Artists and Climate Change

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Wild Authors: Peter Brennan

By Mary Woodbury

Today we talk with Dr. Peter Brennan, whose first novel, Iceapelago, was inspired by his keen interest in climate change. He chaired the Climate Change Research Group at the Institute for European and International Affairs for almost a decade. He was an advisor to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Committee on Climate Change and Energy. He lectured on climate change as part of the Masters Programme on Sustainable Finance and is a Director of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Peter has authored Behind Closed Doors: the EU Negotiations that Shaped Modern Ireland (2008), Ireland’s Green Opportunity: Driving Investment in a Low-Carbon Economy (2012), and Public Procurement: Rules of the Road (2016). He has also researched many reports on climate change. Peter has travelled to the Arctic, the Antarctic, and La Palma as part of his research into Iceapelago.

Tell us about yourself – your life so far and how you got started in writing. What have you published previously, before Iceapelago?

I live by the sea at Sandycove in South Dublin with my wife Margaret. Although I am 67, and have had a career for over fifty years, I still run a business consultancy. I abide by the maxim for indie authors: Don’t give up your day job, yet. Having worked in Ireland and Brussels, including seven years with our Foreign Service, I have professionally written countless memos, articles, and reports over the past decades. After my doctorate in 2007, I published my first reference book, Behind Closed Doors: the EU Negotiations that Shaped Modern Ireland. It sold well in academic circles. When I was invited to lecture in a Masters Programme on climate change, I decided to write the course textbook, Ireland’s Green Opportunity: Driving Investment in a Low-Carbon Economy. And four years ago, I wrote Public Procurement: Rules of the Road as a textbook for my clients. Writing nonfiction, especially academic books, is a completely different skillset compared to writing fiction, and making the transition was not easy. That said, writing defines me. I truly relax when I write.

Tell us something about your Iceapelago. Who is the intended audience, and what’s going on in the story?

Iceapelago, which describes a network of iced islands near Ireland, opens with a pair of Arctic foxes walking over sea ice to an island to make a lair in an elevated area with prospect of food. The prologue paints the picture of a devastated landscape. How the Arctic foxes arrived in Iceapelago is a consequence of three story lines that have one outcome: a series of natural disasters that transform life and living. The first storyline is based in La Palma in the Canary Islands where Spanish students witness the re-awakening of a dormant volcano. In Greenland, atop the Ice Shelf, scientists try to measure the flow of melt water through the glaciers. Marine researchers use a submersible to investigate reports of seafloor seismic activity off Ireland’s Continental Shelf. The story builds slowly as the characters are introduced, but quickly gathers pace as dramatic and page-turning events unfold. La Palma explodes, the glaciers fracture, and offshore earthquakes drive tsunamis to the coast. Those who have read Iceapelgao say the narrative is scarily plausible. Anyone who has an interest in climate change should enjoy the novel. It opens up scenarios that make it a compelling read.

What other ecological themes does your novel have, and how were you inspired to write about them?

I’ve been involved in climate action policy for almost two decades. For example, I chaired the Climate Research Group of the Institute of European and International Affairs for 10 years. I also advised the Irish Parliament on climate change. I get the science. I don’t need to be convinced. In fact, I believe the tipping point has already been reached and my grandchildren will be living in a quite different world, but hopefully not in the conditions described in Iceapelago. During a cruise to Antarctica some years ago, I was challenged to use my knowledge and insights about climate issues to write a novel. I traveled to Greenland and witnessed the melting of the glaciers, visited La Palma on the Canary Islands and walked among the dormant volcanoes, and got access to a marine research vessel that did seismic surveys deep off Ireland’s continental shelf. The natural events that researchers and scientists witness are brought to life in Iceapelago with a dystopian finale.

After publication, did you do any book fairs or talks? How would you describe the reaction to your book? Is it hard to market during the coronavirus?

With one exception, I have received great reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, All Authors, Readers Favorite, and many independent reviewers. However, positive reviews, newspaper coverage, and the wide use of social media have not translated into huge sales for this indie author. With bookshops on restricted opening hours, book festivals cancelled, book awards postponed, and all promotional activity impossible on grounds of social distancing, it is a bit discouraging, to be honest. But I did not write Iceapelago to make money. I wrote for the sheer enjoyment of the experience. I will be a bit wiser with the sequel and will try harder to find a publisher as without such a connection it is nigh impossible to get a profile in what is a highly competitive market. I am also conscious that fiction about climate change is a niche genre. Because I am an optimist by nature I have written my acceptance speech for the Oscars. I am told Iceapelago, the movie will cost $110m to produce! Great value to a smart investor.

Are you working on anything else right now, and do you want to add other thoughts about your book?

I hope to have the sequel, Iceapelago: the Aftermath, completed by the end of the year. The writing style is quite different; there is far more dialogue and far less by way of context detail. The story is about human survival on Iceapelago, which goes into total lockdown once winter arrives. It is set in the near future after the collapse of all basic infrastructure and public services, including currency, healthcare, and government systems. The flood waters around Iceapelago allow river cruisers to provide essential supplies. But Iceapelago, in common with other areas in the North Atlantic region, resembles the Middle Ages rather than a developed economy in the late 21st century. The Arctic foxes who thrive in tundra conditions are hunted by the humans as living conditions worsen. The community leaders try desperately to avoid chaos, loss of life, and destruction as another winter season approaches. The arrival of marauding polar bears is not a good omen. The crescendo destroys the status quo and at the same time starts a new beginning. I also have an outline, just two pages, of the final book in the trilogy. I will use the team from Design for Writers when I decided to self-publish.

Thanks so much, Peter! It all sounds interesting, and I already have a love for Ireland that I’d like to revisit in your new series.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Amy Talluto: Moments of Light in the Forest

By Etty Yaniv 

Amy Talluto’s paintings and collages depict landscapes, ranging from representational wood-scapes to more abstracted forms reassembling a hybrid of landscape and still life. Darren Jones wrote in Artforum that Amy Talluto’s series of oil paintings from 2017 produce “symphonic arrangements of green, ranging from deepest phthalo to honeyed laurel. Dashes of pink, crimson, and yellow also crop up, to shimmering effect. The technical proficiency of her sumptuous compositions, based on forests around the artist’s Catskills home, parlays them into sites of ethereality.” (Darren Jones, Artforum). Recently, during the pandemic, the artist started exploring collage, resulting in bold cutouts, and then paintings, where the previously hinted pinks, yellows, and crimsons become central alongside the blues and greens. 

You were born in New Orleans, studied art in Washington University in St. Louis, and later at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Tell me a bit more about yourself and what brought you to landscape painting and specifically woodland?

When I was a kid in New Orleans, my parents got divorced and my mom moved across the street from an abandoned field. I remember pouring all my teenage angst into making images of that place and it was the first time that I realized that the landscape could be a receptacle for psychology and emotion.

