Laj Waghray: Artist in Residence at Donges Bay Gorge Preserve
December 6, 2021 | Topics: featured artist
The Natural Realm presents Laj Waghray, who is among 17 artists participating in a year-long residency program called ARTservancy, a collaboration between Gallery 224 in Port Washington and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy, Tall Pines Conservancy, and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. The mission of ARTservancy is to promote the visionary work of both the artists and conservationists. Each artist has selected a preserve to spend time in and to engage with.
Artist statement by Laj Waghray
I strive to make meaningful films that celebrate the artistic nature of the medium while addressing important social issues.
With facts as a foundation, I use layers of imagination and the beauty of visuals to strengthen the narrative. Sleepovers follows the intimate conversations of four friends focusing on body image and gender stereotyping. Similarly, my film On Hands reveals the healing that comes from working with one’s hands. While the world was eager to reopen following the coronavirus pandemic, I explored the effects of the lockdowns by documenting one doctor’s life in isolation at home in a two-minute film Together, Alone.
Initially, my curiosity leads me to investigate simple questions such as: What do we gain by turning away from our screens and working with our hands? What do justice and peace have to do with hunger? Are bird populations an indicator of the health of a city just as the canary and coal mine? These difficult topics also amplify possible solutions which allows me to remain both resolute and hopeful. Then I delve into research and discussion with peers and experts to gather different perspectives on the issue. When I reach a juncture where diverse perspectives seem to coalesce, I pause to reflect, plan production, and tell the story.
As a resident artist with the ARTservancy program, I’m making multiple experimental short films. I applied to the residence inspired by the story of how Donges Bay, Wisconsin was home to the first successful nesting of bald eagles in the metropolitan area in more than 100 years. This return of the bird, the return of this land to conservation has given me immense hope.
I have always been interested in nature – but I discovered how deeply while working on Searching for Sparrows, a feature documentary that explores the loss of bird habitats as a consequence of rapid urbanization. I grew up in a town where I woke up to the sounds of birds. Today this same town is influenced by ‘progress’ and there is immense growth to accommodate the millions of people who relocated to find jobs. And now, my town wakes up to the sounds of traffic instead of birds. The birds are leaving the city. While the film is about urbanization, I use birds metaphorically. Like the proverbial canary that has warned miners of the levels of methane in a coal mine for centuries, we are now discovering that birds are indicators of the health of a city. Searching for Sparrows looks at urbanization from the point of how it affects bird population.
I am interested to see what films I will make as I respond to the Donges Bay gorge. So far it has been enough to get away and look at the green leaves, the yellowing leaves, the decaying leaves, and the bare branches. More than enough. I have been visiting the gorge developing my sense of observation. I marveled at the new spring growth peeking out after the winter thaw. I have walked and walked and found it of tremendous value to walk, just walk without the constant pressure to document. I reflect on the painful erosion, which is splayed open like a wound, from human touch. Sometimes in the mellow evening light, I enjoy the birds returning and chirping as if talking to each other about the day’s adventures. I look at the landscape of uprooted trees, the plants fighting to survive, the insects busy on fallen trees, working to return them to earth. Nothing is rigid or designed.
I am training myself to listen again to the wind, to the diverse sounds of the wind. Sometimes nature’s quiet is interrupted by lawnmowers and leaf blowers. Machines creating havoc in the lives of creatures unseen and unheard remind me of the human footprint, including my own. I look at the places where erosion has occurred to reflect on the power of nature and the earth’s effort to restore itself.
Nature and the gorge are teaching me what I cannot learn anywhere else. And, even more, I am listening to the songs of the birds here, like the ones who woke me up each day in my hometown.
In 2020, I produced a 2-minute film in response to A-Doc’s call for representation of Asian stories during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Together, Alone” is a glimpse into the life of frontline workers, documenting one doctor’s experience in isolation at home. As a resident artist of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust’s ARTservancy program, I’m making multiple short films at a nature preserve over the period of one year, 2020-2021.
Also in process is “Searching for Sparrows,” a feature-length documentary about four citizens who are finding solutions to the loss of birds and bird habitats caused by rapid urbanization in Hyderabad, India. I pitched this film at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and was selected as a DVID fellow at Kartemquin Films in 2014.
In 2018, I directed and produced a 75-minute non-linear narrative, “On Hands,” for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, which calls attention to an essential way of experiencing the world — by using our hands.
In 2012, I directed and produced “Sleepovers,” a 53-minute retrospective film documenting the coming of age of four suburban Milwaukee girls during three sleepovers over the course of 10 years. I am currently filming another update of the four girls.
In 2009, I co-directed the third film in Janet Fitch’s, three-part series, “Guns, Grief and Grace in America.” And in 2008, I co-produced Ramon Rivera-Moret’s documentary “On Calloway Street” about immigrant stories in Queens, New York.
I served for many years on the Milwaukee Film Festival’s Education Committee. In addition to my film work, I co-founded Didi, which aims to end violence against women in Milwaukee’s South Asian communities. I am also on the board of Lynden Sculpture Garden, which offers a unique experience of art in nature and builds programs to bring diverse members to the garden.
This is the latest in our series of featured artists, which is intended to showcase the work of photographers, artists, writers and other creative individuals in our community whose subjects or themes relate in some broad sense to nature, urban nature, people in nature, etc. To see a list of previously featured artists, click here. The work of the 2019-2020 ARTservancy artists in residence is currently being exhibited monthly at Gallery 224. To meet the other ARTservancy artists in residence, click here.
All images courtesy of the artists, except as noted. The featured image at the top of the page of the artist at Donges Bay Gorge overlooking Lake Michigan is by Eddee Daniel. OWLT is a project partner of A Wealth of Nature.