Animal, vegetable, and mineral: A studio visit with Cheyenne Weaver

Harvesting and cultivating art-making materials are as much the art as the finished work


Approaching Cheyenne Weaver’s home/studio, I am greeted at the curb by a very official-looking, green and gold painted metal placard declaring the space to be a “Certified Wildlife Habitat.” It strikes me as unusual signage for what appears to be an average South Austin bungalow.

About a decade ago, at a time when she considered pursuing an additional degree in landscape architecture, Cheyenne sought training on the subjects of native plants and habitat restoration in a program offered by the National Wildlife Federation in partnership with the city of Austin. Her training prepared her to certify as a “wildlife habitat” any privately-owned urban space that contained key features that allow native flora and fauna to flourish.

Cheyenne Weaver
Cheyenne Weaver with her sculpture-in-progress “Memento Vivere; Offering.” Photo by Jeannie McKetta

“It was such a cool program,” she recounted. “The certification requires a certain percentage of native plants, brush piles for habitat, a water source, and then optimally… also any dead trees left standing or felled decaying logs, mulching occasionally, or compost to add topsoil.”

Cheyenne’s artistic practice, too, requires her to study the animal, vegetable and mineral resources present in her own neighborhood and beyond. As an artist, she assumes both active and passive roles in her environment in a way that reflects the social and ecological self-awareness she brings to promoting the preservation of wildlife habitats.

She shows me a sculptural piece she is working on called “Memento Vivere; Offering.”

“The whole idea of this sculpture was to create a reminder to live life.”

The piece takes the form of a ceramic bouquet where instead of live flowers, pastel, multi-colored cut-outs in vegetal, floral and biomorphic shapes emerge from a hollow quasi-sphere. In art history, there is a genre of still-life painting in which a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit become symbolic of the vanity and transience of ephemeral beauty, a memento mori. But Cheyenne turns this trope around and creates an offering that, though fully warranting appreciation on aesthetic and conceptual terms, further encourages life “IRL” by literally entering the bodies of local animals as food.

Cheyenne Weaver
Cheyenne Weaver in her South Austin studio. On the table is“Memento Vivere; Detached” in progress and on the wall are night-vision images of rats receiving “Memento Vivere; Offering.” Photo by Jeannie McKenna

Rearrangeable, each abstract shape of Cheyenne’s bouquet occurs at the end of a peg, or stem, fitted to any one of many small holes in the central orb. This method of assemblage recalls her sculptures “Centering” and “Perfectionism,” shown at grayDUCK Gallery last year, that took the overall form of a Mr. and Mrs. Potato head complete with re-combinable body parts. In fact, parts of “Memento Vivere” reiterate the pop sensibility of those earlier sculptures: a stylized eye, a juicy smile, half a banana, and a variety of round whole fruits hide in among its clutch of elegant and abstracted floral silhouettes.

Onto these variegated, hand-wrought, surfaces she applies a layer of natural food-sourced pigment that she has foraged and prepared herself. She brushes on paint-like pastes of mulberry, tomato, pokeberry, mustang grapes, wax mallow, peanut butter, and passionflower. Then at night, she carries the sculpture down to the greenbelt nature preserve abutting her neighborhood and sets up a motion-triggered, night-vision camera. Dark black-and-white photographs posted around her studio reveal that coyotes, possums, and rats have constituted the majority of Cheyenne’s non-human audience.

Cheyenne grew up in Austin. She’s lived in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and received her BFA from the California Institute of the Arts.

Working in Los Angeles in the later aughts, her large-scale sculptural works already employed imagery that engaged environmentalist topics, but she laments her heavy use of epoxy foam as a material at that time.

Cheyenne Weaver Studio
The artist discussing her experiments with natural pigments on fired clay. Pigments include carrot, banana, tomato, blueberry, strawberry, beet, and cochineal. “Apparently,” she says, “lime juice does this to cochineal, which is a magical thing, and turns blueberry into strawberry pink, which is also cool.” Photo by Jeannie McKenna.

“Why I’m interested in art anyway,” she explained, “is to understand my place in the more-than-human world better, to build a relationship with my place, but also to heal my [historical] schism — this void of knowing anything about our natural world — because of colonialism and the erasure of cultures. So, there is just no way I can talk about that while using really scary materials like epoxy foam… It took me until I was 40 years old to realize that ceramics was the thing that I needed to explore.”

Now, harvesting and cultivating materials is as much a part of her practice as research, design, drawing, and sculpture. She shows me her various experiments with naturally derived pigments, ink she has made from oak galls, pecans, limestone, and rainwater containing dust blown to Austin from the Sahara. She has even tried making a ceramic glaze with the pigment of her own blood, but it lacked enough iron to survive the clay firing process. She dreams of someday harvesting clay from a moraine, the wake of pulverized earth left behind in the path of a slow-moving glacier.

“One of the best things about using clay,” she says,” is having no guilt about returning it to the ground.”

“Memento Vivere; Detached” will appear in the exhibition “Own it, examine it, and confront it head on” at DORF Gallery Oct. 29–Nov. 14. “Memento Vivere; Offering” will appear in the second part of “Crit Group Reunion:Facing Each Other” at the Contemporary Austin-Jones Center Nov. 20–Jan. 16, 2022.

Jeannie McKetta
Jeannie McKetta
Jeannie McKetta is a doctoral candidate in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also completed her MA and BA in Art History (2012, 2007) and her BFA in Studio Art (2007). The subjects of her dissertation are the artists Vija Celmins and Giorgio Morandi as still-life painters in the post-WWII period. Generally she enjoys studying phenomenology, language, Italian art history, and how artists make what they make.

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