Becoming the Wind

"Artists and scientists are curious people, and our work often starts with a question"

Mark Nystrom, whose “wind drawings” are featured in Creative Nonfiction #58, is an award-winning artist, designer, and photographer based out of North Carolina. He has exhibited his work in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Raleigh, and at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He holds an MFA in graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently teaches at Appalachian State University.

Nystrom’s versatile work explores themes as varied as politics, nature, and the media. His wind drawings, originally inspired by a leaf tracing patterns in the snow, showcase the collaboration between the environment and technology, by allowing air currents to create patterns with drawing utensils and weather instruments. 

CNF: First, let’s look at the technicalities of your work. A leaf originally inspired your wind drawings, but your current methodology is a lot more complex, involving sophisticated weather instruments and multiple day data collection at specific sites. Can you walk us through this process of creation and collection a bit? How long does it take? Do you scout out specific locations, or is location a secondary concern?

NYSTROM: Collecting wind data is fairly simple. Getting all of this to work the first time wasn’t so easy, but now I just set up the weather instruments, plug in some wires and run some software on a computer.

The weather instruments are connected to a microcontroller (I now use an Arduino, but I started with a Basic Stamp) that converts the analog input from the weather instruments (voltage) to digital output for the computer. The computer runs some software I wrote and saves the measurements in a text file. Values for time, date, wind speed, and direction are saved every second.

The wind data is a raw material to shape into a drawing with software. Each program, written in Processing, is a drawing process that visually interprets the data. The development time for each process varies. Some processes can be cranked out in a few hours; others take days or weeks. I play with ways to draw in a two dimensional space using time, wind speed and direction to control where marks appear, how they’re organized, and what they look like. I often get an idea for a process, code it up, and then spend weeks tweaking the code as I run different data through it and evaluate the images that are made.

I don’t have a dedicated space to gather wind data. The first time I did it was while in graduate school, and the balcony of my apartment was a convenient place to figure out how to do so. In 2009, I was invited to be an interpreter for SP Weather Station, an interdisciplinary project based in New York that collects weather data and organizes weather-related publications, events, and exhibitions. SPWS interpreters work with weather data collected over a month and create multiples for inclusion in a portfolio of the year’s reports. SPWS’s weather station didn’t collect wind data at a rate that yielded the detail I wanted, so I set up my own instruments next to theirs. Data was collected every second for the month of June.

Since then, I have collected data where I exhibit my live wind drawing project, “Air Current(s).” Some locations have shown it for months at a time and I have been developing drawing processes that use data for multiple days, a week or longer. I now have two sets of instruments and am looking for a place to set one up for a whole year.

CNF: Your previous works include graphic design, photography, and technology, but presumably your wind drawings require an entirely different set of knowledge. What new skills did you have to learn to create the drawings? Did you foresee yourself learning new technical skills from this project, or was it unexpected?

NYSTROM: I had some experience with programming, but had never worked with Processing before. Getting into it was a bit like riding a new bike. I already knew the basics of programming, but had to get the feel for a new language. Programming-wise, the drawing processes became more interesting when I learned about classes and objects. I’m not formally trained as a programmer and probably don’t do things in the most efficient way possible, but at some point that doesn’t matter to me. The images the code creates are what I care about most.

My biggest technical challenge was learning about electronics and building my own weather station. I made my first one in grad school where I had to build my own circuits. Without the context of a class to work in I would have been lost. Now, I use an Arduino, which easily lets me plug in wires from the weather instruments. There’s a little bit of programming here, too, but the documentation and other online resources have been a tremendous help.

In 2013, I was invited to show “Air Current(s)” in New York and had to learn how to wirelessly transmit data from the weather instruments to the computer generating the live drawing. Arduino is a very flexible platform to work with, and adding radio components to it was fairly simple. The trickiest part was finding an antenna with enough power to send the data from the roof of one building to a computer in the ground floor of another.

CNF: You use very scientific terms to describe your work with nature–collecting and extracting data, color densities correlated to wind speeds, and the like. Your wind drawings in particular seem to flourish at the crossroads of technology, nature, and art. Do you consider yourself the creator, or just a facilitator or  “translator” for the art? Are you in joint collaboration with nature here?

NYSTROM: The wind is my muse, my teacher and partner. Together, we create artwork. I only create processes to generate drawings. The wind is an expression of nature that is often overlooked, simplified, or quickly forgotten. I collaborate with the wind to give it a voice in a language—visually—we can all understand, or at least feel.

CNF: It is important to you that your work express both clarity and feeling. How do you weave your own feelings and emotions into such a scientifically precise body of work? Do you see a story or narrative to your work?

NYSTROM: When I was a teenager, I was on a weeklong backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with my Boy Scout troop. I remember being struck with awe on a 5,000 foot mountain by the view of ridgeline after ridgeline receding into the distance.

After ten years of working as a graphic designer, I went to graduate school to explore ways of using design to foster stronger connections between people and nature. My first wind drawings, made with pen and ink, instilled in me the same sense of wonder as the view of the mountains years before. This feeling is something I try to evoke with each wind drawing.

Each one is also an attempt to renew our connection to nature. To fully appreciate each one, and firm up that connection, it helps to have an understanding of a drawing’s process. If viewers understand how it was made, in a sense they become the wind, blowing slow or fast, from a certain direction, at a specific time, in a specific place. The story of the wind is told in each drawing. Some are very detailed, others more gestural.

The wind is an expression of nature that is often overlooked, simplified, or quickly forgotten. I collaborate with the wind to give it a voice in a language—visually—we can all understand, or at least feel.

CNF: Apart from nature, who or what do you consider your inspirations or predecessors?

NYSTROM: Casey Reas, who along with Ben Fry first developed Processing, is certainly someone I look up to. The stunning visual form he creates with software has always been inspiring to me. On the other end of the technical spectrum is Andy Goldsworthy. Each of his works—all made with natural materials—leaves me with a never-ending resonance. Nestled somewhere between Goldsworthy and Reas is Olafur Eliasson. His use of technology to create installations and sculpture with elemental materials is well beyond my capabilities, but I think we have similar goals. The generative drawings by Sol LeWitt are, of course, another source of inspiration.

CNF: You mention that your goal in your work is to connect feelings and clarity, two distinctly different themes. How do you see your audience reacting emotionally to these pieces?

NYSTROM: They’re drawn to the work by its form. Because it is abstract, they often don’t immediately understand it. Those who learn about the drawing process through descriptions and titles gain a deeper appreciation. I’ve spoken with people at receptions for exhibitions in which I’m showing work. Their eyes widen a bit when they realize the wind made the drawings.

CNF: You’ve already reenvisioned your original wind drawings as air current drawings. What’s next for your collaboration of art and nature? Are there any new tools or weather phenomena you’d like to work with in the future?

NYSTROM: Martin Venezky, one of my professors in graduate school, taught me that there is great liberty with limitations. There is so much I can do with wind alone that I’m not really interested in working with other natural phenomena. I recently began making analog wind drawings again, but I really enjoy the creative and technical challenges of working digitally. I’ll keep developing new drawing processes to make prints and animations and explore 3D printing, too. The idea of translating wind data into sculptural form is very exciting to me.

CNF: Because of the nature of your work (pun unintended), you didn’t create new drawings in response to the essays, but selected pieces for the magazine based on your existing art. Can you describe what that process was like? How did you look to match essays to the drawings?

NYSTROM: I read each essay several times to get a feel for its content and tried to find drawings that felt like they matched a moment or tone in each essay. The drawings’ abstract form helped. Wind could suggest waves or a snowbound city seen from above.

CNF: Your ultimate goal for your own work is to foster wonder, which you say paves the way for curiosity and learning. Do you find that these essays function in the same way?

NYSTROM: Of course they do, but perhaps the biggest difference between the drawings and essays is the amount of information given to the reader. The drawings hint at something and invite their viewers to learn about the process and, through that, about nature itself. The essays impart more knowledge, and if they strike a chord in their reader, they’ll seek out more information.

CNF: What kind of learning do you hope the audience takes away from your contributions to the magazine?

NYSTROM: I hope the wind drawings inspire them to pay closer attention to the wind and, in turn, nature and its processes. Our awareness of nature is often in the moment. Expanding our appreciation of it beyond that will certainly lead to learning more about the world and our place in it.   

Artists and scientists are curious people, and our work often starts with a question.

CNF: You work in vastly different mediums and themes. For example, your “Political Reporter” installation focuses on perhaps the opposite of nature: technology and the media. Do you tend to gravitate toward one theme or the other? Does your creative process differ depending on your theme or medium?

NYSTROM: Translating information (often data) into new experiences is a central theme in all of my work. I’m always working with wind, but I enjoy working with politics, music, and carbon emissions. My artistic career began in graduate school, and I’ve been developing ideas that started there in the ten years since I graduated. Occasionally I’m invited to participate in a project that helps me branch out. My drawings based on music are one example. Their drawing process was adapted from a wind drawing process.

I give “The Political Reporter” a lot of attention every four years during presidential elections. Its roots are with nature, though. In grad school, I saved hundreds of online news articles about environmental issues and after two years decided to make something with them. I wrote some software to generate random statements with adjectives, nouns and verbs in the articles, and “The Reporter” was born. Since then, its form has changed, and I developed “The Political Reporter” to see what could be said in a virtual, political echo chamber.

CNF: Overall, it seems that your art focuses on balance: balance between themes and mediums, and (with the wind drawings, at least) a balance between the scientific and the artistic. Is this something you deliberately set out to explore?  Do you find maintaining this balance to be difficult or enjoyable?

NYSTROM: Accounting for a balance in my creative work seems like a lot of trouble. Differences in media, content, and approaches are natural outcomes of who I am and what I’m interested in.

With the wind drawings, I deliberately think about how to express the wonder of nature. I’ll use high or low-tech tools as I explore ways of doing so. Artists and scientists are curious people, and our work often starts with a question. With the wind drawings, some of my questions are:

  • What will happen if the wind pushes a pen across the surface of some paper for a day?
  • How do wind speed and direction change over time?
  • How do wind conditions on different days compare?
  • Can presentation of data be artistic?
  • Can I map wind conditions to time in a visually interesting way?
  • Clocks and compasses present information in a radial form; how can their organizing principles be combined?

Some of my drawing processes generate images that are more rooted in the visual language of science. They may be chart-like and clearly show how wind direction and speed change over time. I’m interested in the information these drawings convey, but I’m also curious about forces of nature. How can they be harnessed to produce artwork? If I look closely at shifts in wind conditions, does a translation of them into visual form look interesting or surprising?

I can see how my mix of digital and analog wind drawings looks like an attempt to find balance, but it really is something else. I started with analog drawings and have been working digitally for some time now in an attempt to create work that instills the same sense of wonder I feel when looking at the analog wind drawings. I haven’t been able to do this to my satisfaction, and it could be that the analog drawings have a purity or honesty that can’t be matched with digital work. The marks made in each one were directly shaped by the wind, and there’s something mystical about them. Aesthetically, some of the digital drawings approach this mystic quality, though not to the extent that the analog ones do. In the last year, I’ve started making analog drawings again. I haven’t stopped making digital work, but I’m not holding it to the same standard.

I’m lucky to have found an interest that I enjoy and that keeps me curious and continuously making. I’m delighted to have my work included in Creative Nonfiction, and I hope your readers enjoy it.

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About the Author

Laura Dzwonczyk

Laura Dzwonczyk previously worked as an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. She earned her masters degree in creative writing from Penn State University and spent a year teaching in Germany as a Fulbright scholar.

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