Making Do №. 1

Madeline Cass

Madeline Cass lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is interested in plants, fungi, and how people interact with them.


  1. How did your interest in plants and fungi begin?

Some of my earliest childhood memories involved doing chores in the yard, helping my parents plant trees and bushes, creating stone pathways and walls, playing in our koi pond, budding with water lilies. I also enjoyed the multitude of excellent public parks surrounding Lincoln, NE (where I grew up and currently live) and was a content kid when I was allowed to roam around the neighborhood on my bicycle with my friends or taking solitary barefoot walks in the rain, sitting in deep puddles and just lookin’ at stuff. I have one distinct memory of ‘running away from home’, angry about something, and finding solace under a cozy pine tree for a few hours. 
early on in my undergraduate studies, I took a human ecology course that really woke me up to how much we are damaging our environment. i started dating a guy who was growing psilocybin mushrooms, and together we adventured as psychonauts. my interest in fungi soon expanded to a broader curiosity about mycoremediation, and how mushrooms can be used for positive change in a multitude of ways, such as for filtering water and soil to remove toxins. Radical Mycology was a huge influence. (Thanks, Peter.)
in my art practice, I began working with found plant materials. i have always been very sensory & drawn to texture specifically. plants are like, an endless texture pleasure zone. i broke into abandoned greenhouses and began traveling to national parks and camping (which i never did as a child). I started to feel like my art studies were pointless. It felt so narcissistic. There were other reasons too, but I dropped out of art school to pursue studies in horticulture.

I started to feel like my art studies were pointless. It felt so narcissistic. There were other reasons too, but I dropped out of art school to pursue studies in horticulture.

Moving from a college of 800 students to 25,000 students was an interesting shift. I really enjoyed spending time in the greenhouses and learning plant biology. that being said, I felt completely alone, in this vision to integrate nature into art, and art into nature. I soon realized that I was more interested in communicating about plants and fungi rather than studying them as a hard science. How could I make people feel more connected to their surroundings? I think that’s part of the power of visual art.

2. Studies show people who have a personal or emotional connection with natural places are more likely to protect them. Can you think of a good way to connect people with nature who cannot physically access it?

This is such a relevant question, because I think it is more and more common that we are removed from nature, even when we do have access!

In a strange way, we have unlearned how to interact with nature, and therefore sometimes it takes education to relearn this. Rewilding, if you will. I’m am hopeful, as I’m starting to see glimmers of evidence that our leaders and teachers and governments are beginning to realize the impacts of our tech-obsession and nature deprivation on our brains and development, especially children. The importance of free-form play cannot be understated. i.e. Stuart Brown.

Public school teachers are drowning in No Child Left Behind standardization and testing, and I think if they had more wiggle room, they would be able to let kids have time to be outside and get dirt under their fingernails and connect with their surroundings. Children know how be wild, but we so easily forget as teenagers and adults.

Additionally, cars are something that really limit Americans in particular to having little access to nature. We feel safe in them, but we’re really missing out on interacting with the world and slowing down. If you get outside of your car and your house, you’ll get to know your neighbors, your neighborhood, and feel safer and happier. For some reason, there is stigma — maybe it has to do with class? — about biking or walking — I think cities like Portland are doing a pretty good job of setting an example of making a culture that encourages healthy outdoor behavior for everyone. [admittedly, I love riding my motorcycle — it’s somewhere in between] the power of public parks and good bike trails is underestimated.

3. Tell me about the impetus for your upcoming book

I am currently in the process of self-publishing a book of my photographs that ties together two years of work, most of which focuses on my observation of plants. Photography is a young medium, yet throughout this short history, artists and scientists have blurred the line between research and art, often producing major advances of knowledge in both fields. I aim to build on the tradition of utilizing photography for this dual purpose. My photographic work studies human and plant interactions, to understand the physical and metaphorical connections between them.

My photographic work studies human and plant interactions, to understand the physical and metaphorical connections between them.

I am compiling a photobook to create a unique way of thinking about exhibiting my artwork. Photo books are a beautiful way of translating and conveying dense or technical information, in a way that is compelling and accessible to a wide audience.

Whenever I travel to other cities, their local conservatory or botanical garden is my first stop. I collect plants and moss on my neighborhood walks. Plants have become a type of lens I use for viewing the world. I want to use this book to relay my passion for nature, and to connect other people to science, specifically ethnobotany.

Creating an art book is vastly different than making a print, framing it and putting it on a wall in an exhibition: both in process, and interaction with a viewer. A book is a format of viewing artwork intrinsically ripe with visual storytelling and narrative. Through the sequence of the individual images, and the use negative space, such as a blank page, the artist is able to create relationships and hierarchies in a systematic but unexpected way. Also, books are accessible pieces of art because they are less of an investment than something that requires a lot of money or space to house.

We live in the age of smartphones and visual imagery on-demand. To hold a gorgeous book is to participate in a slower and more impactful experience than our usual interactions with visual art. It resonates on a different wavelength than the rest of these images because art books ask for the viewer’s full sensory attention, in an almost performative way. People connect with books additionally because they are an art object: by holding them, feeling the paper, sharing them, maybe even annotating them, they have a greater understanding of the intentions of an artist’s work. Photographs can benefit greatly when presented in a book for these reasons. They exist in a more interactive dimension in book format.

Photo books are a beautiful way of translating and conveying dense or technical information, in a way that is compelling and accessible to a wide audience. Most people are not going to sit down and read Richard Evans Schultes’ biography (a famous ethnobotanist) or an academic environmental sciences textbook. I hope to combine my deep interest in ethnobotany with my photography and design skills, to create an interesting and beautiful experience for viewers and translate this knowledge so that it casts a wider net.


Making Do is a series of short interviews with creative people