Artist Leah Sobsey Finds Inspiration and Documents Natural History in the Forest

Many people have had trouble finding their creativity amidst the prolonged uncertain time of the global pandemic. But what to do when creativity itself is your job and livelihood?

Leah Sobsey is the director of the photography program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a 10-year neighbor to the Duke Forest’s Korstian Division. When the pandemic found her scrambling to facilitate school learning for her twin first graders, she looked to the Forest “to keep her sane” and to keep her creative process going.

She said, “I do some of my best thinking in the woods”. Her nearly daily runs and slow walks through the Korstian Division are akin to forest bathing (aka shinrin yoku), where she takes inspiration from the meditative spaces that the forest environment provides.

The daily inspiration has fed her sanity and her art. A project called “Lumen” (examples below) which stemmed from her walks in Duke Forest in 2020 combined lumen photography and anthotype photography—the former, exposing dark room paper to UV light, and the latter, using plant material itself to create an image. She calls these explorations of plants “cameraless” images, and she sees them more as documentary than art because they not only depict plants but they are made from them. In the process, Sobsey crushed and shredded parts of the plants to make certain colors and then used whole specimens of leaves or fiddlehead ferns, for example, to form the central image by placing them in direct contact with photo sensitive paper.

Lumen showcases Sobsey’s passion for 19th century photographic processes and herbaria—or collections of preserved specimens of plants. She is currently working with the famed poet Emily Dickinson’s pressed plant collection and also with naturalist par excellence Henry David Thoreau’s meticulously indexed and preserved plant pressings for at least one large-scale exhibit next year. By looking into the direct evidence of the past in these herbaria, her photography work aims to awaken viewers to the tangible realities of climate change.

The Duke Forest is a destination for discovery. Inquiry into the natural world is not limited to science. We hope you find inspiration from Leah’s story, and think of the Forest as a place to influence your thinking and creativity.

Lumen was featured at the Umstead Hotel & Spa Gallery in Cary this Summer and part of series can currently be seen at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC Greensboro.

If you use Duke Forest to inspire your art or your inquiry into the natural world, please share it with us at We’d love to hear about it and share when we can.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.