Catalyst 2023: BREACH: Logbook 23 | ROOT

We recently celebrated the opening of our 2023 Catalyst art installation, BREACH: Logbook 23 | ROOT by Courtney M. Leonard (b. 1980). Leonard is a Shinnecock artist and filmmaker. Her current work embodies the multiple definitions of “breach”, an exploration and documentation of historical ties to water, whales, and material sustainability. All of Leonard’s work is layered, very intentional, and reflects her lived experiences. She chooses her words carefully, considering all possible meanings of words like “breach” and “root.”

In legal contexts, the word “breach” means violation and infringement, as when other local and national governments impose policies that disregard sovereign Indigenous nations. It also refers to the action of a whale rising and breaking through the surface of the water. Taking a ship’s log as a model, Leonard presents her artwork in installations and in series that act as visual “logbooks” recording the journey of BREACH.

Guests entering BREACH: Logbook 23 | ROOT during the opening reception

“Root” can also be interpreted in multiple ways; as a noun, the root is the part of a plant that attaches it to the ground and brings water and nourishment to the rest of the plant. It is also the source or origin of something, as in a root cause. As a verb, it means to establish deeply and firmly. All of these definitions speak to Leonard’s experience as Shinnecock woman. The Shinnecock and other coastal Indigenous groups have lived on what is now called Long Island for at least 13,000 years, and their culture is tied very closely with a sense of place. They are a culture that is rooted in the land that they live on – land that is now threatened by overdevelopment, climate change, and rising sea levels. An overarching question in Leonard’s work is “Can a culture sustain itself when it no longer has access to the environment that fashions that culture?”

View from the top of BREACH: Logbook 23 | ROOT

These definitions and questions are explored in ROOT through two main design themes – root cellars and whales. Historically and up to present day, the right of Indigenous people’s access to traditional foodways, including the use of root cellars for food storage and the subsistence hunting of whales, has been challenged. When cattle belonging to colonizers fell through the ceilings of the cellars, Indigenous communities were obligated to pay for the injury to the animals, sometimes through the transfer of land. The ellipse shape in the roof of the structure represents how cattle would fall into the cellars. As you enter through the jaws of a Northern Right Whale, you move through the whale’s body. By using a shipping container as the body of her installation, Leonard calls attention to the disproportionate amount of regulation put on Indigenous groups rather than international shipping companies when it comes to the wellbeing of endangered and vulnerable whale populations. Leonard’s use of mixed media to present these concepts results in an immersive experience that is both beautiful and thought provoking.

Four generations of artist Courtney M. Leonard’s family. Clockwise: Meredith Tinsley, Néepa Wotahoman Hyde, Courtney M. Leonard, James Tinsley, Michele Leonard, Martha Tinsley

This opening reception was also an opportunity for four generations of Leonard’s family to gather and celebrate her work. As an artist who travels around North America conducting research and sharing her work, Leonard commented about how special it was for her to have two solo exhibitions so close to her home at the Shinnecock Indian Nation. BREACH: Logbook 23 | ROOT will be on view until Summer 2024 for both guided and self-guided tours. For information about tours of ROOT and of COURTNEY M. LEONARD: Logbook 2004-2023 at the Heckscher Museum, please visit or call 631-380-3230.

Emily Leger, Collections and Exhibitions Manager

For more information about BREACH: Logbook 23 | ROOT: Catalyst 2023: Courtney M. Leonard
For more information about of COURTNEY M. LEONARD: Logbook 2004-2023 at the Heckscher Museum: COURTNEY M. LEONARD: LOGBOOK 2004–2023 – The Heckscher Museum of Art

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