For decades, Jacqueline Bishop has traveled to flashpoints of environmental peril around the world, especially the rainforests of Brazil, which are now deeply involved in patterns of land loss and climate change. She always returned home to New Orleans to articulate these themes in her paintings and mixed media works. But since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, Bishop has found her home on the frontlines of some of the very same issues.
“I experienced first hand what I had been lecturing about for so many years,” Bishop says. “Katrina created a lot of awareness and people are understanding my work now in a new way.”
A California native, Bishop came to New Orleans for college in the 1970s and decided to stay, quickly becoming an active figure in the local arts community. In more recent years, she would create such outreach programs as the Contemporary Art Center’s ArtSpeak lecture series and produce public radio documentaries on local artists. From practically the beginning of her art career, however, she has focused on ecological issues. In the 1980s, for instance, a series entitled “Beach Butchering” spoke to disappearing coastlines while another addressed global warming. Those ideas did not then have the cachet they do today, and Bishop says she was routinely ridiculed as an alarmist.
Birds have long played a key symbolic role in her work, and the realization that many of the species she had been painting had become extinct sparked a radical change in her approach. She grew frustrated by what she saw as the art world’s lack of interest in environmental questions. She put aside her art theory books and picked up volumes on biodiversity and philosophy, then began trooping around the world with scientists studying ecological issues.
An incurable scavenger, Bishop collects and reuses in her art the discarded objects she finds in her travels. Baby shoes she has picked up from shantytown streets, in second-hand stores or even, enigmatically, in the rainforest are imbued with new symbolic meaning in her recent evocative installations.
“We all started out in shoes this small,” she says, handling a tiny, worn-out slipper. “What decisions have we made since then about the world we walk on?”
Bishop’s work has captured widespread attention and, especially since Katrina, she has been invited to speak on the issues it conveys at diverse venues. Her work appeared in two shows that opened on the same day in September in different corners of the world, the DeLand Museum of Art in Florida and the Gongju National Museum in South Korea. Closer to home, her “Veil Series” is showing at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile through December.