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Ashley Lieber: Ecology Artist

Ashley in her studio.

Ashley in her studio.

All of the materials are collected, one at a time from groundcover and woods.

All of the materials are collected, one at a time from groundcover and woods.

All of the materials are collected, one at a time from groundcover and woods.

All of the materials are collected, one at a time from groundcover and woods.

Ashley carefully inspects a nearly finished piece of art.

Locally grown mosses and lichens are used in Ashely's work.

Ashley Lieber, an ecology artist who installs mossy creations in urban settings, traces her first environmental activism to age 6, when she became a vegetarian and patrolled water usage in her house.

A "Sesame Street" segment with a boy brushing his teeth and a fish in a pond slowly struggling to swim as the water drained out opened her eyes to an individual's impact on the larger ecosystem.

Lieber’s ecological consciousness, a personal connection to water and nature, and an interest in ecopsychology led her to forge her own career as an artist-educator-facilitator around topics of sustainability, people-plant relationships, aquatic habitats, water pollution, and environmental awareness.

Her most well-known work, "Moss for Meditation," has earned critical acclaim and been exhibited in Chicago and various places around Michigan. The complete series, which includes colorful pieces as large as 8-by-8 feet and tiny montages framed in wood, recently spent two months on the walls at Rowster New American Coffee on Wealthy Street.

A site-specific installation with new variations on the “Moss for Meditation” series will be on display at Salt of the Earth in Fennville, where she lives and works as an artist, into the fall, she says. 

The mossy wall hangings designed to look like tiny, urban pastures merge ideas and methodologies from the fields of ecology, ecopsychology, and urban agriculture. At its core, ecopsychology suggests there is a synergistic relationship between planetary and personal wellbeing; that both are connected and the health of one depends on the other.

“Moss for Meditation” reflects the interplay among plant life, life cycles, and sustainability. The moss must be misted and needs sunlight, moisture, and airflow to thrive.

Comprised of various preserved moss, lichen, small twigs and other natural materials, each piece in the series simulates restorative green landscapes and can be used for mental and physical rejuvenation. Lieber won’t reveal how she assembles the art, but aims to recreate farmlands, rolling hills, rainforests, tropical islands, and aerial views of countryside.

For those stuck in the city and lacking green space, trial has shown that living, working, and interacting with these works has a meditative effect, Lieber said. Studies emerging from the field of ecopsychology substantiate that consistent exposure and
interaction with green landscapes, regardless of size, significantly decreases stress and supports mental and physical health.

“It’s a beautiful opportunity to bring an expansive green space into your space," she says. “It’s an opportunity to feel closer to nature when you don’t have time to go for a hike.”

The work serves to provoke contemplative moments that prompt viewers to question notions of self in the urban environment -- the effects of noise, pollution, traffic, high-rise buildings, and organized chaos -- and reflect on the connection between personal and ecological health.

While Lieber’s “Moss for Meditation” series has received the most publicity, her creative work as an artist offers various visual, tactile, and edible experiences, she says. She works with aquatic ecosystems, hydroponic wall gardens and installations, sustainable, organic, and community gardening and farming methodologies, ecological restoration projects, and site-specific commissions for homes and businesses.

As a young girl, Lieber preferred to play with boys, building sand sculptures, tree forts, and mud structures, she says. She has always been drawn to water -- one of the reasons she stays in Michigan -- and took college-level art and science classes in high school in Traverse City.

She wanted a liberal arts education and studied art, sculpture, and science at Grand Valley State University. After graduating in 2005, she took time off to work with local chefs and learn more about the culinary arts, food quality, and organic farming. Then, she spent a year as a nanny, honing her horticulture skills and teaching the family how to eat garden-grown foods.
Those experiences prompted her to merge her art and environmental interests and enroll in graduate school. Lieber earned her MFA from the University of Michigan in 2010, where she studied in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, learning about ecological restoration, environmental psychology, and alternative urban agricultural methods.

It’s here where she made the shift from traditional sculpture to ecological art and started merging sculpture with hydroponics and edibles.

“Informed by environmentalism, I began asking questions,” she says. “What is sustainability? What does it look like? How can it be experienced?”

Lieber received several creative research grants. One grant took her to Central America, where she lived and worked on an all-female, agro-eco farm, learning various practices of sustainable living, farming, and reforestation.

Represented by Ross Contemporary, VARA Fine Art, and others, her work has been commissioned and exhibited in California, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. She has taught and lectured at several public schools and state universities including the Leslie Science Center, Coit Creative Arts Academy, Grand Valley State University, University of Michigan, and Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA).

Lieber recently moved to a wooded property already inspiring new work. Her studio is in a big pole barn, formerly a stable and sail boat storage space, has heirloom pear trees, an overgrown horse pasture, and a forest nearby.

“This site is about new work to come, which is already evolving with some of the native materials,” she says. “There are a lot of feral fruit trees and so much forest.”

You can contact Lieber about her work via email at ashleylieber@VARAfineart.com. Her work is also available for purchase at Have Company in Grand Rapids (136 S. Division Ave.) and Saugatuck Artists Collective in Saugatuck (241 Culver St.).


Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website: marlarmiller.com.

Photography by Adam Bird
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