I continued in that vein at Washington University and found that St. Louis had these beautiful farmlands outside of the city. In the fall, the grasses would turn pale blonde or rust-colored and almost look like the fur of an animal spreading out over the fallow fields. I was also drawn to the clumps of trees popping up sporadically in the vast whiteness of snow-covered golf courses in the winter. These odd landscapes were largely human-made and I got very interested in representing them in painting. Later, after I moved to Brooklyn, I went to graduate school at SVA and visited Prospect Park for inspiration. I also loved the scarred beech trees in Cadman Plaza Park in D.U.M.B.O.

I’m drawn to landscape because it jumps out at me in an insistent way. Trees especially have always startled me with their eccentricity. They can look very bizarre and personified to me, and I feel moved to note and represent them.

I am looking at Measured and Divided (2017) and Snake in the Garden (2020). What draws me to these paintings is the sense of a specific light element and interplay of gravity/movement upwards. What can you share about the genesis of these paintings and your process of making them?

The body of work that produced Measured and Divided was loosely inspired by Eudora Welty’s story Moon Lake and features landscape scenes from Upstate NY. In the story, orphaned children are camping in the Mississippi woods and the nature around them is described with rich metaphors. For example, one of the camper’s hands flops out of her tent in her sleep and she cradles “[night’s] black cheek.” Also, the night sky is described as being like “grape flesh” or the “grape of the air.” It got me wondering how a body of work might look if you viewed nature through a grape, or through an emerald glass. 

After that series, I began making my oil paintings alongside smaller gouache studies on paper, and the vividness and quickness of the gouache started to seep into my oil painting style. Snake in the Garden is such a work. An old beech forest in Aquidneck, RI, that was originally a Rockefeller estate, inspired the painting. Beech trees are smooth and white so they change color constantly depending on shadows and where they are in a forest. Some looked like they had tiger stripes, some were blue or pink and covered in knobs, and this one seemed to be an Eden-like snake guarding its sacred garden.

Measured and Divided, 24 x 30 in.,oil on panel, 2017
Snake in the Garden, 34 x 40 in., oil on linen, 2020

Your collages often integrate gouache and oil into playful compositions. When I look at them, I see a sense of adventure and improvisation. This is evident, for example, in At the Edge of the Sea. Can you elaborate on the relationship between your collage and painting?

I began making collages during the pandemic when I was at home with my son doing remote school. Collage felt fun and low-pressure at a very scary and high-pressure time. All you needed was a table, scissors, glue and some small bits of time. I made several works that way and was really excited by the results. Later, I got an opportunity to spend a long weekend at the Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, NY. I dumped a suitcase full of collage scraps over all of the tables in my room and worked for 48 hours straight, becoming what I jokingly refer to as a “collage goblin.”

Most of the works in that group evoked my visit to Taughannock Falls Gorge, an area that I stopped at on the way. Deep in the gorge, the light was dim, and heavy clouds only allowed short bursts of intermittent sunlight. The moments of light would illuminate parts of the forest and suddenly you would see things (like the tip of a branch or a part of a trunk) that had been previously hidden by the gloom. Approaching Storm was one of the paper collages that grew out of that experience. When I returned home, I was curious to see how the image would look blown up as a large painting. I’ve always felt that landscape painting lends itself to big sizes as we’re used to experiencing nature as grand and vast. I think that the large Approaching Storm painting functions a bit like a totem, memorializing the alchemical process of its source collage.

Approaching Storm, 50 x 64 in., oil on linen, 2021

Your graphite drawings are meticulous, precise, and seem to be consistently small in scale. What is your drawing process and what is the role of drawing in your work?

Drawing is my way of understanding the visual world around me, especially trees and natural forms. Trees are built kind of like the body so you’ll see limbs that kind of bulge in and out like an arm or a torso or a knee, and you need to feel those forms with the line. After I moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley in 2010, I used drawing to understand my new home. I drew quarries that were down the road, a hollow mining mountain in Rosendale and a frozen waterfall in a cave along the Ashokan Reservoir, among many others. It was all sort of a way to claim this territory as my own.

The Edge of the Sea, 80 x 60 in.oil on canvas, 2021

What is happening in your studio these days?

I’m currently working on large oil paintings based on collages I have made this past year. I am also working towards a two-person exhibition at the Art & Culture Gallery at the Albany Airport opening in November. 

(Amy Talluto in her studio in Upstate New York, 2021. All photos courtesy of the artist.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on December 2, 2019 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Horses, Dancers, and Environmental Stewardship

By JoAnna Mendl Shaw

THE EQUUS PROJECTS FILMING OF IMPRINTED, APRIL-OCTOBER 2021

October 2021. It is a bright, sunny, crisp October morning and the cast and production crew for our documentary film, Imprinted – three dancers, two equestrians, our sound technician, our second camera person, and our filmmaker Stefan Morel – are on a forest walk. As we pass under a canopy of magnificent autumn foliage, we pause to gaze upwards, noting the height of the huge tulip poplar and oak trees in this small New Jersey forest, nestled between suburban homes. Our forest guide is Roger Smith, a forest ranger and lifetime lover of forests and tress.

Roger’s passion for trees is evident as he describes the stunning intelligence nature displays: the interdependence of root systems and ground cover, waning chlorophyl leaving brilliant orange leaves on the sassafras trees and scarlet on the dogwoods. The seeds of the trees, acorns of the oaks, and nuts of the hickory and beech feed the squirrels and deer. If uneaten, they may sprout new trees for the future.

I am struck by the staggering intricacy of this ecosystem, the intelligence of nature going about its business despite human interference. It is the same intelligence I feel in the presence of the horses. These large animals give birth to babies that can stand and nurse within 20 minutes of emerging from their mothers’ wombs. Nature has created an elegantly calibrated creature of flight in this equine, its offspring poised to flee within moments of being born. The elegant interconnectedness of our animal and plant ecosystems is ever-present in my mind as I direct a dance company – The Equus Projects– which creates performance works that bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Equus has created works sited in urban and rural parks and even in a National Park – Pullman National Monument in far south Chicago. The company has performed in equestrian arenas, on museum grounds, on hillsides and in urban parks. We shot a full-length documentary film deep in a Swedish forest. The Equus Projects’ work has been commissioned by arts and equine presenters throughout the United States.

For most performance projects the company creates the works with local equestrians and their horses. For every project, the physical and emotional well-being of the animals comes first. The equine choreography is calibrated to showcase the individual animals’ strengths and personalities. The rehearsals are planned to keep the horses curious and engaged… which means no tedious repetition and drilling.

