The broke artist is a classic archetype. For Los Angeles-based artist Rebecca Youssef, however, it was the reality of her own “brokeness,” in grad school that forced her to begin thinking about the conversation between art and conservation.
“I was forced to be resourceful,” she says. “I used to paint on these old hospital sheets I bought for 50 cents at the local thrift store.”
For a while, foraging for found objects she could turn into fine art was akin to post-traumatic stress, as she didn’t want to relive the days when she had nothing. But then the pandemic came and she found herself amassing paper shopping bags. Suddenly, she was thinking about those old practices from her salad days once again. What might it mean to find use in waste, she wondered. To take the domestic and the banal and to turn it into something beautiful?
“Working with the planet,” is how Youssef describes it. “Instead of taking from it.”
Today, she puts this to use in her L.A. studio. She is perhaps most prolific when it comes to her recycled cardboard collages: corrugated squares fastened together and painted over with a series of colorful streaks, droplets and puddles. Then there is the homemade paper series, reclaiming discarded junk mail and homework assignments. Then there’s the grocery bag series—using those aforementioned consumer relics to re-explore color and light and vitality as we emerge from Covid.
In smog-heavy California mornings, Youssef heads out to the canyon in her backyard and makes her art there in the dirt. Building on an ongoing project she started years ago, she’s been collecting, harvesting, and then planting thousands of acorns in the hopes they will grow into California oaks.
Youssef spoke with LAmag about the project, as well as foraging, urban forestry, and the particular draw of art informed by conservation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Los Angeles: I know how much you’re influenced by the California landscape. With all of the wildfires and the mudslides, have you found the current weather conditions shaping the way you’re thinking about your own art or your own practice?
Rebecca Youssef: Definitely. We had a fire three years ago, the Getty Fire. Firefighters used our house as their home base. My house butts up to the canyon and the fire department cut down our fence and dragged their hoses up to the houses above us because 12 were burning down. So they fought from below. And that’s probably what saved my house—that like 33 of them were in my house and my yard. But I’ve been planting my acorns in this canyon for years. After that fire, it completely devastated it. I mean, it used to be so lush, you couldn’t even really see that far. And then when the fire came through, it was like a barren wasteland. Mars. So I have since ramped up my efforts, and I have a full blown reforestation project going back there. And it has definitely informed my work on the urgency of reforestation and just about the urban landscape in general. How there’s so much opportunity for the city to reforest.
LA: How many acorns do you estimate you’ve planted so far?
RY: I mean, around 20,000. I sort of lost count. During shedding season, I’d go out every few days around town and forage and scoop acorns up. I have a whole mini-refrigerator filled with acorns right now. Every season I plant anywhere from seven to 10,000.
LA: Is there anyone else in the community that you’ve gotten involved in helping with the project?
RY: You know it’s funny. People have volunteered to help with the foraging and stuff. And then people have always wanted to help plant. But I don’t think they realize how much work it is. I’ll go out into the canyon. You have to hike in with bags of acorns, or even sometimes saplings. And not many people want to sign on for that. It’s quite the effort.
LA: Do you consider your work with the acorns art as well as conservation? Or do you keep them in sort of separate buckets?
RY: No, I actually just took down a show called Radical Propagations. And I did mine on acorns. It was based on a 2017 study that came out of USC that took aerial imaging of LA County over 10 years, tracking the tree coverage. During that time, there were some neighborhoods that lost about 50 percent of their trees. So I used that as my jumping off point for three pieces. One was my documentation of one season of my reforestation project. And then I had these acrylic containers fabricated and I filled them with this stuff called Bio Gel. The Department of Agriculture has developed it to try and grow crops out in the desert. Then I planted little germinated acorns. And we watched them grow their roots in the Bio Gel into little saplings.
LA: It makes you realize how much of a role time can play in art.
RY: Also, it’s basically putting it in water. There’s no real nutrients. So it speaks to their resilience as well because they’re in a plastic box. And they’re still alive—I’ve since been able to transfer them into real dirt and they’re still going strong. The third piece, I took the germinated acorns and have them all in different stages. Some were just acorns, some had a little taproot, some were a little sapling. And I encased them in these bio resin discs. And then I hung like 100 of them from the ceiling, cascading down. Just really pretty.
LA: It makes me think quite a bit about this negotiation between that which is very beautiful and that which has a really clear function and importance in the environment. I know you mention being raised in O’ahu. Now, being so influenced by California topography, does the environment you grew up in also play a role in shaping your work?
RY: I think it did. When I was in art school, I did a lot of work that involved water. And then when I moved out to California, it was a real change in scenery. There’s always an element in the environment that influences me. But now it’s very much tree centered.
LA: Do you have a sense of why that’s been such an anchoring influence for you? The elements and the environment?
RY: I mean I’ve always been somebody who’s been really affected by nature. If I’m stressed or anxious, I kind of retreat to hiking trails, go camping, stuff like that. And that’s why I even like just doing some of my research surrounding trees. There is actually data that supports that trees help with mental health.
LA: Jumping off of that, what do you think it is about art that makes it such a useful platform to start a conversation about change or conservation and the environment?
RY: Anytime I think you can highlight a cause visually, that’s very powerful. I belong to Eco Art Space. It’s a bunch of environmentally driven artists. And to just kind of see what some of them put out, it gets you thinking. And it sheds a light on issues that even I didn’t really think about.
LA: What is your origin story when it comes to how you first started fusing conservation and artwork?
RY: Well it’s funny, I used to keep them sort of separate. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was asked to do something for a group show. And that had to do with planting my trees in the Santa Monica Mountains. And it was during that project that the magic happened—bringing them together. I think it has strengthened the work and it has really become my point of view.