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Reimagining Our Relationship to Nature

By Ilana A. Cohen, Contributing Writer

Amidst unearthly destruction, Rockman’s vividly colored works convey an electric sense of life. From the evolution of humankind to the extinction of its most precious creatures, Rockman’s nature-centric paintings employ a Romanticism, if not also a Dali-esque surrealism, in their allusion to ecological tragedy and loss amidst the existential threat of climate change. In a New York Times piece last year, Rockman was listed among 12 artists focusing on climate change. He described his projects not only as a means of coping with the climate crisis but of spurring the public to action. “I believed that if one could render moments of extinction, genocide, population explosion and political discord visible, then we might learn to confront and change the conditions leading to civilization’s collapse,” he said in the article.

This urge to awaken public consciousness is not unique to Rockman. Increasingly, artists are cutting across mediums to disrupt artistic convention; it is not only the visceral imagery, but also the symbolic weight of their work that captures viewers’ attention, forcing them to face the climate emergency. Increasingly, artists are using their work to recultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder in the natural world, while also using themes of endangerment and extinction to convey the unparalleled threat posed by humans to this world's existence.

While Rockman’s surrealist paintings cultivate a sense of wanderlust through bright colors and bold strokes, glaciogenic artist Jill Pelto blurs the lines between science and art to translate her experiences in nature into watercolor portraits of the life she seeks to preserve. She defies the stereotypical view of scientists and experts being removed from the picture of public communication about the climate crisis. In fact, such communication is the essence of Pelto’s work: Her “love of nature drives [her] to creatively communicate information about environmental issues with a broad audience,” as nature itself represents a “work of art.” The faint lines and soft colors she employs invoke the ultimate fragility of nature, even as she depicts its power in the form of polar ice caps, mountain ridges, and raging fires. None of her wildlife is truly still; even in pure landscapes, the texture of Pelto’s work creates a sense of movement. In an almost metacognitive study of her and humans’ position in the natural world, Pelto also depicts herself trekking through nature. Such works transcend the divide between the experiential and the visual, rendering her work more accessible and even familiar to other lovers of nature. Pelto paints to save and transform the world that inspired her to create in the first place.

In the era of the climate emergency, art is also taking on a more explicitly activist tone. Teenage artist Kallan Benson’s massive monarch butterfly parachute represents a participatory act of resistance. It actively constitutes and supports protest. Now, the “Parachutes for the Planet” project by the Mother Earth Project encourages activists to create parachutes like Benson’s to call for climate action, drawing inspiration from a quilt exhibition that raised awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s. Another protest-oriented representation of the need for environmental action can be found in a seven meter-long boat constructed from only recycled plastic by the Flipflopi Project. The actual utility of the boat, which sailed around the Indian Ocean coastline, elevates its call for a “plastic revolution.” Quite literally, this distinct form of art spreads awareness of the magnitude of ocean pollution by plastic waste and makes a statement about the urgent need for climate action and eco-conscious consumerism.

Climate artists are also employing social media to amplify their works’ messages. Through art Instagram and Twitter accounts, they integrate climate consciousness into the digital sphere, making it part of users’ and largely, young people’s daily content. On her “GlaciogenicArt” account, for instance, Pelto emphasizes her artistic mission by commenting directly on related developments of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, the Mother Earth Project extends its reach to encouraging the creation of virtual parachutes specifically for social media.

As artists innovate new ways to express and disseminate the urgent need for climate action, they make a call for far more than spectatorship. Rockman and Pelto’s works are not meant to hang on museum walls or contribute to living room aesthetics; they are meant to infuse new color into what can seem like a dying world, given the stark reality of global climate change. These artists are using their chosen mediums as tools for movement-making. By illuminating the threats to the what people most value about the natural world — portraying the majesty and power of non-human life — they evoke a deep and perhaps somewhat involuntary emotional response. They implore their public audience to stop passively observing the crisis unfold, and instead become active agents in its resistance.

— Contributing writer Ilana Cohen’s '22 column, “Expressions of the Climate Emergency,” is a nonfiction column that discusses artistic response and resistance to the climate crisis.

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