In October 2021, the company was in the final stretch of filming Imprinted, a documentary about how three dancers co-create a shared language with two mares and their young foals. The two mares in Imprinted – Roxy and Pegasa – are horses that we have been training and dancing with for well over two years. One of the mares is owned by our trainer, Carrie Christiansen. The other mare is owned by her close friend Terry Smith, Roger’s wife.  Friends since they were teenagers, Carrie and Terry have shared their mutual love of horses through multiple phases of their lives and these two mares have been integral to that history. In the early summer of 2020, the women had Roxy and Pegasa inseminated, and a plan was hatched to investigate how the dancers might kinetically imprint ourselves on the young foals. While not hoping to literally imprint on the foals, we thought of this imprinting process as a gradual co-creation of a movement language with them. Carrie wondered if perhaps the foals would naturally take to the dancers, seeing as their mothers had been dancing with them in utero. I thought this entire idea was magical! 

In January 2021, I decided that our foal research would offer rich material for a documentary film, and I set about finding a compatible filmmaker. Within a week I had found the perfect candidate: Canadian filmmaker Stefan Morel is a passionate equestrian, known for his equine films. I assembled a small cast of dancers and a production team, and we began filming in April 2021. We first filmed dancers-in-training with the pregnant mares, and by end of June we filmed our company dancing with the foals. The staging ground for our film was Roger and Terry’s small horse farm in Cookstown, NJ. We took a huge leap of faith and propelled ourselves into truly uncharted territory.

Stefan was determined to capture the birth of both foals – not an easy feat. Mares tend to give birth at night out in a pasture. To make sure the births were captured on film, Roger and Stefan engineered a lattice of soft lights which they suspended above a small paddock next to the barn, and Terry introduced Roxy to this dimly illuminated paddock as her nighttime space well before her delivery date. Carrie followed this strategy with Pegasa. Both mares gave birth in that paddock, with the humans gently assisting when needed but otherwise watching this miraculous process in silent awe.

Are we humans interfering with nature? The question continuously occurred to me throughout our filming.

Kat and Roxy

For thousands of years, horses have played pivotal roles in human societies, helping early farmers plow their fields, and giving warriors a competitive edge in battle. Over 4,000 years ago, horseback riding allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever before, spurring migration throughout Europe and Asia. Human domestication of these animals is evidenced in archaeological finds in the steppe lands north of the Black Sea from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, indicating that the domestication of horses began approximately 6,000 years ago.

Today horses are used for sport. For some owners, horses are expensive possessions – much like sports cars – used for competition, fox hunting, and eventing. For others, horses are companions, cared for as members of the family. For folks like Terry and Roger, horses are part of a vision for environmental stewardship. Roger has a strong vested interest in keeping the forest adjoining his farm healthy and vibrant, protected from developers. His equine pasture thrives in part because it is adjacent to a thriving forest ecosystem.

Terry and Carrie take care of their mares and new foals with vigilant attentiveness. They provide on-going physical training for the mares and gently teach the foals to respect the human space. Like all equines, the foals began to test our human leadership early on by crowding and barging into our space. Our objectives as dancers are different from the objectives of a horse owner. An equestrian is most likely hoping that their foals will grow into ride-able horses. Carrie and Terry must make sure that their foals’ playful behavior does not become dangerously aggressive as they enter puberty. Our desire as dancers is about finding shared moments of engagement, perhaps co-creating a movement language. I fully acknowledge that our goals occupy the rather privileged position of simple curiosity. We are seeking synchronous movement conversations, an exchange of information rather than a desire to shape the horses’ behavior.

A human-equine conversation beyond simply hanging out together requires an understanding of equine behavior and the non-verbal language of equines. To reallydance with a horse calls for a fair amount of dedicated horsemanship training. Imprintedwill include many interludes of dancers engaged in horsemanship ground skills training. All three of us are experts in our own field, dance. We are relative beginners in the world of equine training. The journey is a humbling one.

Improvising with foals

Roger is deeply committed to preserving the natural balance of the ten acres of forest bordering his property. He works hard to be a good steward for this ecosystem, and the horses on his small southern New Jersey horse farm are part of that ecosystem. They play a role in Roger’s grand plan for ecological stewardship. Whether the forest is a few acres or a few thousands, he believes that he has been tasked to care for this plot of earth and leave it in an improved state. He manages the native trees and shrubs as well as the resident wildlife or those plant species just passing through. He uses the forest for products to improve his life – firewood to keep the home warm, lumber to build with, or the sap from the maples which yields “liquid gold,” aka maple syrup. Foremost, is the privilege of simply walking among these trees. As I walk through the forest, listening to Roger’s narrations about buds and nuts, ground cover and forest canopy, I feel a sense of awe for how powerfully efficient and intelligent nature is. It is the same sense of awe I felt watching Pegasa give birth to a jet-black filly, Lyra. The filly’s legs are still inside her mother when she opens her eyes, ears immediately tuning to her surroundings. Within 15 minutes of being born, Lyra is standing on her long spindly legs, gingerly walking around her mother. Within 20 minutes, she has found her mother’s nipples. We sit quietly, witnessing in awe the gentle and gradual bonding of mare and her newborn foal: Nature functioning magnificently, without human intervention.

As dancers, we use our improvisation skills to create a kind of shared physical language with the foals. In truth, the foals mostly choreograph us. Their movement gently carries us along next to them, their object of interest – mostly grass – directs our gaze as well. We shape the angle of our arm to drape gently over their backs, as our fingers pick up the tempo of their biting and chewing. Occasionally, we offer a flexed foot or wiggling fingers, actions that capture their attention momentarily.

Stefan, JoAnna, Lorenzo 

I explore simply freezing, holding a shape like a human statue. Lyra finds this unusual behavior for a human fascinating – and she touches her nose to my elbow. I move just my elbow. She touches my chin and I shift the position of my chin. Lyra is curious. I hope that she is enjoying this, if only for a moment. These inventive improvisations with the foals alternate with lots of scratching itchy places on their haunches and withers. Throughout the filming process, our foal interludes gradually integrate some basic natural horsemanship communication: I flap my arms to say “do not crowd me please;” a gentle guiding with our hands is a polite request to back up; a small rhythmic shooing motion sends them away.

Perhaps with this film, we will find new ways of interacting with young horses that gently shape their behavior. Our team of filmmaker and dancers have been a constant presence in these young equines’ lives. Who knows, perhaps our foal dancing will bring some magical innovation to the horse world. To be sure this journey has transformed each one of us.

Lyra and Stephan

(Top image: Peg in birthing paddock.)

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JoAnna Mendl Shaw has been choreographing performance works for stage, rural and urban landscapes since the 1980s. Artistic Director of The Equus Projects, Shaw tours throughout the States and Europe creating site-specific performance works that often bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Shaw has taught on faculty at NYU, The Juilliard School, Ailey BFA Program, Marymount, Princeton, Mount Holyoke and Montclair State. Shaw is the recipient of NEA Choreographic Fellowships and multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants for Interdisciplinary Performance.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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In the Beginning There Was Only Water

By Joan Sullivan

While some of us taught ourselves to bake sourdough bread or to mend socks during the pandemic, the American painter and arts writer Susan Hoffman Fishman plunged herself into her studio and emerged, a year later, with a revised creation story.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 19-22, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic, oil pigment stick and mixed media on paper, 2021

The result: a magnificent, nearly 50-foot (15 meters) opus entitled In The Beginning There Was Only Water

Currently on exhibit at the Five Points Gallery in Torrington, Connecticut through December 19, 2021, In The Beginning There Was Only Water reframes the biblical creation myth – in which “man” was granted “dominion” over all the Earth’s plants and animals – into a new, non-human-centric story.

