Katie Holten: The Irish Tree Alphabet and art as environmental activism  

Work by the US-based Irish artist has recently been added to the collection of the Crawford in Cork 
Katie Holten: The Irish Tree Alphabet and art as environmental activism  

Katie Holten, artist behind The Irish tree Alphabet.

The recent heatwave in Ireland, and the extreme heat and fires internationally that are hitting the headlines, have sparked a discussion on how such events are being reported, and whether or not their reporting should be more embedded in coverage of climate change.

For artist and environmental activist Katie Holten, there is no discussion: what we’re seeing is the impact of climate change writ large upon our lives.

“Parts of Pakistan have recently hit 52 degrees Celsius,” Holten says, speaking via Zoom from Connecticut, itself bathed in a sweltering high-thirties temperature.

“I get this sense that people think that this is somehow going to stop; as though 30 degrees is very hot but it will somehow just stop there. But now we’re seeing 40 degrees, and now 50 degrees in some places. It’s just going to keep getting hotter and hotter, but people just aren’t getting it.” 

Somehow, Holten believes, the messaging is wrong. The public doesn’t join the dots between individual events and the overall picture.

“There are decades of climate science,” she says. “We all know about it, but there’s a huge disconnect there between what’s known and how to make it public. So it seems like an obvious thing to get artists involved. It becomes pretty obvious that the data has to become visual, and some artists are good at that.” 

Little love letters

Holten’s Irish Tree Alphabet, first exhibited at VISUAL Carlow last year, is amongst the Crawford Art Gallery’s recent €400,000 spend on additions to the national collection.

The Longford-born artist has drawn a native Irish tree for every letter of the alphabet, creating a font called Irish Trees; A is Ailm, Irish for Scots Pine, B is Beith or Birch, and so on.

The idea is one Holten has been working on, in one form or another, for many years. First arriving in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2004, she had started drawing New York’s trees, and this evolved into the New York Tree Alphabet, she explains.

“I felt like I had to be in a big city to see how humans are all working together on a big scale,” she says. “But street trees are the only real nature that I had access to, so I started doing tree drawings, little love letters.

“It was ten years later that I realised that I could use the trees as an alphabet. The whole heart of the tree alphabet was realising that we were using words like nature and green, but their meaning was being twisted around. This was 2014, before the awful 2016 here, but we were in the build-up to it and there was this toxic relationship with words and lies and truth swirling around. So while I hope the tree alphabet is playful and humorous, it’s political as well.” 

An image from The Irish Tree Alphabet, by Katie Holten,  Picture: Ros Kavanagh.
An image from The Irish Tree Alphabet, by Katie Holten,  Picture: Ros Kavanagh.

Plans with New York City’s parks department to plant trees in “words” fell through, but Holten is keen to use the Irish Tree Alphabet for the same purpose, and she feels Cork is the perfect place for it.

“The Crawford is being renovated, so now the work won’t be installed for a couple of years,” she says. “The hope is that I finally get to escape America and come back to Ireland because once you’re there, that’s how things happen.”

Holten has been trying to escape America for quite some time now: prior to the Covid crisis, she and her American partner, art dealer Dillon Cohen, had been hoping to buy some land in Ireland and settle here: although Holten has built a life for herself in the US, with the couple holding regular “Sunday Salons” at their home to discuss art and activism, she never planned on settling permanently in the US.

The feeling of wanting to escape to Ireland has been exacerbated by her experiences of lockdown in the US: Holten and Cohen found themselves stuck in California for 15 months when the first Covid lockdown was announced while the couple was on a business trip to the West Coast.

“When we got there, we visited my partners’ parents and when we arrived, they said, ‘Oh, there’s this virus coming, we’ll arrange a house and maybe you should stay for two weeks until after it passes.’ And our two-week trip turned into 15 months,” she says with a shrug. 

"When I got back to New York, I tried to book flights back to Ireland and a friend said, ‘can you come back again, if you leave?’ I looked into it and I’m on an 01 visa and it means that if I come back to Ireland, I’ll be stuck.”

Roots

Holten was supposed to be present in Ireland on a residency while the Irish Trees Alphabet exhibition was being installed in Carlow, and had hoped to continue house-hunting for a piece of land that she can “let it do its thing, and let the trees come back.” 

She had also hoped to present a petition to the Dáil during this time; the artist retains strong links to Ardee, where she spent part of her childhood, and is involved with a group called Friends of Ardee Bog, which has been trying to prevent the construction of the N52 Ardee Bypass across the last intact raised bog in Ireland.

“We’ve raised 15,000 signatures,” Holten says. “The whole thing has been going on for years and it’s just such an ugly mess and such a miscarriage of justice. It never should have left the drawing board. But it doesn’t even look like there was a drawing board to begin with. It looks like they just got a ruler and drew a straight line on the map, cutting through the bog. No thought or sensitivity.”

For Holten, the Irish obsession with notions of progress based on roads and construction projects has clear roots in our traditionally trans-Atlantic gaze.

“I grew up in the '80s, and America was the shining vision of the future when I was growing up,” she says. “That was what we aspired to, because they were modern and first-world and it was progress and they made so much money. It was all very fabulous and wonderful. And now you see how bleak it has become: the malls, and the roads that just stretch on.” Holten’s art and her activism go hand in hand.

“It’s not that I see Friends of Ardee Bog as an artwork, but it’s all part of the same ecosystem of who I am in the world,” she says. “Everything comes from what you are as a person and there’s no distinction between it all.” 

She believes that a rapid increase in awareness on environmental issues is underway, and that hope can be drawn from this.

“There’s a time when suddenly everything clicks and people start all seeing the same thing and I think that’s happening at the moment,” she says.

“It’s becoming very obvious now that the whole system has to change. Ecology and economy need to be reconsidered; the word economy comes from the word for home. It’s really simple: we have to go right back to basics and examiner what our home is, and how we are taking care of it.” 

  • New Threads: Acquisitions 2021 is at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, until September 5.  Katie Holten’s free Irish Trees font is available at: www.treealphabet.ie

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