From leaning on a friend to throwing ourselves into our work, we all have different ways of dealing with adversity. For California-based artist Day Schildkret, the answer comes from practicing art out in natural landscapes. He discovered the healing power of art and nature while he was grieving the loss of his father and the end of his relationship. He revisited an old ritual of his—creating “Morning Altars” from found twigs, flowers, pine cones, berries, leaves, and more. These beautiful, impermanent works of land art helped him connect with nature and heal his broken heart.
Schildkret is now dedicated to creating a new Morning Altar every day. The sprawling, geometric designs look incredibly beautiful, but it’s the process that brings the artist the most joy. He spends hours hunting for natural objects and arranging them into pretty patterns as a way to practice mindfulness, devote to someone important to him, or mark special occasions. However, just like Tibetan sand mandalas and Hindu rangoli, Schildkret’s nature art is ephemeral. “Every altar I create is informed and governed by forces larger than me: the sun, the wind, the rain, the traveling creatures, the season, the unexpected and unpredictable,” he explains. “It is an honest dialogue between the human and non-human world and an ever-changing conversation with moving pieces.”
Schildkret hopes his land art will encourage others to reconnect with nature. “In today’s overly virtual landscape, I want my viewers to be enchanted by each altar's capacity to awaken their imagination, their awe, their nuanced eye and deep love and connection with the magic and mystery of our earth,” he says. “I long to have my audiences linger on that ephemeral edge where death and rebirth bring forth and ancient remembering and a new impermanent beauty.”
We recently caught up with Schildkret to ask more about his Morning Altars. Read on for My Modern Met’s exclusive interview.
Have you always had an affinity for nature?
Yes and no. I loved nature as a kid, lost it as a young man and found it again as an adult. When I was 5 years old, I would run outside and, I know it's strange, rescue worms from the driveway after a rainstorm. They just seemed so helpless to me. I would carry each little squirmy guy on a leaf from the driveway back to the front lawn and dig a little hole until they climbed back in. But what was remarkable for a 5-year-old was that I also adorned each hole. I would take little flower petals, tiny sticks or berries, and make little designs around the hole to make the worm's homecoming more beautiful until there was a constellation of worm mandalas on my front lawn. I guess my love for nature emerged from an instinct to use art to help something.
In my 20s, I put my love of nature on hold for a career on Broadway but that didn't last long because I just wanted to be outside as much as possible. When I am in nature, I never feel alone. Actually, I feel a great sense of belonging, like I'm finally home. I get to practice listening and speaking to nature in her language which sounds a lot like being curious or in awe. Especially during these times when life is incredibly uncertain, when I step outside and let myself wander, I find I get out of the worries in my head and step into a very animated and alive world. I get to become a kid again and be captivated by the smallest of things that most people overlook—like the swirling steps of a pine cone, the confluence of a translucent leaf's veins, or the delicate puff of a dandelion. I get to fall in love with the subtleties of the world again. In this day and age of technology, business, speed, and stress, it feels like sane-making to me.
Can you tell me a bit about your “Altars” and what inspired you to start making them?
Actually, art as a ritual was something I did for years before this. Since I was 22, I had always made an altar for every birthday—sometimes out of whatever I could find in my cabinet (like beans, rice, or corn) and spend my birthday creating patterns on the floor of my living room. In the evening, I would invite all my friends over to sit around the altar installation and reflect upon the year with me. These impermanent creations gave my birthdays so much meaning. But it wasn't until I had some major loss in my life that this really became a touchstone practice in my life.
During my early 30s, my dad died and within a year, I broke up with my first partner—both events sent me into a pretty dark place. I had a dog at the time and the only thing I had energy to do was go on long walks with her every morning through the hills of Wildcat Canyon in the San Francisco Bay Area. Rudy, my dog, would wander around sniffing everything curiously and I remember walking with my head down, totally lost in my thoughts. One morning we went to the top of the hill and under this huge swaying Eucalyptus tree I discovered these shimmering patches of wild mushrooms. I was so taken by their beauty because they looked like they were painted with watercolor. Something inside of me said to sit down and just arrange the mushrooms into something symmetrical. I added eucalyptus bark and buttons. By making order out of randomness, I felt more in control. I looked at my watch and an hour went by in a flash. I looked down and saw an exquisite pattern made out of what was growing and died around that tree. And in that moment, I dedicated it. Like a gift, I offered it to heal my broken heart. For the first time in many months, I felt lighter, like my grief wasn't so heavy. And so I challenged myself to come back to this same tree and make a new one for 30 days out of whatever I found along the way. And I did. 30 days came and went and I had no interest in stopping.
