The World of Water

Art explores the myriad of issues.

Every living organism needs water to survive.

As I read about the threats to global freshwater resources, to our oceans, to our climate, and the risks we face because of those threats, it can feel overwhelming. For decades environmentalists have sounded the alarm, calling on the world to use less carbon, to reduce, reuse and recycle, to conserve water, reduce pesticides & synthetic fertilizers, and protect and restore habitat. And yet it is 2019 and we are still on an unsustainable course, with ongoing water pollution from largely unabated carbon emissions, chemical-intensive farming practices, industrial dumping, oil leaks, marine dumping, plastic waste, nuclear accidents and sewage overflows.

In the maelstrom of sobering statistics, and political and corporate inertia, art offers me both hope and inspiration. Art also serves as a powerful educational tool to highlight the issues and provocateur to prompt action.

The Power of Creativity

Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman, creators of the traveling installation The Wave, have found “that art is a very effective way of addressing difficult subjects like climate change and the future of our water resources… Art allows individuals of all ages and abilities to feel and process emotion, [it] starts conversation and sparks creativity.” They found the combination of education and participation in The Wave prompted a greater interest in the future of water.

The Wave is a national (U.S.), interactive, public art project celebrating water and its vital function in our lives. It was created jointly by Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman, (@FishmanSusanH, This community oriented traveling interactive art is a siren call for water conservation. Inspired by the 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake that rocked Japan, which triggered a tsunami so large it shifted the Earth on its axis 4-10 inches, and created a wave chain that reached across the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. This event demonstrated to the artists the reality of a connected world. Since September of 2011, The Wave has been installed in 24 museums, galleries, schools, universities, community centers, festival and parks including: The Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA); The National Aquarium (Baltimore, MD); The Rose Kennedy Greenway (Boston, MA); The Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, CT); Allegra LaViola Gallery (NYC); Governor’s Island (NYC); The New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, CT), and many others. 

However we will need more than interest. We will need that interest to inspire creativity and action. Part of “correcting our course” is envisioning a new future, one largely without oil and gas. This will require creative thinking to redirect business, government and lifestyle practices to green options for transportation, manufacturing, building construction, food production, and energy generation. Creating a positive future will require tough choices, yes, but also innovations in design, methods, technologies, and funding mechanisms. And art is a powerful tool in reminding us of our own power and the power of creativity.

Creating a positive future will require tough choices, yes, but also innovations in design, methods, technologies, and funding mechanisms. And art is a powerful tool in reminding us of our own power and the power of creativity.
A creative idea – What if every time you reached for this… (image above)
…you saw this?
Opacify is Post Carbon Lab’s proposal – part art installation, part social engineering – that seeks to hijack the single-use plastics shopping experience. Bottle packaging would include messaging akin to cigarette warning labels; but with warnings of the eco impact of plastics. An option to include thermographic ink would require shoppers to interact with the bottle in order to see what’s inside. If it just plain looks evil, would you buy it? The concept was selected as a Finalist in A/D/O’s Water Futures Competition.

Bio Boulevard and Water Molecule
by Buster Simpson creates a poetic highlight of reclaimed water use as the entry experience in an unlikely place – the Brightwater Wastewater Facility in Woodinville, Washington.
Bio Boulevard and Water Molecule merges water advocacy, public art and function. A series of large cast concrete figurative elements support an episodic sculpture tableau consisting of a large water molecule and a long conveyance pipe transporting reclaimed water. The system intends to facilitate bio mitigation through hydroponics as well as being a water feature. The expressed water then feeds reconstructed wetlands and recharges ground water. Per Simpson, “The concrete figures suggest a heroic collective effort reminiscent of public works projects of past infrastructure endeavors.” I’d like to see more of this kind of infrastructure!

A Connected World

Art also reminds us we are not alone on our planet Earth. We co-inhabit this world with a diversity of cultures as well as the flora and fauna that provide food, medicine, shade, clean air, absorb rain run-off, and other benefits that humans need.

