Divinity School student finds artistic inspiration at Yale’s Landscape Lab

Susan Ernst at the Yale Landscape Lab
Susan Ernst at the Landscape Lab’s “Wikihouse,” which was a space from which she contemplated the surroundings, observing elements of the natural and built environment. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

Susan Ernst says she feels closest to God while spending time in nature.

When I say nature, I don’t mean the wilderness,” said Ernst, a horticulturist and artist, while seated in the barn at the Yale Landscape Lab. “Right here is nature. I grew up in Queens with a very small backyard and I’ve always appreciated the nature that is right in front of me.”

Ernst ’18 M.A.R., a student in Yale Divinity School’s new religion and ecology program, channels her spirituality and devotion to the natural world into making art. She spent this academic year as artist-in-residence at the Landscape Lab, a center on Yale’s West Campus that features an urban farm and supports a range of projects intended to promote a sustainable future.

The Divinity School allows M.A.R. students to participate in a supervised ministry —an internship with a theological component — and Ernst thought that the Landscape Lab’s farm, garden of medicinal plants, woods, and guiding philosophy of experimentation provided an excellent setting to create art in dialogue with nature and help others forge a connection with the living world. 

Justin Freiberg, the lab’s director, welcomed Ernst as artist-in-residence. In September, Ernst began visiting the Landscape Lab regularly to make art “in conversation” with the plant life there. She spent time at the lab’s farm, walking its nature trails, observing the surroundings, listening to the birds and insects — and the occasional passing commuter train — savoring the fragrance of honeysuckle and other flowers, she said.

She has experimented with making natural dyes and inks from sources such as privet and pokeweed berries and tansy growing on the property. She has worked with a process called eco printing, which involves directly applying plants to paper and textiles, drawing colors, shapes, and patterns from sources like maple leaves, goldenrod, and raspberry leaves.

I wanted to concentrate on letting the plants themselves tell their story,” she said. “Part of what I’m doing is a contemplative process. I wanted the plants to share with me what they wanted to share. These techniques are the best way that I know how to do that.”

Fallen autumn leaves applied to paper through the eco printing process.
Ernst uses a technique call eco printing, directly applying plants to paper, to capture the natural beauty of a flower or leaf. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

Ernst, who has degrees in ornamental horticulture and studio art, says she took up papermaking from plants about 20 years ago, which triggered an interest in creating art with nature. Making art with flowers, leaves, barks, and berries can involve the element of surprise. Whether making prints or dyes, Ernst does not always know what a plant or flower will yield until the process is completed.

Making an eco print requires pressing a plant or flower between pieces of paper or fabric and steaming or boiling it to draw out its colors. The results can be striking. Ernst presented a thick piece of paper bearing a wildflower leaf in bright orange.

One thing I love about this process is that you never know what you’re going to get,” she said.

She discovered that a natural dye made of privet berries produced different colors on different fabric. From the same pot, linen dyed mauve while silk dyed reddish brown, and cottons dyed various shades of green.

Over the winter, she would work with materials from the Landscape Lab at her home studio in Stratford, Conn.

She experimented with encaustic painting — a method that involves using heated beeswax — after learning about honeybees from the Landscape Lab’s beekeepers. She rendered the wax from a small amount of the honeycombs.

Susan Ernst with a honeycomb.
Ernst at the Landscape Lab’s “Wikihouse,” which was a space from which she contemplated the surroundings, observing elements of the natural and built environment. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

The objective of the Landscape Lab is to promote sustainable practices, and I think this type of art making is sustainable,” she said. “Many of the plants I’m working with are considered weeds and safe to harvest. It’s another way to help connect people with the natural world and to help them experience the beauty of nature in a different way.”

A selection of her work will be exhibited May 6 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Landscape Lab’s barn, which is located behind the urban farm. Ernst will give a talk at 4 p.m.

Freiberg said the Landscape Lab exists to support students in making tangible, productive use of the landscape to turn ideas into action — whether those ideas be entrepreneurial, research-related, community-building, or, in Ernst’s case, artistic.

As our first artist in residence, Susan has not only immersed herself in what she does really well, but also has challenged herself to grow,” he said. “The expressions of the landscape that she has captured in her art are stunning, and a beautiful rendering of the potential of the landscape hiding in plain sight.”

In the fall, Ernst led workshops at the lab on nature contemplation. She often would find a quiet spot along the trails to reflect and contemplate. A “WikiHouse,” a wooden structure built in 2014 as an experiment in making resource-light and sustainable dwellings, provided Ernst a serene and sheltered spot to contemplate the large patch of Japanese knotweed surrounding the wooden structure.

Japanese knotweed is an invasive species,” she said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be ‘invasive.’ About being brought here and then abandoned, and about boundaries and growing in a place where maybe you don’t belong.”

She said the knotweed attracted swarms of honeybees and other pollinators in the late summer while it was in flower.  

It made me think about how even though this plant does not ‘belong’ here, it is still contributing, and what can I learn from that,” said Ernst. “It made me think of the phrase ‘bloom where you’re planted’ and whether that describes how I’ve lived my life.”

Walking along a trail behind the knotweed that overlooks the Oyster River, Ernst pointed to a tiny plant growing beside the path.

This is garlic mustard,” she said, crouching down. “Another ‘invasive’ plant. It is edible. I want to see if its leaves are good for eco printing.”

Yale’s Landscape Lab is located on Yale’s West Campus, 100 Campus Drive in Orange, Conn. Follow signs to the Urban Farm.

Part of the In Focus Collection: Meet some of Yale’s outstanding graduates of 2018

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548