Land Art: A Healing Practice in Stressful Times
If you spend time walking along the First Street waterfront, you may already have seen her artwork beside the sidewalk, next to a bench, or nestled under a bush. For Benicia resident Nicci Nunes, who enjoys walking at Benicia’s waterfront and local parks, her artistic process starts with noticing the shape of a twig lying along a path, the color of a leaf, or the texture of pebbles. She picks up interesting natural objects along her walk and arranges them into an artistic design on the ground, leaving it for others to observe and enjoy. Her art practice grew out of her need to deal with anxiety related to personal trauma and the extended period of isolation during early days of the pandemic. “I was going through a mental health issue and was struggling to sit still with myself outside. I started collecting piles of things as a way to stay with myself. I found the practice to be very soothing and realized that it helped me process my feelings.”
Known as land art, Nunes’ work is part of a practice in which art is made directly into the landscape, by sculpting the land into an artistic structure, or by making a structure or form using natural materials such as earth, flower, rocks or twigs. While some land art is large and immovable, Nunes’ ephemeral assemblages are small and portable. “Usually, I’m just walking around outside, and something will catch my eye … maybe because of its shape or color, and an idea starts to form. I make the piece, take a photo, and usually leave it there. I never really have a plan, never know what I’m going to do. Rather, I just show up and see what happens. Sometimes I collect things over time that I bring home to do bigger pieces.”
Nicci didn’t think of herself as an artist until recently.
Born in Hayward, she grew up in a family of teachers and always knew she would become a teacher as well. “My mom was a teacher, my grandma was a teacher, even my great-grandmother.” She earned BS and Ph.D degrees in Chemistry from Harvey Mudd and Rice University, respectively, and began teaching high school science in San Francisco and later at De La Salle High School, in Concord. She moved to Benicia in 2003, where she taught science and technology at Liberty High School and Benicia Middle School until 2021. As a teacher, Nunes has always had an eye out for the underdog. “When people find out that I have a science background, they say ‘you must be really smart.’ But I try to convince my students that they have the ability to do it as well. I’ve always focused on making sure young people aren’t getting left out and supporting them as much as possible.”
For personal reasons, Nicci took a brief leave of absence from teaching in the spring of 2020, just before the pandemic shelter-in-place began. Her first day back was the first day of distance learning for the Benicia Unified School District. “It was a stressful time, a lot to deal with, both for teachers, and for students and their families.” To cope with the stress, she started spending more and more time outside, often at the end of First Street or at Matthew Turner Shipyard Park, where she walked and began to collect objects. “I started making them into different designs. It really has become a grounding practice for me now. It helps me stay with my feelings and externalize them, rather than holding them inside. It definitely calms me down.”
After seeing other artists post similar work on Instagram, Nunes enrolled in a series of collage classes through Arts Benicia.
She learned to make her own colorful papers for collages, which she views as a type of indoor land art. She entered her first community art show online at Arts Benicia in 2021 and began sharing photos of her work via Instagram, often accompanied by an inspirational phrase or prayer. She is hopeful that learning about her art practice can be helpful for others dealing with stress. “Something about it is a fight between heart and head. This practice has been very healing for me. I’m hopeful it can be for others as well.”
Land Art 1 – May we learn to be with ourselves
Land Art 4 – May we trust that our seeds will sprout when it is time
Land Art 8 – May we hope and dream fiercely
Although she has left active teaching, Nunes continues to invest time in youth working with the Benicia Teen Center.
In addition to her art practice, she is also a freelance writer and consultant for chemistry curriculum development. “For many years, I had merged my identity with teaching, and when I left that, I needed things to fill me back up.” You can see more of Nicci’s artwork on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/niccinun/ Her Land Art Prayer Cards can be found at https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/land-art-prayers
Land Art 5 – May we stay together with each other