Shifting Shorelines

Artist duo Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather chart the past, present and future of the San Francisco Bay in their abstract artworks

by Brooke Berglund

In the multi-year project Shifting Shorelines, Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather explore the environmental and human factors that shape areas where land meets water. The complex abstract forms they create come from months of research to understand the ever-evolving landscapes and the people who experience them. Hughen/Starkweather create artwork that engages audiences not only with an aesthetic experience, but with the visible knowledge they have gathered about their subjects.

Their artistic process is a unique one. Hughen and Starkweather spend three months to a year diving into a specific location. Similar to early cartographers, their research is developed through historical documents, maps and through the process of interviews. They have had conversations with community members including “ local residents, cartographers, fishermen, farmers, poets, marine biologists, educators, environmentalists, botanists, historians, geologists and storytellers”, all to understand the place through history both as a scientist and as a lay-person. As the creation process begins, Hughen and Starkweather retreat to separate studios spanning the Bay Area. From then, the artists work independently on each piece, passing the artwork back and forth, meeting to plan next steps. New forms spawn from their research. The resulting pieces are comprised of layered complexities hinting at the landforms, systems and built structures of the location.

Adapt, Retreat, Defend, Abandon, Acrylic paint, ink, and gouache on paper, 2017

The two Bay Area artists embrace being “lay people” and aim to reach audiences of all backgrounds. Hughen points out in their LASER talk that “obviously the art is abstract” and they do not expect viewers to be able to read the geographic information on which their work is based. Instead, Shifting Shorelines is interested in the viewer coming to the pieces and having their own reaction whether or not they look into the source material. The viewer can bring to the artwork whatever they bring.

I had the opportunity to speak with Amanda Hughen of Hughen/Starkweather team and ask her more about her work:

Jennifer Starkweather mentioned in your LASER talk that you were drawn to creating art about the "built environment". What interests you about the built environment and where can we see that in your work?

Amanda Hughen: “We are interested in places where the built and natural environments interact, collide, and overlap. Our work is abstract with strong hints of source materials in visual forms referencing the built and natural environments, frequently symbolized in our work with geometric and organic structures. The interaction and layering of these forms refers to the complex past, present, and future narratives about a place. In our current work, which focuses on shifting shorelines and rising sea levels, we are interested in places where the built infrastructure — including highways, airports, water treatment plants, and public transportation — is near a shoreline. This type of infrastructure is more difficult to relocate than a private home or building, and can impact thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.

The earth is constantly changing by its very nature. Occasionally, geologic change or weather event can impact the built environment in a dramatic way — fire, drought, flood, earthquake. Most of today's built environment and infrastructure has not been built to adapt to this type of change, so decisions must be made to adapt, retreat, defend, or abandon the built environment in places that are in flood zones or a similar landscape.”

How do you select the subjects or locations of your work?

“We select locations and topics through our own interests, but we are also frequently invited to do work about a specific location or topic for a commission, exhibition, or residency. Commissioned work has included a research residency at Recology in San Francisco (otherwise known as the dump). They invited us to investigate carbon, soil, compost, and food systems through our work. The resulting series of abstract works - titled Black Gold - reference impacted landscapes, molecular structures, and biochemical processes. Other commissions or exhibitions in which we were invited to This is exciting to us, because we love the process of researching and learning about new places and ideas. , and love diving into new topics. However, we have also done a good deal of work around the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only is that where we both live and work, but it is an unusually dynamic and interesting landscape that sits on the edge of a continent, beside an ocean, and next to the largest estuary in North America.”

Food, Landfill, Methane Ink, pencil and gouche on paper, 2018 Black Gold series

You also spoke about how you and Jennifer interview people with strong memories of these coastlines - how do these oral histories influence how you depict these shorelines? What do they add to your artistic process?

“ Our work involves researching a place or topic through maps, data, photos, news articles, libraries, archives, and other means. But the oral histories and interviews are the most rewarding, both on a personal level and regarding the type of information that results. When we interview someone in person, the narratives that emerge are unexpected and fascinating. We translate words and ideas from an interview into visual information — colors, textures, hints of objects, buildings, or landforms.”

Climate change has been transformed from scientific fact into a political and controversial issue. In this current political climate, would you classify your work a political statement?

“As artists, we function as witness and translator, reinterpreting gathered information. Through our artwork, we hope to suggest new ways to consider the difficult topic of climate change, including its past and future impacts.

In the current political environment in the United States and elsewhere, it seems increasingly important to create connections through conversations. Talking about climate change can be a divisive undertaking, and can lead to feelings of powerlessness and detachment. Our process involves listening to people’s stories about the changing landscape and its impact on their lives. The artworks become a unique lens through which to consider another person’s experience. “ To learn more about the Hughen and Starkweather's work, visit: