Canvassing the Climate: Art Takes Its Own Approach to Science

Collaboration is the new black these days, as diverse individuals and departments at a variety of educational institutions come together on issues of climate change. The results are innovative, striking, surprising, and even…artistic.

Installation view of Intervention to Upscale Waste and Museum Byproducts. (WochenKlauser/Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago)
Paradise Lost?, one of many recent art exhibits on climate change, focuses on the impact of global warming on the north woods of Wisconsin. Sponsored and funded by the University of Wisconsin and conceived and coordinated by ecologist Terry Daulton, Paradise Lost? addresses its topic through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and mixed media. Offerings from the twenty contributing artists range from a humorous, fictional treaty giving the Ojibwe Nation the authority to teach Americans how to treat the land to a meditation on tree rings.

“We’re coming at scepticism sideways,” says Daulton. “Our society tends to see art and science as diametrically opposed but I actually see them as part of a continuum. What artist isn’t inspired by some part of the world as we know it? What scientist doesn’t love and gain inspiration from the topic he/she is exploring? Good science is artistic.”

Artist Scott Pauli says of his meditations on tree rings, "I thought of how every ring affected the next, just as every year affects the next...I envision our little group as the first ring in a tree that is growing across the state. As the exhibition moves and effects more people, the circles of influence will grow, just like the drawing." (Jamie Young)
Since its inception in 2006, the show has been featured on campuses and community centers in the Midwest. In each community they visit, educators invite middle and high school students to reflect about and be involved in activities pertinent to climate change. Student artwork is then included in the exhibit for that community. Part of the exhibit includes the development of an educational website for grades K-12, Paradise Lost? Teaching About Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region.

Another marriage of climate change and art, organized by the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, represents the members of the community it’s in with an exhibit titled Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. Chicago artist Kevin Kaempf collects leftover paint cans from the garages and basements of people in the community, then mixes them to create new colors, which he packages in his own “Loop” brand paint cans. (Loop is the title of the piece.) Some of the paint is used to create a site-specific painting at each exhibition site, along with a group of paint swatches from each color of donated paint-representing the people in the communities who have joined together to create the new hues. The focus on reuse, as well as the work’s specificity to its region, is what makes the art about sustainability.

In another contribution to the show, the artist group WochenKlausur addresses the inherent wastefulness in traveling art exhibits by creating a system to network art institutions and help them upcycle used materials. The group also developed prototype furniture from discarded materials that travels with Beyond Green for people to sit on while they visit the exhibit.

Since its inception in 2005, Beyond Green has toured campuses at California State University Long Beach, Smith College, DePauw University, University of Hartford, Lewis & Clark College, and Northern Michigan University. (It is still on tour: to learn more about Beyond Green, you can download the podcast or read the catalog online.)

Last but not least, a multi-dimensional exhibit entitled Climate Change at the Poles was organized at the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art in conjunction with the current International Polar Year. Public programs accompanying Climate Change at the Poles include a sustainable art class for children; a performance of the Inuit legend The Ice Wolf; a book and film series; a cross-disciplinary panel on perspectives on “Nature & Art,” including topics such as law, dance, journalism, and anthropology; and a multi-media event performed by DJ Spooky entitled Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica.

Such exhibits can be both beautiful and alarming in their portrayals of rapidly changing ecosystems. Susan Sontag once said, “real art has the capacity to make us nervous.” The artists, who intend that audiences will walk away with a heightened desire to assume responsibility for their communities and environment, hope that she is right. If they are successful, such projects could indeed be the tip that saves the iceberg.

Loop uses leftover paint to create new colors and artworks, emphasizing reuse of materials and a connection to community. (Kevin Kaemph/Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago)
Published: May 12, 2009