“I sing now like the North American brown thrasher,
who at one point in its song orchestrates
four different notes: one grieves, another
frets, a third prays, but a fourth celebrates.”
GREG DELANTY, IN THE POEM “THE SHRINKING WORLD” FROM “SO LITTLE TIME”
A torrent of conflicting emotions propels many visual artists today to draw attention to our warming world. The works they create give shape to their grief and anxiety, as well as their abiding reverence for the wonders of nature. Their creative responses are not so much finished works as they are aids to navigation, ongoing attempts to cope – and help others cope – with unimaginable change.
Pownal resident June LaCombe has been immersed in environmental art for decades, curating shows and studying the role that art can play in strengthening ties to place. Six years ago, she created a set of oyster-inspired ceramic shells that she gave in pairs to friends who live along Maine’s coast. One shell was to be displayed inside; the other one she buried above the shore, imagining that the sea’s slow upward creep would gradually unveil the shell.
Instead, a major storm swept away and destroyed the first shells that LaCombe had buried. It was “a complete surprise,” she recalls, and a powerful reminder that the change we’re facing “won’t be this gentle evolution.”
Being acutely attuned to place, artists may notice the cascading array of troubling changes evident in the natural world. Their own creative practice can offer a way to wrestle with the intense emotions provoked by increasingly harsh climate realities. “It is the time’s discipline,” poet Wendell Berry writes, “to think of the death of all living, and yet live.”
Art can also be a means of illuminating for others what climate scientists have tried to convey in data-driven studies. Charts and graphs showing trajectories of biophysical measures – often cluttered with acronyms and percentage figures – can appear hopelessly abstract, failing to inform or inspire those who view them.
An essential complement to scientific monitoring, says University of Southern Maine art professor Jan Piribeck, is “collecting data in the way artists do – through their senses. Artists can go on an instinct and approach a situation from a personal vantage point.”
Art holds the power to “draw in people who wouldn’t read news stories or scientific journals,” observes artist DM Witman of Warren. The vision for her “Melt” exhibit began in 2014 when she read a news story reporting on how many of the mountain settings that previously hosted winter Olympics will no longer have adequate snow.
“I thought about building a snowman with my dad at age 3 or 4, and felt a sense of loss,” she recalls. It struck her “how much our memories and emotions involved with place are deeply associated with weather.”
In that moment, an idea came to Witman for a project that would invite people to see change happening, allowing them to partake in “that process of disintegration.” She located images of the mountaintops cited and, using a photographic process involving salted paper, created a series of hand-printed images that gradually disintegrate with exposure to ultraviolet light.
Like Witman, wood sculptor Laurie Sproul never thought of her art in political or social terms until recently. Now she finds herself “driven to speak more through my art.” Controlling carbon emissions is “something everyone needs to connect on,” she says, and art enables her to “talk to people in a language that appeals to them, and that reaches them more directly.” Sproul and painter Jean Ann Pollard have a show this month (opening Nov. 5 and running through Nov. 27) at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, organized in conjunction with students there who will be attending the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris.
Michel Droge, an abstract painter in Portland, recently spoke at a Maine Humanities Council forum on “Communicating Climate Change” about the role that art traditionally plays in touching the sublime, addressing both “what is beautiful and frightening.” Many speakers that day spoke of navigating the rough terrain of paradox, simultaneously honoring beauty and taking a clear-eyed look at potential destruction.
That artistic capacity to tolerate paradox may prove critical in facing up – finally – to the magnitude of disruption already baked into our climate system by decades of high-carbon emissions.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of a report by the President’s Science Advisory Committee (to President Lyndon B. Johnson) that identified fossil fuels as the primary culprit in rising CO2 levels; and acknowledged the likely impacts those emissions would have on the Antarctic ice cap, sea-level rise and ocean temperatures. It concluded that we are “unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
In the intervening half-century, the CO2 problem has grown markedly worse with notably little political action. There are hopes of progress at the upcoming Paris climate talks, but they are qualified. More and more people sense that the needed vision and leadership will come from other quarters (as it has in past social movements).
Artists are stepping forward; Pope Francis has issued a remarkable encyclical on climate and justice that is catalyzing multiple faith traditions; and major corporations are pledging to rely 100 percent on renewable energy.
The convergence of these efforts suggests that a broader awakening may be underway. “In a dark time,” wrote Theodore Roethke, “the eye begins to see.”
MARINA SCHAUFFLER, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices.