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Gretchen Ernster Henderson writes across environmental arts, cultural histories, acoustics and poetics of place.


Her works cross-pollinate creative and critical practices including two books of nonfiction, two novels, poetry chapbooks, opera libretti, and arts media integrating genres and arts, performances and exhibitions. Her work has been called “illuminating … artful … exciting” (The New Yorker), “refreshing” and “necessary” (TLS), “provocative” and “essential” (Literary Review), and “fascinating … absorbing … generous” (The Guardian).

Gretchen’s fifth book on Life in the Tar Seeps (forthcoming Trinity University Press) has been seeping across intermedia spaces including Ecotone (Notable in Best American Essays 2020), Mining the West (in collaboration with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts), Scholarly Texts (with the Holt-Smithson Foundation), material-digital exhibits and participatory pedagogies, and coauthored articles including Nature Sustainability and Conservation Biology (with the Luc Hoffmann Institute/World Wildlife Fund). Exploring a spiraling ecology from overextractions of watersheds in the American West, Gretchen is particularly interested in collaborative approaches to environmental stewardship through science-culture-art in the climate crisis.

Her work on environmental-cultural aesthetics grows from her last book, Ugliness: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books of London/University of Chicago Press) that explores perceptions of ugliness across history and its profound effects on the public imagination. The book has been translated into Turkish, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish editions. Working in public humanities, Gretchen is a frequent public speaker, with interviews including BBC Radio and NPR. Her opera libretti have been performed through support from Opera America and MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology, including Cassandra in the Temples (set to music by composer Elena Ruehr) that originally premiered at MIT and was revived in a virtual pandemic performance thanks to Georgetown University Medical Lombardi Arts & Humanities Program in 2021. Gretchen’s writings have appeared widely, with recent publications including Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and Notre Dame Review.

Currently on the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin, Gretchen has previously taught at Georgetown University, University of Utah, MIT, and other colleges and community settings, including the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia, where she continues to teach environmental writing and literary arts. In recent years, she also has been a Faculty Fellow at UT-Austin’s Humanities Institute (theme: Environmental Humanities, 2020-2022), Associate Director for Research at the Harry Ransom Center, Co-Director of an NEH Institute on Museums: Humanities in the Public Sphere at Georgetown University with the University of California-Santa Cruz, and 2018-2019 Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.

A fifth-generation Californian, originally from San Francisco, Gretchen has lived throughout the American West, Midwest, and East and recently moved with her family to Tucson, AZ. She feels indebted to many environments and communities that continually entangle and root her complex sense of place. At WISC (beside its namesake acequia madre, or “mother irrigation ditch”), Gretchen is widening her sense of watersheds in the Southwest where the materiality of her writing erodes through desert humanities, xeriscaped landscapes, and (un)bound curations of natural-cultural spaces.


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