Cayla Tinney paints waypoints to memory

Cayla Tinney paints waypoints to memory

PRESERVED! Artist Interview Series

Nature pervades most facets of Cayla Tinney’s life. She is a visual artist and an ecologist inspired by the rhythms, poetry and memory she sees in the landscape.

Tinney grew up in Northern Michigan, where she said the “outside” was ever-present.

Cayla Tinney

“Nature is very integral in my sense of home,” Tinney said.

She learned to paint when she was young, and when it came time to go to college, she decided to go to art school. But the art world she found there was at odds with what she valued, she said.

“I grew up learning painting from a bunch of old ladies who do craft fairs and art fairs. That was my art world, and there wasn’t a lot of regard for that when I went to go get a formal art education,” Tinney said. “I knew I wanted to paint and painted all the time, but I didn’t want to get sucked into an art world.”

So Tinney transferred to University of Michigan, and that’s where she discovered a passion for ecology. She graduated and got a job working in ecological restoration, where she became adept at identifying plants and ecosystems. This knowledge changed the way she understood her painting.

“When I first started working in the field, everything was kind of homogenous looking to me,” Tinney said.

She learned the difference between oak-hickory and maple-beech forests, fens and marshes, and she became privy the ways their textures informed her experience in a place. She recalled realizing this on her drives back home:

“There was a point when I would get close to my hometown, and I would suddenly feel at home even though I wasn’t yet back at my folks’ place,” Tinney said. She later understood, “It’s the point where you start to see more maple-beech forests, and it starts to feel more northern.”

Tinney’s artwork is inspired by the connections she feels to different environments—and how their textures and “rhythms” inform experience and memory.

“It’s the feeling of place that comes from very physical forms, and how even if you don’t know plants you may have these rhythms in you,” Tinney said. “When you grow up in a place, or spend a lot of time in a place, it kind of lives in you in a certain way. That’s a lot of what I’m after in my work.”

Tinney said her paintings take shape in a way similar to the landscape—she paints in layers and scrapes it away in the same way soil is deposited and erodes. It’s important for her not to be precious with the canvas, or worried about how expensive the paint is, to become completely immersed in the process.

“Letting myself fall into the process of painting is the same way that I feel about going for a walk,” Tinney said. “I value the canvas and the work that I spend on it in the same way I value spending that time in the actual place.”

The spaces Tinney choses to paint all have special significance to her. She has memories attached to them, and painting them enables her to dwell in and solidify those memories. Both the places and the paintings become what she calls “waypoints” to return to those memories.

“When I paint, it allows me to spend more time in a place and kind of create something from that place and encompass that place,” Tinney said. “When I choose to paint a space, it’s extremely specific to me.”

But she doesn’t paint with specificity. She hopes viewers of her work can find their own waypoints in them.

“I love making pieces that people can connect to in their own way,” Tinney said. “If they see it and go, ‘Oh my gosh, my grandmothers house,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, summers in Michigan,’ or whatever it may be, that they have a memory of or get that kind of spark of recognition. That’s what I’m after, more than anything—this kind of connective tissue between people.”

Tinney said Preserved! is an accessible way for people to understand the impact art can have.

“I appreciate that Preserved! is approachable and understandable,” Tinney said. “That’s part of why I paint landscapes—for me it’s a quiet place where we can just sit and connect. I hope that my work creates that space for people.”


You can see and purchase Cayla Tinney’s pieces inspired by Land Conservancy projects this fall at the Preserved! gallery receptions and exhibits. Learn more and register to attend the opening receptions here.

Marie Orttenburger
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