Seeing Our Environment in Art

Rahil Ashruff

Nature has always had a part in the world of art. Just look at the paleolithic cave paintings. Nowadays, art has become a method of spreading awareness of climate change through all senses rather than simply reading about its impact. Art can help make climate change seem real rather than an abstract concept.

Environmentally-themed art is one way to make climate change more than something we understand intellectually. Because art appeals to our senses, not just our brains, it can have greater impact and help us understand climate change more fully.

Although more than 60% of Americans believe human-caused climate change is real, it’s still hard to make people feel its impact. The most effective way to make people feel that climate change is affecting them now is extreme weather—hurricanes, massive flooding, devastating heat waves, drought or severe and unseasonal rains.

Art is another way for people to experience climate change. There are examples of environmental art across New York.

A recent outdoor art installation created by New York City’s Climate Museum took messages about climate change to the five boroughs. Ten solar-powered highway signs flashed messages designed to pull viewers into a conversation about climate change. Some were tongue-in-cheek, “Abolish Colonialism,” “No Icebergs Ahead,” while others were more proactive, “Fossil Fueling Neutrality.” They were in several languages—English, Spanish and Chinese, to reflect the language of the neighborhoods in which the signs stood. Project partners presented events at or near the installations, groups included social justice organizations, scientific research consortia, local environmental advocacy groups, established museums, and others.

The museum, launched last year, is currently presenting climate programs in public spaces but plans to open a museum lab space. Its goal is to help meet the social justice, public health, and urban design challenges and opportunities presented by climate change.

Recent Cornell University graduate Viola Yu created a series of paintings and a mural representing terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and depictions of animals and human faces. The artwork was the capstone project for her minor in horticulture with a focus in the botanical arts. The paintings and mural showed the connections among soil, oceans, and the health of the planet.

A New York City artist has created a multi-media art installation designed to show both the exuberant beauty of nature as well as its fragility. “Light of the Ocean” recently opened at the Southampton Arts Center. The New York City-based artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez has taken seashells, beach grasses, sand and other natural materials indigenous to Long Island’s East End, and combined them with thousands of brightly painted, recycled paper bags, acrylic paintings, music and sounds to immerse visitors into a colorful and multi-dimensional marine world.

As is so often the case, it’s not just about art, it’s also about education. The Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program has set up an education center in a back gallery of Southampton Art Center to teach visitors about the marine and plant life featured in the exhibition.

Musicians are also incorporating climate change into their art. One example is last summer’s “The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects,” which had a three-day run at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. It used musical theater to help audiences understand climate change through sight and sound.

The High Water Line project drew blue lines to show what parts of coastal cities including New York, Philadelphia, Miami and others would be underwater with the advent of a 100-year flood.  It’s one thing to read statistics about that happening, but another to realize that the spot you’re standing on would be underwater.

Art and science have a lot in common. Artists and scientists ask big questions about what is true, why that truth matters and how these truths can move society forward. And environmental art is just the latest example of the bridge between art and science.