Installation photograph of In the Beginning There Was Only Water at Five Points Gallery, Torrington, CT, 2021

Comprised of 39 mixed media paintings on paper, each 30 in. x 15 in., the work is hung without any space between the panels. The extended horizontal format of the piece creates a dramatic running narrative that begins approximately 3.8 billion years ago, when our fiery planet started to cool and the rains began to fall, and fall continuously, for centuries – filling up the basins that eventually became the primeval ocean.

In the beginning, there was only water. Not a human being or apple tree in sight.

According to Fishman, the narrative is “an abstract and liberal interpretation of what scientists have determined really happened at the creation of the planet and for the billions of years that followed.” 

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 1-6, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic and oil pigment stick on paper, 2021

In the Beginning There Was Only Water grew out of Fishman’s providential participation in a group of eight female eco-artists who met virtually on a regular basis during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They assembled to read and discuss the newly published book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. The group’s enthusiastic reaction to this seminal eco-anthology was a collective decision to create individual paintings, sculptures, installations, and new media that responded to specific essays in the book. 

While reading All We Can Save, Fishman was “viscerally struck” by Kendra Pierre-Louis‘ essay, ‘Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs.’ In particular, Pierre-Louis’ cri de cœur for new stories galvanized her – new stories to replace the biblical creation myth that cast humans as separate from and, worse, superior to nature. Such a colonialist worldview justified – no, condoned – our species’ relentless appetite to use and abuse the Earth’s resources in any way we choose, without regard to the impact of our actions on non-human beings – including the rivers, oceans, forests, land, and atmosphere – upon whom we depend for our own survival. 

According to Pierre-Louis, this creation myth set humans on an inherently destructive path that evolved, over millennia, into our “innate tendency to destroy the environment” ever since “Eve, allegedly, took a bite of that damn apple.”

Fishman spent the majority of 2021 working on In The Beginning There Was Only Water. Prior to developing the framework for the series, she conducted extensive research about the origins of the earth itself, including the geological formation of land, volcanoes, mountains and bodies of water; the emergence of single-cell organisms; the appearance of algae that eventually led to the creation of the first plants and the birth of animal life.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 7 and 8, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic and oil pigment stick on paper, 2021
In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 15-18, each panel 30″ x 15″, oil pigment stick and mixed media on paper, 2021

Meanwhile, as Fishman worked to complete her narrative, the reading group developed plans to create a traveling exhibition of their work, entitled Climate Conversations: All We Can Save, which was curated by member artists Leslie Sobel and Laura Earle. For her contribution to the group exhibition, Fishman created two large-scale (5 ft. x 5 ft.) mixed-media paintings on paper and the first six panels of what was to become her opus. These paintings served as a warm-up for her 39-panel narrative, a massive project that would soon outgrow her Connecticut studio. 

During the summer of 2021, Climate Conversations was installed at the 22 North Gallery in Ypsilanti, Michigan (July-August 2021). In early 2022, it will travel to the Janice Charach Gallery in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (January-March 2022) and then to the Nurture / Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania (April-May 2022). 

In the Beginning There Was Only Water II, 5 ft. x 5 ft., acrylic and mixed media on paper, 2020
On the 3 Billionth Day Algae Made Plants, 5 ft. x 5 ft., acrylic, oil pigment sticks and mixed media on paper, 2021

The images accompanying this text, as engaging and seductive as they are, do not do full justice to Fishman’s extraordinary creation. In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a work of art that demands to be seen up close, in person. Walking the full length of this nearly 50-foot piece in the Five Points Gallery, visitors sense the primal energy associated with the violent origins of our blue planet and the teeming life forms created in its aftermath.

In this story, the entire world is Eden.

While Fishman chose to execute the first six panels as monochromatic interpretations of the primordial rains, she introduces color gradually as the narrative unfolds, beginning with blue and sepia and concluding with a full color palette. To mark the passage of time, each panel carries over at least one color from the previous one, an artistic sleight of hand that reminds us that all living organisms are related; they are, as Darwin pointed out, “descended from a common ancestor with striking anatomical similarities between species.” 

Fishman admits that she completed the paintings for In The Beginning There Was Only Water in multiples of two, four and six. But in ordering the narrative, she often reversed the sequence of the panels or, in many cases, turned the finished ones upside-down to enforce the abstract nature of the narrative. 

Incorporating collage materials such as gauze and hand-made papers to the surface of the panels, her paintings are highly textured. Her use of line and linear forms are especially effective in emphasizing movement and invites the viewer to travel along physically and intellectually with the story across time from panel to panel.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 29-32, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic, oil pigment stick and mixed media on paper, 2021

Because water is essential for all living beings on Earth, Fishman made a conscious decision to include visible references to it throughout the series, using brilliant cobalt blue starting in panel 7. In fact, the topic of water is central to Fishman’s artistic practice. Since 2011, her work has focused almost exclusively on water and the climate crisis: rising tides, plastic oceans, the threat of water wars, and rampikes – dead trees along our shores whose roots have been exposed to salt water from rising tides. 

Although all of Fishman’s previous works present a narrative relating to the nature of water in our time, they are in no way didactic. Instead, her paintings are scenes on paper that she creates using bold, vivid colors, abstract shapes contrasting with recognizable images, often with skewed perspective.

In addition to being a painter and public artist, Fishman is a prolific arts writer who pens the popular monthly column, Imaging Water, for this international blog. Her monthly articles highlight artists, projects, and exhibitions that address the increasingly critical issue of water in the context of climate disruption. 

While the planet continues to warm and the seas to rise as a result of misguided decisions and actions that human beings have made since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it is powerful artwork like Fishman’s In the Beginning There Was Only Waterthat reminds us of the innate beauty of our world and what we stand to lose.

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art, artists and the energy transition. For the first time this month, Joan is a guest writer for the monthly series, Imagining Water. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Embracing Uncertainty

By Jennifer Atkinson

Eco-anxiety and climate grief are sometimes framed as “disorders,” but in fact these feelings typically arise from an accurate perception of our ecological crisis. It may be more appropriate to identify eco-anxiety as a “moral emotion” – a sign of compassion, attachment to life, and desire for justice. And so paradoxically, we can take some encouragement from the global increase in eco-anxiety and climate grief, since our very existential discomfort affirms a desire to live in a more just and sustainable world.

