Lives and works in Minneapolis, MN
Sarah Nassif (she/her) is a self-taught social-practice artist living in Minneapolis, MN. She received her B.S. in Botany from the University of Washington in 1997 and worked in environmental education, forestry, and data analysis before becoming an artist.
In my community-engaged art projects, I connect people, plants, and place through sensory exploration of natural and human-built environments, hands-on skills practice, and person-to-person sharing.
Humans have always relied on their five senses to engage with the world and relate to one another. While this skill set remains our birthright, modern life modern life pulls us away from practicing this way of knowing. As we increasingly turn to technology to connect us, solve our problems, and serve us information about the world and ourselves, I’m concerned we will forget the basics of connecting with each other and of understanding through open-ended conversation.
As a botany student, I learned how observation, curiosity, and conversation is crucial to generating new understanding. In 2000, I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Minnesota, and despite my botany degree, I had to start from scratch learning Minnesota flora. I took digital photos that became a series of screen prints tracing the unique silhouettes of Minnesota plants, starting an unexpected art career. Looking to the plant world for direction has become a grounding principle of my practice.
Leaf Trace/Land Trace springs from my journey to understand how I got here.As a botanist, I was fascinated by the role trees played in the laying out the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) survey lines in the 1800s. These bearing trees were used to mark the four corners of each quarter-section. Some of these trees are still growing well over a hundred years later.
The purpose of the PLSS was to catalog lands seized in the American Revolution. Today, we recognize its physical imprint as the rectangular patchwork of land visible from the air. This cozy image belies how the PLSS dictated the long-term inequitable distribution of wealth in the U.S. Homesteads, redlined city blocks, and modern real estate documents selling unceded Native American land all descend from the PLSS. This bald truth struck me as something anyone could interact with if they were led to make the connection.
I am descended from European immigrants, homesteaders and entrepreneurs whose ingenuity and effort allowed them to build wealth in the twentieth century. I, like many white Americans, am conditioned not to question this story: that I enjoy a life of ease because of the hard work of my ancestors and the work ethic I inherited. As an adult, I’m learning to unsettle this story and reframe it to include the missing pieces in search of my full heritage, both hopeful and harmful.
Leaf Trace / Land Trace invites others into this journey by tracing a series of familiar systems. Participants are given a paper booklet and a red pencil imprinted with the text “Can the system see itself?” The pencil point is offered as a starting point, a reminder you have already arrived at the beginning. The first system trace is outlining a leaf and its veins, warming up to the idea that simple observation yields insight. A series of meditations unfold as steps emphasizing our ability to learn by taking the time to observe the world around us and converse openly with others. The ending activity traces landmarks created by people and recorded in the PLSS in the 1800s.
As individuals, we are caught up in the fabric of systems we often do not notice. Can curiosity replace complacency? In the face of injustice and uncertainty, how might our viewpoints and actions shift by tracing systems, both natural and human-made?