Leaving paper and canvas outdoors, this creator lets nature take its artistic toll

New York City – Born in Sopot, Poland, during the communist era, Jacek Tylicki attended the Academy of Art in Gdansk. In 1972 he left Poland to study art history and philosophy at Sweden’s Lund University. Here he hit upon the idea that led to his nature works, made by leaving blank sheets of paper or canvas in a natural setting for several days or weeks; the paper either disintegrates or develops an abstract imprint in earthy colours, as though composed by some invisible hand. Having started, he went on making them. Tylicki spent a few years in Copenhagen before moving to New York in 1982 and eventually returning to Sopot. During the winter months, he travels to remote parts of the world, most recently the Andaman Islands and Western India, where he continues his long-running nature series.

How did you get the idea for the nature works?
JACEK TYLICKI: It came suddenly, one summer evening in 1973. Next morning I went out with some blank watercolour paper and spread it out in nature. A few days later I went back and collected the first pieces.

I think the idea has its roots in learning that Leonardo da Vinci urged his students and artists to search for inspiration in random forms. He contemplated the stains on old walls, the ashes of a fire, the shapes of clouds or patterns in mud. Da Vinci would throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and study the random marks – demonstrating the energy and pattern that accompanies all processes in the universe, I think.

Can you explain what you do in more detail?
Avoiding all control, I spread out sheets of white paper or canvas in the grass, on the riverbank or among stones. The materials must be of the highest quality, or they disintegrate quickly. The size can vary from 2 centimetres to 5 metres. Then nature registers its presence, covering the surface of the paper or canvas with colours, forms and tracks.

Would you call yourself a natural-art pioneer?
I began in the early years of land art, but the idea of adding objects to nature or using bulldozers to sculpt the landscape isn’t my cup of tea. Richard Long used earth and mud in some of his work, but he was clearly creating his own forms. Yves Klein fastened a canvas covered in blue paint to the roof of his car, and it gathered dust while he was driving. But I explore pure nature, without human interference.

Art happens everywhere, all the time. We just have to keep our minds open

What do these works say about the artist’s role?
The artist’s obligation is not to shape but to understand the riddles of reality. Nature is the greatest and most admirable creator.

How do you know when to retrieve the pieces?
It’s quite random. I simply have time or feel I have to go back. Sounds easy, but it’s not. Often, when I find the spot from memory or by using my iPhone GPS, as I do now, the paper will have fallen apart or be gone altogether. In that case, I’m too late in the race with the elements…

How many have you done?
Over 900. Unfortunately, many were destroyed when a hurricane hit my home in the Florida Keys back in 1999.

Are these images place-specific, or more universal?
Universal, in that they are traces of the planet. But each particular place, from the volcanic landscape of Iceland to the jungles of Fuji, creates distinctly different pieces.

Where to next with the technique?
I’m planning to work in Cambodia and the Andaman Islands again this winter. The images are so diverse and captivating that I can’t stop making them. The result is always a surprise, whether richly elaborate or minimalistic. Art happens everywhere, all the time. We just have to keep our minds open.


This piece was originally featured in One Artist One Material. You can purchase a copy here.

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