Because the fight for climate solutions is filled with such contradictions, this episode explores some ways we are strengthened by challenging easy assumptions about climate distress. Our future remains unwritten, and by embracing the unknown we are better able to reframe our thinking in empowering ways. So-called “negative” feelings that arise in response to ecological disruption (grief, anxiety, anger) can be seen as signs of emotional health, while “undesirable” states like uncertainty are potential doorways to transformation. Climate anxiety might even be seen as a kind of superpower – a signal that alerts us when something’s wrong and needs to be addressed, especially while others are sleepwalking through the crisis. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.” The time has come for the maladjusted to rise.

This episode includes extended excerpts from Rebecca Solnit and Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

(Top image by Callum Shaw via Unsplash.)

Facing It is a podcast about climate grief and eco anxiety. It explores the psychological toll of climate change, and why our emotional responses are key to addressing this existential threat. In each episode of Facing It, I explore a different way we can harness despair to activate meaningful solutions.

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Dr. Jennifer Atkinson is an Associate Professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her seminars on Eco-Grief & Climate Anxiety have been featured in the New York TimesWashington Post Magazine, the Los Angeles TimesNBC News, the Seattle Times, Grist, the Washington PostKUOW and many other outlets. Jennifer is currently working on a book titled An Existential Toolkit for the Climate Crisis (co-edited with Sarah Jaquette Ray) that offers strategies to help young people navigate the emotional toll of climate breakdown.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Premee Mohamed

By Mary Woodbury

This month we travel virtually to Alberta, the home of Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author Premee Mohamed, and also where her novella, The Annual Migration of Clouds (ECW Press, September 2021), takes place. I admit to being drawn to this book because I often search for fiction about fungi, and Premee’s novella has some of that, along with a glimpse into the future if we continue on the route we’re on. I was so happy to be able to talk with her about her book. You can find more about Premee at her website and on Twitter. Waubgeshig Rice, another favorite Canadian author (Moon of the Crusted Snow), said of Clouds: “A riveting look at a dire future. The climate crisis is real, and The Annual Migration of Clouds is a must-read fiction.”

ABOUT THE BOOK

From ECW Press

The world is nothing like it once was: climate disasters have wracked the continent, causing food shortages, ending industry, and leaving little behind. Then came Cad, mysterious mind-altering fungi that invade the bodies of the now scattered citizenry. Reid, a young woman who carries this parasite, has been given a chance to get away – to move to one of the last remnants of pre-disaster society – but she can’t bring herself to abandon her mother and the community that relies on her. When she’s offered a coveted place on a dangerous and profitable mission, she jumps at the opportunity to set her family up for life, but how can Reid ask people to put their trust in her when she can’t even trust her own mind?

I found the novella unique and refreshing, written with wit and in the style of a lyrical polemic.

A CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

I see that you are in Alberta, Canada so hello from Nova Scotia! How did you get started in writing, and did you have any favorite childhood memories of nature and/or fiction about environmental issues?

I’ve always written as a hobby. I think the earliest “book” I wrote was when I was eight or nine, using drafting supplies from my dad’s job (super-smelly alcohol markers, letraset text, etc.). I didn’t decide to get into publishing until a few years ago because I didn’t see the point of monetizing my hobby, but a friend talked me into starting with short fiction, which pays right away, and from then I started to get the idea of trying to publish longer form work. As a child, my favorite nature memories were playing in the forests around my house near the Sturgeon river; I’m sad that that area is being filled up with McMansions now. I loved Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows because they were about a nature that didn’t include humans, but I wasn’t very interested in reading about environmental issues back then. I knew from the news, from school, and from our family subscription to National Geographic that everything was in decline and the decline was accelerating, and I felt so sad about it and, unable to deal with the sadness, my response was just to try not think about it, even though it was everywhere.

What motivated you to write The Annual Migration of Clouds?

I guess I’m just one of those writers who chases an idea to completion when it comes across my head! I liked the combination of the disease and the “quiet disaster” setting. Books that are set just after disasters, or I guess post-apocalyptic fiction, are great, but that wasn’t what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about how boring and tedious and essential it is to rebuild after disaster, when the worst is generally over, and how people might do it differently based on these new constraints.

Can you give new writers a tip about world-building?

World-building doesn’t have to make perfect logical sense for our world, but it does have to make sense inside the internal logic of the story, or else readers will pick up on it right away!

Thanks for the tip! So what’s going on in the story?

In The Annual Migration of Clouds, a young woman named Reid lives and works at a university campus in Edmonton that is no longer a university, just a sturdy place to which people retreated after numerous climate disasters caused the collapse of technological society decades ago. She’s also infected with a new incurable disease that makes her constantly on edge about whether she’s doing or thinking things or whether it’s the disease doing it – and so is her mother. When she gets a rare chance to study at one of the few remnants of pre-collapse society, at a university far in the mountains, she has to choose between leaving her mother and community or staying with them to help rebuild and work towards a better future.

One of the descriptions I’ve read called your novella “hopepunk,” which is a pretty new genre. It seems a lot of readers are calling for more positivity in apocalyptic climate stories. What are your thoughts on that?

I also saw that descriptor! (I would also like to add that I didn’t put it in my description of the novella, because I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.) I do think I would like to see more hopeful post-apocalyptic (or, like this one, post-post-apocalyptic) stories. I have read a lot, like a lot a lot a lot, of hopeless dystopias and disasters scenarios, ones that assume that the worst of human nature will take over and that will be a permanent condition – that we’ll always be scratching out a subsistence living after a disaster, that everyone will become insular, territorial, and homicidal about resources and labour, that we’ll all become monsters. (I’m thinking things like Threads here.) Even just in terms of variety, I would like to see a body of literature that’s slightly hopeful, because I do think that fiction has the power to help introduce new ideas into people’s minds. If they don’t stick, that’s okay; just introducing a wide variety of possibilities is enough, especially when I hear people saying now “What’s the point, why bother? There’s nothing we can do about various issues.”

In times of COVID, everyone in the world is now dealing with disease on a scale that most of us have not seen before. Clouds has a disease, a fungus, also a symbiont, however. What led you to write Cad (the disease) into the story?

Actually, I started with the disease first! I had an idea for a hereditary symbiont disease (which Cad is), and I fell pretty far down the rabbit hole of thinking about transmission, how it would affect people’s minds, their decisions to have children (or not), how people would be pinning their hopes on accurate tests so they could avoid it, how people didn’t know how to not catch it, where it came from, etc. – before thinking, “Well, with today’s technology, why wouldn’t we just cure it? That would be priority #1 if a disease like this – debilitating, painful, fatal, and equally able to affect all populations – came up.” (I should also add that I wrote this in 2019.) So the next idea was actually, “Well, what if we couldn’t.” That led to me setting the story in a future where we had lost the ability to do advanced research and medicine, rather than in the past. And there’s no future I could imagine without climate change, so the two got intertwined together: a plague making people less able to respond to climate change disasters, and the disasters making people less able to respond to the plague. In Reid and her community is where everything kind of shakes out, sixty or seventy years later.

