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This week’s assignment comes from artist Paula McCartney, whose work explores the boundaries between the natural and unnatural. Her assignment asks you to reexamine what those terms even mean by constructing an image of the so-called natural world.
1. Gather materials to make a constructed landscape of your choosing
2. Combine natural elements with things that reference natural landscape
3. Take lots of photos, but only upload your favorite one using #theartassignment
4. Fame and glory (your work might be in a future episode)

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:

SARAH URIST GREEN: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought you by Squarespace.


We're in Minneapolis, and we're about to meet up with Paula McCartney. She makes photographs and artist books that explore the ambiguity between the natural and the unnatural. and cause us to reexamined what those terms even mean. Projects like "Bronx Zoo" saw McCartney photographing real birds and living plants in constructed landscapes, while "Bird Watching" saw her photograph fake, craft store-bought birds in real landscapes.

Her most recent work, "A Field Guide to Snow and Ice," is a series of photographs in a book that explores her idea of winter, which includes images of actual snow and ice along with images of stalagmites and piles of gypsum sand that only mimic icy forms. With Paula, we're going to talk about how we look at the so-called natural world and how we go about constructing it in our minds and in the images we make.

Paula: Hi, I'm Paula McCartney, and this is your "Art Assignment."

I moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis, and at that time I was really surprised how much winter there was. I was used to winter for, like, three months out of the year, but I was not used to winter for six months out of the year and basically in all capitals in this really very exotic environment. Just like the landscapes in the Bronx Zoo felt very exotic, this amount of snow and ice felt very exotic. So I knew that I wanted to explore that idea.

So I started the project in what I call the "safety" of the summer months, and I made a photogram of a dried, pressed Queen Ann's Lace flower. It's this beautiful flower that I remember from my childhood. And I thought pressed and made into a photogram, it looked like a snowflake. The first snow fall of the season in November of that year I went out into my backyard and I pointed my camera up into the sky and photographed snow falling down on me. And combining-- looking at those photographs next to the photograph of my Queen Ann's Lace snowflake, the Queen Ann's Lace was a snowflake, but it also kind of turned into, like, a star burst. And the photograph of the snow falling at night looking straight up looked like snow falling, but then also could be an image of the night sky, the cosmos. And I really liked how with that juxtaposition the two very specific things could be transformed or opened up, and they could be interpreted in lots of different ways.

Because I was living in this environment with so much winter, I was seeing winter all the time. And what I really wanted to illustrate was the winter of my imagination again. Because I think the more abstracted things are from the larger landscape, the more they become images from my imagination as opposed to documenting the world as it is.

So your assignment in creating a constructed landscape, the first thing you should do is think about what kind of landscapes you're interested in, what kind of environment you're interested in. Look about the materials that you have around your house. Are there things that you're excited by like different rocks or minerals or stones? Think do you want this to be a winter landscape? A summer landscape? You can go outside and get leave and flowers, you can get some snow if you have snow at this same. Take the elements, make your landscape, take lots of photographs. Photograph it from above and below, really experiment. Add a few more things into your landscape. Take some things out of your landscape. Make lots of pictures. Look at them. Think about which picture really transformed those elements that you combined together to make your constructed landscape. So maybe something very small looks big or something big looks small or you're transported to a different kind of environment. And share your favorite picture with us.

John: So, like, one way I could approach this, Sarah, is I could make a miniature landscape and then use sort of the tricks of the camera to make it look big.

Sarah: Yes. That's exactly right. And there are so many great precedents for this Art Assignment. I'm really excited about it.

John: I can think of one president at every single movie made before 1990 which used the tricks of the camera to turn these miniature paintings into set backdrops.

Sarah: Yes. That's very true. But there are others from the art world as well. And I'd like to bring up the fact that I have a ton of friends and colleagues that I draw upon for ideas for these precedents. Like, you could think about Henri Rousseau's jungle paintings where he visited, not the jungle to gain inspiration, but actually the Paris Zoo and the natural history museum.

John: I'm also quite fond of Sugimoto's diorama photographs where he visited the Natural History Museum in New York and photographed the dioramas, but in such a way that it looks very realistic.

Sarah: Or there's Thomas Demand who makes these really amazing constructions from cut paper that he than photographs in a manner that's incredibly convincing.

John: All of this is supposed to make me think about the difference between what is real and what is fake, right?

Sarah: Right. Especially when it comes to nature. And our precedent today actually comes from outside of the world of art history.

In 1856, Scottish industrialist James Nasmyth retired from a successful business of inventing and building machine tools to pursue his interest in astronomy. A neighbor of English estate thought they kept seeing a ghost outside carrying a coffin, but it was actually Nasmyth in his nightgown moving around his telescope trying to get the best view of the night sky.

He soon built his own telescope, a powerful reflecting one that allowed him to see at great magnification. He made detailed observations of the moon, and in 1874 published a book of his findings, complete with photographs of the lunar surface. However, no one had successfully taken non-blurry photographs of the moon's surface yet, so what more these images?

Nasmyths' craters and mountains were actually plaster models he made from his drawings, which he then lit from a low angle and photographed from above. The images are convincingly and remarkably accurate, but they are at the same time false and fantastical images. Like Paula's photographs, Nasmyth's are derived from close observation and engage the most simple of materials to create and transport us to another fully-fledged, albeit impossible, world.

Paula: I think the idea with constructed landscapes is that almost every environment that we're in nowadays is constructed in some sort of way. So your lawn is constructed, your garden is constructed, on arboretum that you go to is constructed. So all these places that we think of as natural are really constructed. So it's always sort of you're deciding the degree of something, how constructed something is.

So for my constructed landscape, I decided to start with black paper, because I like a lot of black backgrounds in my work, and a photograph that I just taped here to my studio wall. So this is my foreground and my background, and the background is a photograph of birds in flight that I had used in lots of other projects. So I have a rock that I collected this summer that I really love the shape of, because I liked how it looked like a mountain. And then I got another rock out of my garden-- so I had two rocks-- that was also sort of mountain shaped. And I also got a giant bowl of sand that I took just from a sandbox that's reminding me of snow.

So one thing you'll want to consider with your assignment is the idea of scale. Think about where you are in relationship to the objects in your set up, your scene, to see do you want to make something look smaller than it is? Do you want to make something look larger than it is? And really move around your set up so that you get a lot of different possibilities to find the best thing or the most exciting thing or how can you make a rock and some sand look, like, really monumental and exciting.

Everyone has all these fantastic ideas in their head, all these stories that we think of all day long, and this is your way to illustrate that idea. So see if you can combine things that maybe you haven't combined before. See if you can build something that you've never built before. Experiment to sort of open up a new way of seeing the landscape. I think, you know, we're so used to seeing the landscape I think a lot of times we take it for granted. But I do want, with this exercise, and with my work in general, to have people look at the landscape in a new and different way.

Take lots of pictures, because the beginning pictures you make are not probably going to be your best ones. Think of the first ones as practice. Take pictures from above your scene. Take pictures from eye-level, when you think of, like, the worm's eye view or the bird's eye view. You don't just look at a scene and know, I know the perfect perspective. You have to move around and look. So do take a lot of pictures. Like, if you're using your phone, you can delete them all afterwards except for your favorite one. But take, like, 20 pictures. Take 30 pictures, take a hundred pictures. Really experiment.

Sarah: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought you by Squarespace.

John: Squarespace is an easy way to create a website, blog, or online store for you and your ideas.

Sarah: Squarespace features a user-friendly interface, custom templates, and 24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at for a special offer.

John: Squarespace, build it beautiful.