Science and Intuition: An Interview with Alicia Toldi

I caught up with an old friend and artist Alicia Toldi, whose drawings and photographs explore the human experience of the environment – of “time, space, and memory” – by connecting abstract ideas to tangible objects. Her works are beautiful meditations not just on our relationship with our surroundings, but the intricate web of connections and becomings that constitute the world.

I spoke with her about her work, scientific and romantic views of nature, and the role of intimacy in our dealings with our surroundings.

Could you give us a bit of your background?

My work investigates time, space, and memory and how we as humans make sense of these abstract, intangible concepts by associating them with familiar and concrete objects. I like to find parallels between seemingly unrelated things, and form collections of these things.

I am constantly exploring the properties of nature in relation to time, both in its timeless grandeur and its delicate transience. I am captivated by atmosphere, and how it affects us. I can’t stop thinking about waves. Through aesthetic experience and visual expression, I attempt to be conscious of the unconscious and its relation to the universe around us.

What nature writing are you reading? How does that inform your process?

Just as nature writers write about nature, I make art about nature. As more of a visual thinker, it is really helpful to recognize my thoughts and feelings put into words.

I am currently reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Her philosophies on existence, nature and our existence in nature really line up with my own. Her way with words is incredibly evocative and beautiful to experience.

Other favorites are John Muir’s journals on Yosemite and Robinson Jeffers’ poetry written in Big Sur. Both places have been central to my upbringing and the awakening of my aesthetic awareness, so these works both represent the historical influence that is so important to me artistically and also lovingly and masterfully present me with inspiration and insight.

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Where did your fascination with rocks and geology come from? 

My senior thesis in college was when I first became aware of my fascination with rocks. I found a book called Tramping with a Poet in the Rockies by Stephen Graham. This passage really struck me: “At last, however, the mountains silenced us. They outstayed us, and will outstay us. They ate up our provisions, and swallowed our breath, and beguiled us deceptively to climb higher. ‘Upward and onward!’ was invisibly written on every crag.” I was thinking about park tourism and the awe we as humans have for “immense nature.” Rocks, with their infinite lifetimes, struck me as the perfect example of this relationship. People are drawn to rocks, whether they are large as mountains or small as sand. I saw them as visual proof of time’s existence.

You mention timelessness and transience. What do you think informs our experience of time? 

That’s something I’m constantly trying to figure out. I think it’s all about what is around us and how we interact with it, a mixture of scientific fact and intuitive feeling. A good starting point for me is this concept of big, old nature: Ancient trees, rocks, the ocean, space…and then also small or impermanent things like food, friendships, and snowflakes. I think that to experience time, one has to think about all of these abstract ideas and tangible objects in relation to each other.

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Can you talk a bit about your drawings?

In my drawings right now I am focusing on the scientific fact and intuitive feeling idea. I found an old astronomy encyclopedia that is full of graphs methodically depicting orbits, sunsets, atmospheric zones, and the like. While I appreciate that scientists strive to make sense of all of this mystery around us, the poetry and beauty of nature often seems to be forgotten. With nostalgic song titles and personally meaningful landmarks drawn in as a kind of collage, I attempt to restore the romance and thrill of nature into these graphs.

Your photography project?

One of the miracles of photography is the ability to capture an image of real life and have it exist forever. But is perfection and perfect clarity in keeping with the reality of memory? By playing with multiple exposures, expired film, and a plastic camera, I’ve been trying to lose control and create images that appear like memories: cloudy, vague, layered and ideal. I wind, rewind, and click the shutter at will, attempting not to capture a specific image or subject but instead the atmosphere of a place and the feeling of a moment.

What’s your view of ecology? Does that influence your process?

I don’t think people are connected enough to nature these days. They tend to be afraid of it rather than comforted by it, and as a result work against it rather than with it. Another reason that I am inspired by people like John Muir and Annie Dillard is because they respect that nature is wild and that makes them want to explore and understand it even more. John Muir founded the Sierra Club, after all. It’s only with respect and awe of nature that we can live in harmony with it.

I have recently realized that I lean towards a romantic view of nature—I believe that spending time alone, soaking up the sublimity of nature is necessary both for my art and my personal well-being.

Can you talk more about the “being conscious of the unconscious and its relation to the universe around us”?

We all have our own relationship with our literal surroundings, natural or otherwise. The same location or landmark might make one person feel tension, and another person feel a sense of freedom. What determines those relationships is so abstract and personal that it is shrouded in mystery. And then on top of that, we have relationships with intangible concepts such as space or time and there’s this whole invisible web of feeling and intuition that is so attractive to me artistically. Metaphorically I would say I am trying to untangle the threads that create this web. It’s all so abstract it’s hard to verbalize…which is one reason that I turn to visual expression.
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On that note, I think time and transience is a really interesting thing to think about for a moment. There’s something really incredible about going up to a very old tree and having that immediate connection with something that you know is 100 times older than you. On the other hand though, there’s this whole romantic narrative about this old landscape that is “untouched by humans”, which I think is kind of problematic in that an untouched landscape never really existed. There actually might be something nice about that, in that though it might be a different type of nature/landscape/environment from what we like to think, we only find ourselves more and more engrained in that nature.
The historical Romantic movement is characterized as a rejection of the Classical movement (a disconcerting mix of idealization and rationality) and a reaction to the rigid objectivity of the Enlightenment. Although it could not have come about without these movements, and therefore intrinsically contains science and intellect, it chooses to focus more on the emotion and awesomeness of something like nature. It was arguably the first time that artists were “allowed” to exaggerate based on their emotions and truly contemplate, rather than just depict.
I agree with you–in terms of one’s personal (and intimate) experience with nature, it’s the attraction and repulsion between the romantic and scientific views that really makes the world around us so captivating. The scientific knowledge that color layers in a rock or rings in a tree denote years and years worth of time, or that a wave’s break is based on the depth of the shoreline relative to the height of the wave personally adds a romantic sense of awe to my experience of nature. But there’s also something so stimulating about just going out and not thinking about how it all works, just feeling it and appreciating that it exists.
I think what makes an architected place like Central Park less interesting to me is the order. My favorite parts of parks are overgrown and tangled–where nature is reclaiming the order that we tried to impose on it. Like any relationship, the one between humanity and nature is a give and take–small forest fires ideally prevent huge wildfires, small trails traversing mountainsides let us go further into wild country but don’t contribute too much to erosion or development. I’ve always loved and respected the ocean for how impenetrable and vast it is. However, I recently started bodysurfing at Ocean Beach on the west side of San Francisco, where I live, and there’s something so gratifying and yes, intimate about being able to put on a wetsuit and fins and feel its power surrounding and carrying me, on the edge of such timeless vastness. The give and take in that case is harder to pin down, and goes a little deeper into abstract emotions rather than concrete outcomes. It’s that kind of careful relationship with nature that I’m trying to depict.
Alicia Toldi is a San Francisco-based artist focusing in drawing and film photography. You can see more of her work at www.aliciatoldi.com.
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