Every day, I would find feathers or berries or leaves and make a totally new pattern and devote it to something or someone that I cared about. What I wasn't expecting was the international response I received. People all over the world went out to their backyards and park and started to make them for their own very personal reasons. A woman in England went to the forest near her kid's school and made one out of pinecones and moss to honor the 10th anniversary of her mom's death and a young man in Brazil made one to celebrate his engagement to his wife. What started out as a very personal process had ripples around the world. Consequently, I learned a lot about how impermanent earth altars and art are a central practice in most indigenous communities around the world. In a way, I was tapping into a ritual art that has been around for thousands of years and bringing it to a modern audience.
How long do they take to make? And do you plan them first or let them evolve as you go?
First off, I never ever plan in advance. Why? Because I never know what I'm going to find and every single altar I've ever made is inspired by the time and place I find the material within. For instance, there are many times when flowers die or I can't find anymore clam shells or a squirrel steals acorns while I'm using them. I don't just go to the store and buy more. The material is discovered, alive and changing and so is the environment. It's all unpredictable. I need to be very sensitive to the moment, to what is available and what isn't. I need to pay attention to the changing light, to the wind picking up or the rain clouds rolling in. By proceeding without a plan, it puts me in a very intimate relationship with the natural world. We are speaking to one another and collaborating together. So as much as I have a preference about where I want a feather to go, the wind may have other plans. In a way, I get to come face to face with the limitations of my own preferences and perfectionism, which is honestly very healthy in our culture.
The size of each piece depends. I have made enormous Morning Altars that can span over 30 feet and take many days to forage all the material and to create the patterns. As a daily practice, they tend to be 3 feet in diameter that can take up to 6 hours from start to finish. Recently, I made two huge altars in the center of the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. They were commissioned by Lab/Shul, a big Jewish community for their High Holiday services. Two thousand people sat around me in this enormous Broadway theatre as I created a live Morning Altar out of tons of nature I foraged from Manhattan and Brooklyn. I built it for 10 hours each day, and then deconstructed it in front of the live audience as well. It brought the outdoors inside. You could smell the wet soil in the theatre which was totally hypnotic. To me, the most powerful part of the ritual was witnessing people return to wonder. How could leaves do that? How could there be this much treasure found in a city?! This will only be around for a couple more hours?? I like it when people awaken to a sense of childlike wonder with our living world.
How do you feel about the fact that your art will disappear over time?
Heartbroken, grateful, frustrated, enlivened. The whole gamut. Sometimes it disappears over long periods of time and sometimes it happens while I'm actually making it. Yet, it never fails to become a life lesson about how fleeting and ephemeral this whole thing truly is. This process always brings me back to a sense of humility because it doesn't always go the way I want it to. It also helps me exercise a desire to persevere in the face of change.
After the publication of my first book, I had the honor of being the artist in residence at the Andy Warhol Preserve in Montauk, NY. I got access to a 1/4 mile of private beach where I got to be outside and make art everyday. On the last day, I was expected to make a piece that would be photographed by the press and public. I spent the day before preparing and collecting gorgeous material—orange and turquoise lobster claws, deep sea blow mussel shells, and brilliant green seaweed. The day of, I woke up at dawn and worked for 7 hours on a perfect installation; geometric and precise. I was so proud of what I accomplished with only an hour left before everyone showed up. And out of nowhere, the tide snuck up and took the entire altar in one gulp with nothing remaining, not even a shell. I screamed, I pounded my fists, I cursed the ocean—and most importantly, I remembered: Life is forever changing. As much as I want it to last forever, it doesn't. So, when I witness my art's ephemerality, I get to love it even more so. Impermanence says to me: Don't take anything for granted. Love it now while it's still here.