Penélope Baquero says she doesn't think her art is going to change the world, but she hopes it might speak to somebody. The Colombian-born artist, dancer, educator and mother speaks as humbly about her ambitious goals for herself and her community as she does about her art.
"[Humans] are taking steps to transform the way we relate to the earth," says Baquero. "There's not a critical mass yet. There're not a lot of people doing it. But we are going in that direction."
As a young woman, Baquero left her home in Colombia and the traditional road to success to join the Rainbow Peace Caravan, a traveling eco-community dedicated to spreading the word about sustainable ecology through performance and art.
Baquero had always made sculptures as gifts for friends and family, and she was passionate about dance and performance, but she was also realistic. An artist's life could be hard. She wanted to see the world, so she earned a degree in finance and international relations. Then, in her words, she "decided to go join the circus—the ecology circus."
Life on the traveling caravan gave Baquero an opportunity to perform as an actress, to explore singing and to see the world, from Mexico to the ends of South America. She used her organizational skills to build relationships between the group and the communities it visited. She also met artist and Missoula native Jason Gutzmer, a founding member of the traveling community, and the two eventually married.
It wasn't until Baquero and Gutzmer relocated to Missoula that Baquero started thinking seriously about visual arts. Having an artist for a husband had made her curious about her own capacities, and Baquero developed this new interest by pursuing a master's through the University of Montana's Creative Pulse residency program in integrated arts and education. In 2006, she had her first solo show.
Baquero's newest project, the Eco sapien series, had been brewing for a while, and a call for art to hang in Bernice's Bakery gave her the push she needed to start working. Baquero says she didn't make the work specifically for the space, "but it's so exciting to think they'll be at this particular place in Missoula because it's so central to Missoula culture, and I feel so embraced by Missoula."
Community is important to Baquero and her husband, who are co-founders of the nascent local "intentional community," called Sundog Ecovillage. Baquero explains that an intentional community "involves people who are interested in creating an alternative lifestyle to the current one where people live in their own spaces not necessarily knowing that they share resources."
By contrast, an intentional community strives to recognize how members share resources and how this can be done more sustainably.
"There are so many people out there who've been doing this since the cultural revolutions of the '60s and '70s, and now we're getting better at it," she says, "but still it's hard, especially with human connections and communication."
Sundog's early successes and growing pains informed a theme that began to develop in Baquero's mind, a concept of a new kind of human being: not Homo sapiens, but Eco sapiens.
The prefix eco- is derived from the Greek oikos, or house. Lately it has come to mean "green" or "environmentally friendly" and refers generally to the ecology of our planet, our home. So this new race isn't based on thinking (sapiens) about itself (homo) but about its environment, its home and the planet Earth.
The term was popularized by David Haenke, coordinator of the North American Bioregional Congress and one of the founders of a growing ecological movement that attempts to explore humanity's place in the ecology of the planet rather than consider "the environment" as something external to civilization.
Haenke's predictions for Eco sapiens go beyond a shift of ideals, according to Baquero. She recalls his description of scientific advances that include human uses of chlorophyll to gather energy from the sun, like plants, and the image struck her quite literally.
"I started seeing all these pictures of people with leaves growing out of them and fruits coming through their feet, because he described this as a new form of the human race where we would be in complete understanding that we are the Earth, and that we have an intimate relationship with Earth," she says. "That's how the seed got planted, and of course I have informed my experience by living in the ecovillage trying to create this work and to see myself as somebody who can manifest this evolution."
At first, as Baquero tried to capture her visions on canvas, the images seemed forced and unrealistic, but she came to understand them as tools, or "little ideas for us to visualize ourselves transforming," she says.
Baquero thinks of herself as an urban type. She isn't disposed to "digging in the dirt," she says, but her convictions have driven her to connect more intimately with the natural world. Wrestling with the concept of Eco sapiens is, for her, a personal transformation, and metamorphoses aren't easy.
"How painful it is!" says Baquero. "Imagine a tree growing out of your body. That is painful. And to see yourself as dependent on the Earth, that is difficult, because we're always making decisions that are not Eco sapien."
Though Baquero sees this transformation as beautiful, it is also frightening and difficult. One painting depicts a sturdy, curvaceous Tree of Life in the Mexican tradition, hung with delicately rendered artifacts of daily life, like a folded towel, bicycle and a military tank. Each object cradled in the branches seems delicate and fragile compared to the robust tree. At first the viewer may be tempted to interpret each image: The bicycle is good; the tank is bad. But it becomes difficult to give any object a definite value, and the tree itself overwhelms all.
"Nature goes beyond judgment of human action," says Baquero, "the Earth doesn't really need us."
But we need the Earth. That may be the first lesson of becoming Eco sapiens.
Penélope Baquero's Ecosapien Evolution exhibit opens at Bernice's Bakery Friday, Nov. 6, with a reception from 5-8 PM.