I had that kind of thought too, when COVID-19 was announced as a pandemic, that we would all have been better at curing something right now. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

Nothing else to add! Just that I hope people enjoy the book.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Writer Marjorie B. Kellogg

By Amy Brady

I’m writing this as a nor’easter batters New York, New Jersey, and our home in New England, and as the Western US experiences record rainfall after prolonged drought. According to the NY Times, these weather patterns, especially those out west, are a “glimpse into the future,” a future brought about by the climate crisis.

As recently as just a few years ago, important media outlets like the Times weren’t making explicit connections between climate change and extreme weather events. Like you I’m sure, I’m thrilled to see these connections finally being made. But there is still so much work to be done in this area. 

As news outlets ramp up their climate coverage (or, at least, I hope they will), artists and writers of all kinds continue to cover the climate crisis, encouraging readers and viewers to consider the complexity of the problem and the variety of impacts experienced around the world. One such writer is Marjorie B. Kellogg, author of Glimmer, a novel about a climate-ravaged New York City.

Marjorie has been writing about the climate crisis for some time in her fiction. She’s also the editor of The New Franklin Register and an award-winning scenery designer for theater on Broadway and Off-Broadway. She taught at Princeton and Columbia and was Associate Professor of Theater at Colgate University from 1995 to 2017. In our interview below, we discuss her latest novel, how she’s seen climate change manifest in her own life, and the role she sees fiction (and all kinds of art) playing in our larger discourse on climate.

Glimmer is a compelling character, who’s driven by survival and a sense of loss. Please tell us where she comes from! Who or what inspired her?

Basically, a who AND a what. The ‘what’ was a technical need: writing about a time that hasn’t happened (quite) yet requires a good deal of backstory and world-building, so that the reader can settle into an unfamiliar future with confidence, not constantly having to ask, “What’s going on and where am I?” But exposition can be static, badly disrupting the narrative flow. I wanted the characters to provide the necessary information through action and dialogue. Thus, Glimmer’s memory loss: if my protagonist can’t remember how the world got to the way it is as the story begins, the people around her must fill in by remembering it for her, gradually and as needed.

Later, as Glimmer regains her past bit by bit, her recollections become much more personal, but by then we have learned the world well enough to fit the personal into the more general Big Picture of flooded Manhattan 2110. But losing your past dislocates your sense of self as well as your place in the world. It leaves you vulnerable to missteps and misunderstandings, some perhaps comical but also potentially fatal. It’s a kind of disability.

I grew up with a handicapped sister. Her disability was not just an obstacle, but a constant source of threat and stress in her life, a physical and emotional vulnerability. Yet she had great stamina and determination. She was both sweet and deeply stubborn, and this combination of strength and vulnerability seemed exactly right for Glimmer as she manages to survive despite the odds.

What inspired you to write about the effects of climate change? Do you see the crisis manifesting in your own life? 

Speaking of vulnerability, I have always been painfully aware of how vulnerable our planet is, perhaps due to reading science fiction from an early age, much of which does focus on humanity’s destructive treatment of the Earth. Even so, anyone who fails to see climate change happening is living under a rock!

Meanwhile, I am fortunate to live in a (so far) blessed place. Here in upstate New York, we have clean air and abundant water, few tornadoes, baby earthquakes, no volcanoes. When hurricanes rage up the coast, we might suffer local flooding but nothing like New Orleans or even New York City. A dry month brings caution and burn bans, but no unquenchable wildfires. We water our gardens without guilt.

Yet, as a gardener, I sense the changes, which is more disturbing than just reading about them. The long falls without a frost, the warmer winters, the earlier springs. The birds that stick around longer, perhaps even winter over. The reduction in their numbers. The steady infiltration of invasive plants and toxic insects from more southerly climate zones. I can grow plants here now that would never have survived the winters of twenty years ago. Often I joke that global warming is my friend. But it’s only a temporary advantage. What it suggests for our future, here and everywhere, is terrifying. That I can see it proves it’s happening way too fast.

Of course, weather is a constant factor in rural life, not just something that happens when you go outside. It can determine the course of a day, a week, a season, or an income. It can be a source of great beauty, of sensual pleasure, even drama.  As such, it’s always had a central place in my fiction. Like a human character, it can be the hero or the villain. My fantasy work, The Dragon Quartet, features dragons born of the four natural elements, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. My novel Lear’s Daughters, conceived with the scientific support of NASA climate scientist William Rossow, involves using weather as a weapon. (Also terrifying… but a lot of fun!)

Your book makes harrowing connections between dwindling resources and the threat of violent conflict. What do you hope readers take away from these connections?

I hope they will take a longer view and reconsider their actions in the world.  I hope they will see that this is a shared, global crisis – societal as well as climatological – and that the only way for humanity to survive (if indeed we deserve to survive!) is to work together to reverse or, at best, limit climate change. If we do nothing, we’ll be fighting over the ruins. That much is not fiction. Too many people and too few resources equal war. It’s already the root cause of local conflicts all around the globe.

And because parts of the world will fare differently from the effects of climate change, the dichotomy of have and have-not will only deepen. We see it happening in this country already, with the Gulf Coast hurricanes or the western wildfires and water disputes. People forced to flee the hard-hit areas will become climate refugees desperate to move into places where the more fortunate do not want them and will fight not to share what they consider theirs by right.

But this might-makes-right scenario has no happy ending. I don’t claim the wisdom to provide a specific solution, but by bringing a scary but realistically conceived near-future to life in a fictional narrative, I hope to move readers to consider this crisis deeply, to take it on as their own, to take action to prevent that dire future from becoming a reality, while we still have the opportunity to do so.

I love that the people who stay behind in your version of a future climate-ravaged NYC are the people who are already rethinking how to live on Earth: the outsiders, the artists, the people who, because of any number of hardships, have had to scrape and scrap to get by. Do you think that more people should be thinking about different ways of living, of structuring our societies? 

Yes, please! The more we think, the more chance of finding a way out of this!  We need to do Darwin one better and redefine what it means to be ‘fittest.’

Like living creatures, societies evolve over time as they adapt to changing geographical and climatological conditions. In the past, except during cataclysmic events, these changes tended to come slowly enough for most organisms to keep up. But the pace of anthropogenic climate change may be too rapid for humans (or life in general) to adapt in time, especially if we continue to keep our heads in the sand and refuse to recognize how badly we’ve screwed up the natural systems that sustain us.

Still, there’s always a vanguard, often made up of people who have declined a stake in the status quo or have had it taken away from them – yes, outsiders, artists, idealists, visionaries. Conventional society sees such people as a danger, yet they have often been its saviors simply by being willing (or forced) to try something new. 

And I think a lot of young people today are out there in front trying to figure out how we can live on this Earth and not destroy it. They see that the status quo is not working, and that only by sustaining the planet will we be able to sustain ourselves.

What role do you think novels do or can play in the wider discourse on climate?