Cook Inlet Beluga mixed media on paper 14.5″ x 21.25″
Vancouver B.C. artist, environmental educator and curator Robi Smith explores our under-water neighbors on the NW coast, from salmon to whales, eelgrass to sponge reefs. Smith’s art reflects her passion for coastal marine ecosystems and her concerns about the impacts of human activities on forest, river and ocean life. Her mixed media paintings embed found materials, such as maps, into land- and sea-scapes that explore the interconnections between different species. The works tell visual tales layering scientific understandings with site-specific observations, allowing a glimpse of what often unseen.

Bluebell by Magical Zoo is based on a Blue Ring Octopus that inhabits coral reefs and tide pools of the Pacific and Indian oceans. This poisonous color shifting creatures is threatened, like many of marine life, by coral reef damage and pollution in the oceans. The artist turns an ugly truth, “that we have been knowingly destroying our planet and killing off its natural life in pursuit of the falsehoods promised by mass consumption” into a zoo of colorful and playful recycled sculptures seeking to inspire conservation actions.

Help Chart the Course

There is a lot of overlap in protecting our water resources and fighting climate change. Water flows around the globe, and rises and falls through the atmosphere – it’s all connected. All the water we will ever have is here on the planet right now. Protecting our water is a global effort that requires local actions and policy.

  • The single most impactful thing we can all do to protect our water is to VOTE for leaders who will enact policies that support (and fund) clean energy and eliminate water pollutants.
  • Walk the talk (reduce waste, buy less plastic, reuse what you buy, volunteer or support non-profits that protect and conserve freshwater and marine water bodies.)
  • Match purchases to your values and support companies that practice good enviromental stewardship (LEED and Living Buildings, Salmon-Safe or organic agricultural products, slow fashion, eco materials and reduced or paper packaging, etc.).

These strategies are necessary to make it clear to politicians and corporations that money flows to those who support pro-planet policies and create environment-friendly products, from reducing waste and eliminating single-use plastics to shifting us to a clean energy economy to implementing organic farming methods, and on and on.

Climate Shift

Time to Choose: Caution Ahead or Disaster Averted?

Scientists have warned that the world would have to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by as soon as 2030 if the aim is to limit warming in this century to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (we’re at 1 degree Celsius/2 degrees Fahrenheit already, and yes that’s significant at the planetary scale). That means we’ve got 11 years to curb carbon and that means we have to start now. Whether we conquer our carbon addiction or continue the binge, the subsequent tale will be told by future generations.

Will future generations see such a sight?
Image: Glaciar Perito Moreno in Argentina by @maptheunknown, with permission.

It’s a tall order isn’t it? Cut emissions across all sectors of the economy, in order to limit warming to 1.5° degrees Celsius. We need political leadership on this issue; but we can’t wait for it (particularly in the U.S.); it’s time to act. As society changes, politics will follow.

“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Greta Thunberg, climate activist

Trends show us slowly making progress in the right direction, but how do we speed the rate of carbon cutting? Bloomberg’s energy outlook suggests we could hit 50% of electricity from renewables by 2050 – but we will need to push hard to achieve that, and that figure doesn’t address transportation and industry emissions. We’ll have to push even harder to reach the target of reducing total emissions by 50% by 2030-2040. It is possible; we have the technology and the tools (cheaper batteries, lowering solar production prices, improving efficiency in equipment, etc.); but we will need to shift to low carbon lifestyles, business practices, policies and public infrastructure.

Art & Climate Change

So if we know we need to change, what motivates people to actually change? Two key motivators for people to make changes are personal experience with a particular issue or problem, and the belief that what we do can make a difference. Many of the artists working with the climate change topic seek to address one or both of these psychological elements.

“Can visual art affect viewer perceptions of climate change?” The answer is yes.

Prof. Christian A. Klöckner, Climart

“The Floods”, Nathalie Miebach

The Burden of Every Drop by Nathalie Miebach; wood, paper, rope, data
17’x10’x2′, 2018. Photo by: Jean-Michael Seminaro, used with permission of the artist.

Nathalie Miebach uses weather data to generate 3-D sculptures. She transforms the numbers documenting changing weather patterns into colorful woven swirls of reeds, grasses, wood, paper, yarn & rope. “The Burden of Every Drop” is a visual tale of Hurricane Maria – about the fierceness of the wind and rain, about the data silence as all electrical systems broke down, about the vastly underestimates death toll, about rebuilding and about people leaving the Puerto Rico. The piece combines weather and other numerical data with anecdotal information from the news in the aftermath of the storm, with the right side representing wind data coming into a crescendo to the left as it hits Puerto Rico, represented by an unraveling quilt.

