Beth Shibata: Photographer’s Work Takes Shape Within Nature

bethshibata_01For years Beth Shibata (Class of ’90, M.A., English/Linguistics/TESL) wondered what the mysterious patch of land in the middle of Sepulveda Boulevard in Torrance was until she saw it on a broadcast of “Visiting… with Huell Howser” in the early 1990s.

“The first time [Huell Howser] did a piece on the Madrona Marsh, I saw it and said, ‘That’s what that thing behind the black gates is,’” she says. “I’d driven by it any number of times wondering who owned it. Then I started nosing around. I used to think I was sneaking around, but it was actually open [to the public].”

Shibata recalls that the Madrona Marsh Nature Center at the time was merely a single trailer across the street from the marsh. Today, it is an 8,000 square foot interpretive center and research facility that gives visitors a look at the natural history of the Los Angeles Basin. The Nature Center provides education on the numerous varieties of wildlife and vegetation that still exist in the South Bay area, programs that promote a sustainable lifestyle, and not surprisingly, inspiration for artists like Shibata, a nature photographer and writer.

Shibata has served as a volunteer at the center for the last six years, during which time she has been capturing through her camera lens the marsh in all seasons and phases. An exhibition of her photography, “Sankaku, Shikaku, Maru,” (Triangle, Square, Circle) is currently on view at the Schauerman Library at El Camino College through Sept. 30.

Shibata says that the Marsh, with its “layers and layers of history” gives visitors a sense of the natural world within a developed, suburban community.

“It’s just layers of history: geological history, local history,” she says. “Madrona Marsh connects you with the history of the area in ways that are probably not obvious. At one point, this area was all marsh. I saw a postcard of what this area was like when it was being developed for mining oil [with] blocks of oil derricks. Native peoples have been through the area. And it’s always been a part of the Pacific Flyway, ancient history. The birds have been using it as a part of their migratory pattern for eons.”

Shibata combined her love of the marsh’s natural beauty and her expertise in aikido, a form of Japanese martial arts to create “Sankaku, Shikaku, Maru.” She says that the three geometric shapes are found throughout the teachings of Morihei Ueshiba, who created the martial art in the 1920s.

“[Ueshiba] was very much involved with trying to make the connection with the greater universe,” she says. “His writings are constantly making references to ‘flow like water,’ ‘to be grounded’ and to be aware of your interaction with nature and what nature offers as a teacher.”

Shibata says that photographing the marsh puts her in a “zen-like” space.

“One of the things I notice is that every time I go out there, I feel my blood pressure drop,” she says. “Not that I have high blood pressure, but I feel everything get quiet. The whole sense of everything shifts gears. I’m just looking, I’m just observing, I’m just being.

“There are times where you set up a shot and you’re trying very hard to create a specific thing,” she says. “But when you’re out in the natural world, it’s very hard to do that. I usually go out with minimal equipment and just see what’s there. And whatever it offers, I accept.”

Shibata says that watching the work of conservationists and educators at Madrona Marsh has taught her to be a better observer.

“They see things you don’t even know are there,” she says of their intuitive approach. “It enriches your senses of what’s going on around you and your experience of what life is. You start seeing things in more detail wherever you go. You can start being more aware of what you do and how it can affect the life of something or someone else.”

A poet and columnist for the Gardena Valley News, Shibata has published a chapbook of her poems to accompany “Sankaku, Shikaku, Maru,” and will be teaching a “Writing Wild” workshop at Madrona Marsh Nature Center on Oct. 4.

She also has photographs she took during the 12th Annual Henry Fukuhara Workshop exhibited in “Observations & Interpretations of Olancha, Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Manzanar and Keeler” at APC Fine Arts & Graphics Gallery in Torrance.

For more information on the Madrona Marsh Nature Center, click here.

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