Not everyone keeps up with the news, or reads non-fiction or the environmental press, especially younger folk busy with getting their lives going or raising kids. They are stressed and exhausted, and want to relax. If a novel (or art in general) can entertain as well as inform and enlighten, it stands a better chance of raising the more… shall we say, resistant or reluctant consciousness to a greater awareness of climate change, its reality, its coming consequences. Climate fiction can be a kind of recruitment device, rousing forces for the battle against climate change.

A story can draw in a reader with sympathetic characters that he/she can identify with. The flood or drought or famine is no longer some distant problem, but one the reader has shared with the characters living through it. Good reporting can do the same, of course, when the writer employs narrative structure and effects such as tension and surprise to tell real people’s stories, but fiction has a license to play with the facts, to add color, conflict, and action, to… I hesitate to say “manipulate,” but that is the goal… to produce the strongest emotional punch possible, to lead to a satisfying catharsis. 

A film, say, provides every last visual detail in living color. But because a novel offers only words, it engages the reader’s imagination more fully, puts it to work filling in the imagery and color using personal references, and creating a version of the story that is the reader’s own.

A science fiction novel is often said to be the answer to the question “What if…?” Climate fiction can project into the future and speculate on any number of possible climate outcomes, depending on the steps taken or turned away from. Bringing these scenarios to life in ways that resonate personally can help us decide what the right steps are and how we might go about taking them.

Finally, I know you have a book that is just hitting shelves, but what’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to watch for?

As a break from finishing a long novel, I’ve been working on a series of short stories, linked by place and shared characters (as has become fashionable of late). They explore the very local impacts of climate change on rural farming communities such as my own, where a traditional way of life is being challenged not only by alterations in the weather but by the sudden influx of urbanites fleeing both the pandemic and deteriorating conditions in the cities due to climate events. A clash of cultures as well as the shocks of accelerating climate change. The sociology is complex, potentially violent, and it’s happening all around me. 

So again, the big question to consider – since it seems we can’t find the collective will to address the problem and try to restore Earth’s climate to its pre-industrial state – is how are we going to live with this terrible imbalance we’ve created? 

Who are we going to become?

A question certainly worth writing about. 

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Claude Schryer Explores Climate Change and Art through Sound

By Peterson Toscano

As a podcaster and radio producer, I listen to many climate change podcasts. Every now and then though, I hear a well-designed podcast that hits me in the heart and the gut. It becomes a transformative audio experience.

This is exactly what happened when I first listened to Claude Schryer’s conscient podcast. As a sound designer, Claude is able to reach deep into listeners’ minds and even bodies. Sound has that power. I chatted with Claude about his podcast and his own journey as an artist addressing climate change. From that recorded conversation, Claude wove in sound effects and personal reflection.  

We encourage you to listen with headphones on. 

The conscient podcast / balado conscient is a bilingual series of conversations about arts, conscience, and the ecological crisis. You will find it wherever you listen to podcasts.

Next month, I will feature Dr. Krista Hiser and The Ultimate Cli-Fi Bookclub.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

(Top image: Photo by Bruno Bueno from Pexels.)

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Just Say When

By Joan Sullivan

Speaking on behalf of all the amazing artists I’ve interviewed over the past four years for this monthly Renewable Energy series, I think that one of the greatest compliments any of us could ever hope to receive would be to be described as a “superhero” by Olafur Eliasson.

That’s exactly the word that popped into Eliasson’s mind when he first saw Brooklyn-based artist Jessica Segall‘s brilliantly understated, less-is-more performance in Say When, her visually stunning short film about solar energy. 

Say When is currently showing at the #COP26 in Glasglow, along with four other short films from the Fast Forward film series produced by Little Sun, the social enterprise co-founded by Eliasson in 2012 with solar engineer Frederik Ottesen. 

“Little Sun’s Fast Forward film series offers a vital new space for artists to reimagine the future,” according to a quote by Eliasson on Little Sun’s website.

Segall’s Say When is one of those films whose deeply saturated, starkly composed images stay with you long after seeing it for the first time. For me, it’s the bold image of a sequined goddess standing alone on a massive sand-dune, a conduit for the Sun’s rays that she receives and then redirects to the viewer with her magic mirror. 

Still from Jessica Segall’s film Say When, produced by Little Sun (2021)

In Segall’s film, there is no need for words. No need for numbers, statistics, or degrees centigrade. Just a simple technology – a piece of coated glass – that allows us to look in the mirror, reminding us of what we already knew but that we seem to have forgotten: “Human culture is and has always been inexorably connected to the ultimate source of light and warmth, the Sun,” wrote Maria Popova in 2016.

I asked Segall in an email exchange to explain the importance of embodiment in her work. Here is her unedited response:

In my performances, I play with both the risk of engaging with the environment and the vulnerability of the environment itself. Ecofeminism identifies the abuse of women and nature as from the same source. Any person with a vulnerable body – people of color, gender non-conforming people, know what it’s like to feel in danger embodied on a daily basis. Non-human beings know it as well. Climate change is an embodied danger that to some is still imperceptible – in the legacy of endurance performance, I embrace that vulnerability.

In a previous post, I wondered out loud if embodiment was “the secret sauce that’s been missing in the artistic community’s response to the climate crisis to date?”

Eliasson mentions it here. Chantal Bilodeau, Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle and founder of this Artists and Climate Change blog, mentioned embodiment six years ago in her essay about theatre in the age of climate change: 

But if we want to be active participants in shaping our future, we need to move beyond writing plays about climate change to writing plays that are climate change – plays that embody, in form, content, and process, the essence of the issues we are facing. Plays where the concept of climate change is so integral to the work that the term doesn’t even need to be uttered. New problems cannot be solved with old solutions. A new consciousness requires new artistic constructs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment lately, especially after re-reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass about Indigenous wisdom and the teachings of plants. But I was totally unprepared for the visceral, embodied performance by the British contemporary dance artist and choreographer Charlotte Jarvis. Filmed in an empty Globe Theatre, Jarvis embodies the pain and violence that we humans have inflicted upon our non-human relatives with whom we share this planet, as her partner Ben Okri reads aloud his Letter to the Earth. The video ends with a cameo appearance by their daughter, Mirabella Okri, reading her own Letter to the Earth. Brilliant. Masterful. Spellbinding.

Apologies to Jessica Segall! When I sat down tonight to write this post, my intention was to focus on Segall’s inspiration to create a silent film about solar energy. But my pen seems to have had other ideas. I have learned to embrace this tension, allowing my pen to open new doors for me, finding connections that I hadn’t previously considered. 

In this vein, the similarities between Segall’s and Jarvis’ performances become clear. While visually distinct – slow/contemplative versus jarring/gut-wrenching – these two performances share the common language of embodiment. Both artists have become vessels through which they receive and transmit ancient wisdom. Both artists shine a much-needed light in the darkness of this chaotic era. 