When asked about the impetus behind her weather weavings, Nathalie shared that “one of the things I have learned is that it is very difficult to get people to speak about Climate Change.  It’s such a political topic that most people feel uncomfortable talking about that. I think that’s dangerous for the future of this planet and our own survival. If we don’t know how to talk about it, we won’t change and continue living as if Climate Change is a topic that only concerns scientists and politicians.” However, she found that people will share their weather stories; it’s a more personal link to climate change, often involving devastation and destruction. We experience weather every time we walk outside, and the patterns of that weather is already changing. This week alone saw a multitude of super storms across the central U.S. Is that the weather you grew up with? Extreme weather is on the rise; think what 10 or 20 more years along this trajectory might bring.

“Pollution Pods”, Michael Pinsky

Pollution Pods at Somerset House for Earth Day 2018, by Michael Pinsky. Image @ Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House.

Visual artist Michael Pinsky teamed up with Climart, an international climate & art research project, to create the “Pollution Pods”. The pods are an installation of geodesic domes that contain carefully mixed recipes emulating the relative presence of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide which pollute London, New Delhi, San Paolo and Beijing. The pods were envisioned as a way to provide visitors with a personal experience of climate change, and to help answer a critical question, “Can visual art affect viewer perceptions of climate change?” Per Climart’s coordinator, Prof. Christian A. Klöckner, the answer is yes. The project’s findings show that the pods “trigger strong emotional responses in the visitors through the visceral experience they provide. These emotions then seem to be an entry point into thinking about air pollution and climate change and ones role in this issue… Some people feel motivated to act.” Pinsky’s TedxFreiburg talk “Cars: It’s a Question of Culture” explores in more depth what he sees as a critical cause of the climate crisis – the combustion engine, “get rid of [those types of] cars, get rid of the pollution.” Simple in word, not in deed. Policy, urban design, transportation planning, and efficient mobility technology all need to shift to a lower carbon mode – but only if demanded by the citizens of the world.

“Greta Thunberg”, Brooke Fischer

Greta Thunberg by Brooke Fischer. Image with permission of the artist.

Botanical artist Brooke Fischer combined her blooms with the a call to action from youth eco-activist Greta Thunberg, in her painting of the same name. The work embraces and celebrates the blunt but hopeful challenge in Greta’s words. Fischer states that, “We both believe that humans are in for a rude awakening if we do not take action now. We can all help the planet now.” From changes in our daily lives, to voting for politicians that support reducing emissions, to “voting with our wallets”, we do have the ability to effect change. It is our youth that will pay the highest price, which may be one reason why concern about climate change is highest among Americans aged 18-34.

“Trojan Horse: Exploring Issues Around Climate Change”, Margot Cormier Splane

Trojan Horse Follows the Money by Margot Cormier Splane. Image with permission of the artist.

Margot Cormier Splane sees art as a means to share her views with an audience. Her Trojan Horse series focuses on her concern for the environment. “Trojan Horse Follows the Money” can be summed up as profit over planet, which translates also to profit over people. Many companies, particularly large corporations, focus on stock holders and the bottom line, at the expense of all else. In fact, U.S. law requires them to do so, unless a company’s mission statement makes reference to environmental, social justice, or other philanthropic goals. Time, population growth, consumerism, habit, and inertia compound the impacts of putting profit above all else, but Cormier Splane believes we can make a difference. We know it won’t be easy, but it is vital that we take action, “because the ball is rolling, and the faster Climate Change occurs, the harder it is going to be to stop it in the future.”

To see more eco artworks exploring Climate Change, visit @the_art_of_sustainability on Instagram.

