Just
as some people have a goal of seeing a game in every Major League Baseball stadium, we have
a goal to see major orchestras in their hometown halls. Thus, we travel to various cities when
possible. These travels inspire me, but don’t necessarily relax me in ways that I need.
While I can’t say that I’ve created artwork (music composition in my case) which is inspired by
nature, I can truly say that I’ve needed the calming effect of nature to allow me to be in a
mental place where I can compose. Or arrange. Or perform. Without a daily or near-daily reminder of the beauty and serenity that is out there, I know I would not be as relaxed and ready to focus as I need to be.
Throughout the ages, numerous artists working in all arts media have used nature as their
inspiration and subject matter. I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work alongside visual artists
and performance artists who have dedicated their work to sustainability efforts. I know of
several notable summer festivals that take place “in the woods” or similar location.
One of the most fascinating arts and higher education experiments was Black Mountain
College. I’ll recommend you take a couple of minutes to click on that link, read that page, and
then return to this post.
To me, this sounds like artistic paradise, living and learning among the forests and mountains of
western North Carolina, learning from and creating new works alongside monumental figures in
the history of the arts.
I remember giggling, as a college freshman, at a performance of Black Mountain notable John
Cage’s work 4’33” in one of the recital halls, not too different from this performance. A few
years later the piece made WAY more sense to me, when I found out it was meant to engage
the listener, the audience member, in intentional listening – one could hear coughs, paper
shuffling, seat squirming – so that each audience member becomes a part of the performance.
Although I have not attended an outdoor performance of 4’33”, I have spent many, many
minutes in silence in the woods, where one could hear the leaves rustle, the wind blow, insects
flying by, the movement of water, etc. Those have been my personal moments of “singing”
4’33” in my head.
What does being in nature mean to you? How does nature inform your artistry? Is nature your
muse? Or, like me, does being in nature provide you with the calm and focus needed to get on
with your work? Do you have a favorite nature location you can share with us in the
comments? For those of you at or near NC State, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design has
fabulous outdoor space for a walk or a restful sit down under the trees. If you have not made a habit of getting out into nature, I implore you to do so. You just might find your new happy place.
Rich Holly serves Arts NC State and the NC State University community as the Executive Director
for the Arts.
All posts in the “Our Life in the Arts” series are available here.