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. She is a member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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On Bearing Witness and Embracing Beauty

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

For over fifty years, Philadelphia-based painter, photographer, and activist Diane Burko has translated her love for large open spaces and monumental geological sites into powerful and alluring landscapes. Her current exhibition at the American University in Washington, D.C. (August 28 – December 12, 2021), titled Diane Burko: Seeing Climate Change 2002 – 2021, contains 103 paintings, photographs, and time-based media depicting mountains, oceans, snow and ice, glaciers, volcanos, and fires that address the growing impact of the climate crisis.

Installation view of Diane Burko: Seeing Climate Change 2002 – 2021 at the American University, Washington, D.C., 2021.

In 2006, Burko became one of the first artists to focus her work on the visible changes happening to the environment. That was the year the groundbreaking film An Inconvenient Truth came out, highlighting former president Al Gore’s campaign to raise public awareness on the dangers of global warming. An activist all of her adult life, Burko felt compelled by what she was learning to use her paintings as a way to both bear witness to what was happening to the planet and, at the same time, to show the astonishing beauty of what we stand to lose if we don’t make radical steps to mitigate climate change.

In order to understand her pivotal transition from landscapes without a political message to those with a concentration on environmental devastation, Seeing Climate Change includes paintings that represent Burko’s prior focus. Influenced by French landscape painters from Corot to Van Gogh as well as Manet, Velasquez, the Hudson River School artists, Winslow Homer, Fairfield Porter, and the abstract impressionists, Burko’s earlier works were technically flawless and aesthetically beautiful. Grandes Jorasses at Marguerite, a mountain in the Mont Blanc massif between France and Italy, was created in 1976 and based on an image from a magazine photo (see below).

Grandes Jorasses at Marguerite, 64” x 108,” acrylic on canvas, 1976

When Burko first began to address climate change, she was using what she called “other people’s images” and what “other people saw” as the inspiration for her paintings, including photos from Landsat, a satellite program sponsored by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS), which provided her with an aerial perspective of the world. Ultimately, she committed herself to “being there,” to personally bearing witness to climate change. Beginning her own exploratory journey, she traveled as far away as the Arctic Circle, Antarctica, Iceland, Hawaii, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, and more to document flooding, volcanic activity, melting glaciers, mega fires, and the destruction of coral reefs. The results of these voyages were an astoundingly prolific number of paintings and photographs. 

One of Burko’s first trips was to Grinnelle Glacier in Glacier Park, Montana, where she both climbed the mountain and flew over it. In order to document changes to the area over time, she used repeat photography as one of her initial strategies.

Grinnell Mt. Gould, quadtych, 88” x 200,” oil on canvas2009

As Burko delved deeper into her explorations, she engaged with scientists and research labs. In her extensive and thoughtful essay for the exhibition catalogue, co-curator Mary D. Garrard noted that Burko acquired scientific knowledge from them and they in turn learned to look at the environment from “her perspective as an artist-explorer.” Garrard goes on to say that 

Burko has gained recognition in scientific circles as a collaborator in dealing with climate change. Scientist colleagues write her into National Science Foundation grants. In 2012, she was invited to her first American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference; in 2018, she organized an art-science panel at the AGU conference in Washington, D.C.  

In 2013, Burko participated in The Arctic Circle’s annual expeditionary residency program for artists and writers, traveling aboard a Barquentine sailing vessel around Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago in the Arctic only 10 degrees south of the North Pole. Svalbard is a region that is warming the fastest within an area of the planet that is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. While in Svalbard, she walked on a glacier for the first time and visited the Ny-Alesund Research Station, where she engaged with the research scientists there. 

Showing the overwhelming beauty of nature has always been at the heart of Burko’s work. The megafires she paints, although horrific in reality, are mesmerizing on her canvases; the devastating degradation of coral reefs within the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia are represented in enticing cobalt blue, turquoise, and yellow ochre colors; the Arctic ice, although diminishing, sparkles and shines. Burko admits that her intention is “to say her piece with seductive beauty” – to, as Garrard explains, “alert us to the earth’s peril by reminding us of the extraordinary beauty of what we are losing and of nature’s complex, exquisitely subtle operating systems that are being thrown out of whack.”

CA Burning, 8 ft. x 15 ft., mixed media on canvas, 2021Collection of Joe and Pam Yohlin
Great Barrier Reef, 60 ft. x 84 ft., mixed media on canvas, 2018

Over the years, Burko’s working process has evolved and her choice of materials and media has expanded. In addition to paintings and photographs, Seeing Climate Change includes video and lenticular prints. She refers to her more recent paintings as “the most abstract work I’ve done in decades.” Rather than painting on canvases hung from a wall, she now works horizontally, pouring pigment onto the canvas, often mixing the paint with salt, sand, and glitter, and then blowing it across the surface of the canvas with air from a compressor, creating an impression of wind and the elements. She is also adding crackle paint in areas of her paintings to indicate where the breakup of ice is occurring. Ice Melt, 2020, a video in the exhibition, incorporates images from many of her paintings and photographs, along with a soundtrack of crackling ice and eerie music.

Ice Melt, 2020, Diane Burko with Alanna Rebbeck; sound by Alanna Rebbeck.

The physical layout of the gallery at the American University effectively complements Burko’s work. Configured as a spiral in which visitors can see the beginning and end of the exhibition at the same time, it mimics the circular shape of the world as well as the interconnectedness and global nature of the critical issues being addressed.  

One of the most striking paintings in Seeing Climate Change is Unprecedented, completed during the COVID-19 pandemic (see image at the top). Monumental in scale, it reads from left to right like a narrative of disaster and renewal. Using spheres as metaphors for the virus cell itself and, as in many of her works, for the global community, Burko is telling us that, despite areas where COVID is still raging red hot, there is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, a time in the near future when we will have survived the virus and when perhaps even the Earth, represented by a green sphere, will have recovered from the damages we have caused.  

Not one to rest on her laurels, Burko has ambitious plans for her next journey and body of work. She intends to explore the Amazon and study the effects of gold and copper mining on water tables and the deforestation and fires impacting millions and millions of trees. The Amazon, considered the lungs of the world, is enormous in scale, crossing nine countries and consisting of 2,700,000 square miles. Its wellbeing is critical to the wellbeing of the planet. In addressing these issues, as she has done in her previous work, Burko will use her art to awaken our emotions and senses to the dangers of man-made climate change. It can be said that Seeing Climate Change and all of Burko’s work since 2006 can be summed up by the quotation attributed to Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation botanist, which she has chosen to display at the entrance to her exhibition: “the most effective alert to the threat of climate change is likely to come from the world of art rather than of science, because art has such an extraordinary way of cutting across human society.” 

(Top image: Unprecedented, 8 ft. x 15 ft., mixed media on canvas, 2021. Photo by Joseph Hu.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. This fall, she is participating in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she will be comparing changes to bodies of water over time. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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