Change for Climate

Artists across the globe have embraced the climate conundrum and call on the collective “us” to make change. Our individual actions can and do make a difference. I’ll refer to Canadian academic, speaker and environmental activist extraordinaire, David Suzuki, “In a world of more than seven billion people, each of us is a drop in the bucket. But with enough drops, we can fill any bucket.” Are you ready to fill the bucket and help cut carbon? See the Top 10 Things You Can Do About Climate Change, or my own shorter version here:

  1. Use less energy – walk, bike, bus or train to work, weatherize your home, buy efficient appliances when it’s time to replace them.
  2. Support renewables – from asking your university or workplace to divest from carbon industries, to purchasing, supporting, invest in, and voting for renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) – to grow the pro-planet industries of the future.
  3. Eat foods that are made with less energy, i.e. more plants, less meat.
  4. Buy less, and buy recycled or reused.
  5. Support carbon taxes to put a price on pollution.
  6. Vote (and make your voice heard).

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Plastic Apocalypse

Clay Apenouvon’s Plastic Attacks

Artists shine a light on the plastic problem.

The numbers are staggering – 90.5% of the 6,300 million metric tons (6,944 million U.S. tons) of plastics ever made have never been recycled and 8 million metric tons (8.8 million U.S. tons) of plastic waste flow into our oceans each year. Instead of getting overwhelmed, these artists transform waste plastics and marine debris into art that asks us to make a change.

Art Reveals Reality

Plastic littered beach.

Images and art can illustrate the impacts of our “single use plastics” era in a way no science report can. From photographic evidence of plastics debris ashore on beaches and floating in the sea to transforming plastic bottles, bits or bags into art works, reality is revealed. We do not have control of our waste, it has control of us.

Tide Chandelier, Artist: Stuart Haygarth, Photo via @florisflavis. Found plastic objects from Kent coastline in Dungeness, U.K.
Head Sculptures, Artist: turns beach clean ups along the Oregon coast into art in their Bandon, OR gallery and for traveling exhibits.

Plastics, often hailed as a marvel material – light, inexpensive, and versatile – have become the bane of beaches worldwide. 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions alone, equivalent to “five grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline around the world”.

Albatross, Artist: Chris Jordan. Jordan’s powerful and stark images remind us lives are at stake.

The mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is in reality a myth. The 3 R’s only work if all three R’s are truly an option. With many purchases coming encased in plastic with no recycling stamp and low demand for products made with recycled plastics, the U.S. only recycles 9% of its annual plastic waste. Further, many cities confront a backlog of plastic waste as China now declines to take U.S. export plastic waste, the 3 R stool is broken. So the new mantra is “Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle”, and the new question is “can I do without the item that either is made of or wrapped in, single-use plastic?”

Cactus Collection, Artist: Veronika Richterová. This greenery will last about 500 years, no watering required…

Common Single-Use Plastics

  • Plastic water bottles
  • Plastic soda bottles
  • Plastic single-serve food containers (yogurt, juice boxes, squeeze pouches, etc.)
  • Take-away containers
  • Drink cups
  • Plastic shopping bags (varies)
  • Plastic take-away cup lids (coffee, tea, soda) (varies)
  • Plastic straws
  • Plastic sandwich wrap
  • Plastic sandwich bags
  • Produce bags
  • Produce stickers and tags
  • Dental picks & plastic floss tools
  • Bottle lids
  • Plastic toothpicks
  • Plastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives) & plates
  • Bubble wrap
  • Plastic film packaging (from toilet paper wrap to shipping filler)
  • Deli wrap and trays
  • Hard plastic packaging shells
  • Plastic packaging tape
  • Dirty plastic tarp
  • Coated disposable hot beverage cups (coffee, tea)
  • Disposable diapers

Inspiring Change

While artists may turn waste cleanup into art materials, they aren’t just making art. They are often calling us to action. Consider some of the things used on a daily basis all around the world that either can’t be recycled, or just aren’t recycled due to demand for recycled plastic products. Are there some you can do without? A relatively easy way to start – get and use reusable grocery bags, water bottles or coffee cups. Check your local thrift store for used options too.

Coca Cola Caps, Artist: Mandy Barker. This photographic work depicts 3,000 Coca Cola caps recovered from oceans, beaches, and the stomachs of birds from around the world that were sent in by the public. 

Ready to aim higher? Ditch single use and pick your pledge of anti-plastic allegiance, such as National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic Pledge or the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s  4 R’s (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) Pledge (which both have plenty of resources to help you navigate to the plastic-free promised land.