Charles Kennard: Eclectic Environmentalist
by Paul Epstein on March 15, 2012
A photographer, a textile artist, and a hands-on steward of watersheds, Charles Kennard brings diverse tools and ideas to bear on a range of environmental issues and projects. Originally from England, Kennard now resides in Marin County, where he is active in the restoration of Corte Madera Creek, both as a board member of The Friends of Corte Madera Creek Watershed and a front-line volunteer. His nature photography has appeared in museums, galleries and many times in the pages of Bay Nature. As a textile artist, he synthesizes Native American and European traditions, weaving handcrafted ornamental beehives called skeps. Charles has also made more than twenty woven tule boats, which have been displayed at various places around the state. All of this is inspired by his fierce connection with the Bay Area landscape.
BN: You do all different kinds of things relating to nature. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing?
CK: I was brought up in rural England and I have always been in contact with the land, plants and nature. I came to California in 1978 to be with an American girlfriend. Once here, I really wanted to get to know the place and the nature in this area, so I did a lot of research into it and photographed it, and then began to use the plants, too. It just coalesced. They’re all expressions of my love of the land.
BN: How do the different things you do, such as your photography, the crafts, and your advocacy work, affect each other?
CK: They all support each other. Whatever group I’m in contact with, different aspects of my work excite them. It’s particularly clear when I’m teaching children: Some like the human aspects – how plants and animals have been used – and the human traditions and the stories behind them. I contrast that to the scientific or ecological view, which is most often taught in schools. Other children prefer this aspect of the work, life-cycles and other scientific understandings. The human aspects interest me more.
BN: Please tell me more about the woven beehives. Where did the idea come from and why do you make them?
CK: It’s a traditional form. I’ve been weaving baskets since 1989 when I took my first workshop with a Pomo Indian woman, Susan Billy. I took to it immediately, because it brought together the ancient culture, this land, the plants and the technology. You have to get to know the landscape and how the plants grow. I collect my own materials, which is an important part of the process.
BN: What is your role in the Friends of Corte Madera Creek Watershed?
CK: I’m on the board, Plus I do nearly all their photography and some editing, I also manage four habitat restoration sites, including at White Hill Middle School in Fairfax and the College of Marin property, which is a two-acre site in Kentfield where we’ve been working since 1998. I arrange a lot of work parties and buy the plants and put them in with other volunteers and some of the schoolkids.
BN: You’ve taken many photographs. Of all of them, which one is the most memorable or meaningful to you?
CK: There’s one that always sticks in my mind, which is a photograph of an egret with a bulldozer behind it. It’s kind of framed by the big-toothed wheel of the earth-moving equipment. It shows the adaptability of the bird as well as the threat to it, in one photograph. That was in Tiburon. I also took a photograph of an otter in San Anselmo Creek, swimming with a fish in its mouth.
BN: What will your next project be?
CK: Continuing weaving. I’m just developing a planting of rows of willows at Green Gulch, in the bottom of the valley near Muir Beach, to use for baskets and to weave fences.
BN: Please tell me about your tule boats.
CK: I got into it through basketweaving because they employ some of the same techniques as the baskets. They are made from tule reeds. I’ve made them from other things too, for example, Giant Reed. They were used traditionally in many parts of California, actually many parts of the Americas. I’ve been doing mostly the type used in California. I’ve made twenty-two tule boats, including one at the California Academy of Sciences, one in the Bay Model in Sausalito, and one in the Lake County Museum near Clear Lake.
Charles Kennard will offer a basket-making workshop sponsored by the California Native Garden Foundation on March 24. Learn more here.