By Mina Lee
At a time when people are looking for ways to make a difference, art may offer an important avenue. The arts have a rich history of inspiring action.
Dorothea Lange’s The Migrant Mother (below) is one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression. The photo shows Florence Owens Thompson, a pea picker, and her children in California. It first appeared in the San Francisco News on March 10, 1936, alongside a story demanding aid for starving farmworkers.
The photo portrayed a human tragedy. It evoked sympathy and compassion, crossing social and cultural boundaries. Ultimately, it led federal authorities to rescue the poverty-stricken farmhands.
Today, artists are using their brushes, pens and cameras to depict climate change, an issue that badly needs its own Migrant Mother — a symbol that can cross borders and move people to act.
Currently, diplomats from 196 countries are meeting in Marrakech, Morocco to to put the Paris Climate Agreement into action. Engineers are developing new clean energy technologies. Businesses are stepping up to take more concrete action on climate change. And artists are doing their part.
Here are just a few of them trying to change the conversation on climate change.
Once a corporate lawyer and now an international consultant, Laura Ballantyne-Brodie, brings a unique perspective to her work. Her project, ShareHouse Earth Rental Agreement, uses a contract to represent our relationship with Earth.
“Breaking down very large concepts and complex science to a social contract, a concept of ‘rent’ — at once uncomfortable, and jarring — this is the area I seek to explore — and hope to prevail,” she said.
Artist Yoon Cho explores the relationship between individuals and their environments. The Desert Walk Project, comprised of 14 prints, portrays Cho walking through “a coal-powered plant in the sacred land of Navajo Nation, the ever moving sand dunes collaborating with the wind, and the snow like white salt flat of a dried lake in Death Valley.”
Her drawings of plant cells, pollen, reproductive organs, embryos and skeletons are then layered on top of these portraits to encapsulate the “beauty, destruction, and preservation of the land we live in.”
“My personal journey from a difficult pregnancy to motherhood encourages me to look closer at the relationship between the biological life forms and their habitats,” said Cho.
Composer Neil Rolnick pioneered the use of computers in musical performance. Rolnick’s piece for string quartet, Oceans Eat Cities, was performed at the UN COP 21 in Paris. The work was developed from a Climate Central database that details what percentage of the population in each city will be displaced by sea-level rise as carbon pollution accumulates in the atmosphere. He explained:
If I wrote a piece of music which basically repeated over and over, and then mapped the time period of 2015 to 2100 onto the duration of the piece in 5 year increments, I could then erase the percentage of notes for each year which was equal to the percentage of population of each city which would be displaced by climate change in that year. Musically, it didn’t quite pan out that simply. Rather than just repeating the piece over and over, I ended up writing two sets of variations. The first movement uses data which reflects the scenario of doing nothing to reduce our carbon emissions. The second movement uses data which reflects the scenario of aggressively cutting back on carbon emissions immediately. And since the string quartet has four players, I used the data from four cities in the first movement and three cities in the second movement, erasing notes to correspond to the impact on population in those specific cities.
This piece is accompanied by a set of maps developed by R. Luke DuBois. As the piece progresses, water engulfs sections of the map.
Etre Britta’s work is inspired by the coastline of eastern Australia, her home country. Her paintings explore the “fluidity, beauty and power of our oceans.”
“Unless we are personally connected, there will be little motivation to nourish, care for or give back to Mother Earth,” said Britta says. “In this way, the seed is planted from within the individual, rather than educating them from a lectured third party ideal.”
Shira Toren examines the “primal connection between humans and the environment that needs to be renewed.” Toren’s paintings are inspired by tornados and sandstorms. She hopes that her “paintings start a conversation [and] each individual will recognize the danger of climate change and will do their small part.”
The mission of Vangeline Theater is to be “at the forefront of the artistic movement to address environmental awareness providing artistic, socially responsible engagements in our community.”
Their new green initiative, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee — Butoh for Waste Prevention — Reducing Coffee Trash in New York, is accompanied by a performance piece (shown above) that used 1500 used disposable coffee cups to represent “the extensive amount of non-recyclable waste generated by society.”
Studies have shown that the public understands climate science better when it’s experienced outside of a classroom. Notes a 2007 study, “Turning statistical information into vicarious experience makes climate change risk more comprehensible and motivates action through emotional impacts.” A 2009 study finds artists can make science more accessible by putting research in a personally relevant context.
The goal, researchers say, is to captivate our attention, rather than feed our guilt. Artists should aim to open our minds, not close our hearts. Those that achieve this, as Dorothea Lange did with The Migrant Mother, have the power to effect real change.
Mina Lee writes articles and produces original artwork for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @minalee89.