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Climate of Concern



Published February 21, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.

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A week after digging out from the Valentine's Day blizzard, global warming may not be on the minds of most Vermonters. But even a whopper snowstorm doesn't negate the body of evidence of disturbing climate change - released recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - that warns of more serious consequences if the human race doesn't get its act together now.

Taking action - if only of the consciousness-raising kind - is exactly what an increasing number of artists, teachers and gallery curators are doing these days. Several current exhibits and lecture series in Burlington, Middlebury and Hanover (see sidebar) suggest that "Think globally, act locally" has survived bumper-sticker banality to find new use in the art world; the old slogan deftly sums up the bifurcated mission of eco-minded artworks and educational efforts.

Not that art and environment are strange bedfellows. As the film An Inconvenient Truth recently reminded us, eco-consciousness was kicked into gear with the help of a singularly profound visual image: the first photograph of Earth from space. The fragility of the planet has inspired aesthetic imagery since at least the Earth Art movement of the late 1960s and early '70s. British artist Andy Goldsworthy, to name one prominent figure, has for years been making transient "sculptures" with elements such as sticks, grasses, sand and snow that underscore the mortality of nature. Locally, Vermont sculptor Kate Pond has taken a broader view - of Earth's place in the solar system - creating more permanent, iconic installations that mark the passage of time.

Artistic attention to the environment now reflects the sense, in the general population, of impending crisis - of not just mucking up the planet but possibly causing irreversible catastrophe. Until recently, the climate-change crowd "has been a head-based movement - extremely rational, filled with scientists and things like that," says Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (1989) and the forthcoming Deep Economy. "It's good to be expanding."

A Ripton resident and scholar-in-residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College, McKibben notes that, since the '60s, "there's been an explosion in environmental writing - as the planet has suffered, the literary world has flowered." But, he adds, there's "been no significant art around climate change, as contrasted with, say, AIDS." Maybe it's because "climate" is so big, and the villain is "unpleasantly all of us," McKibben suggests.

But that void is beginning to fill, spurred in part by phenomena such as Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. Those searing images "will be as long lasting as the 9/11 ones," McKibben believes. What the terrorist attack and the devastating storm have in common - aside from the loss of lives and property - is that both shook the American public out of complacency: Bad things can happen here. An Inconvenient Truth showed us that bad things have been happening, all over the globe, for quite some time. Katrina was just the tip of the, well, melting iceberg.

McKibben was scheduled to give a lecture last Thursday at the Middlebury College Museum of Art entitled "The Arts and the Environmental Crisis," on how the visual and literary arts are influencing the debate about climate change. The talk, which was canceled because of the snowstorm, was also to precede a reception for Robert Adams' photographs of not-so-pristine forests in the American Northwest. Other lectures coming up in March will put art in the context of conservation and social responsibility.

In Burlington, a current University of Vermont course on environmental art taught by painter Cameron Davis has engendered a public lecture series at the Firehouse Center entitled "EnvironMENTAL: Earth-Minded Art." A collaboration with Burlington City Arts, the five talks are intended to augment Davis' class and to "maintain the momentum" of a recent exhibit at the Firehouse called "Human = Nature," Davis explains. She is particularly excited about the next speaker, New York-based eco-artist Jackie Brookner, on March 1, known for her "Biosculptures." Created in collaboration with scientists, communities and policy makers, the plant-based systems are both public art and water remediation projects. Davis notes that Brookner's experiences with storm water should be of particular interest in Vermont.

Davis, who has long been involved in planet-conscious projects, says she has been inspired not just by McKibben's scientific writings but his musings on art. In a 2005 article for the webzine Grist, "He was saying, 'Where's the global-warming art?'" she recalls. "Since that time there has been a huge amount of art responding to global warming. It just shows how quickly people become aware. It's quite remarkable."

That this new awareness is culturally inclusive is evident in a current exhibition at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College entitled "Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions Within a Changing Environment." Curator Nicole Stuckenberger, a native of The Netherlands, is a fellow in Dartmouth's Institute of Arctic Studies. The college owns extensive polar-expedition archives dating back to explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), who founded the school's Northern Studies program. "Thin Ice" draws from that collection as well as from the Smithsonian, and examines the indigenous culture's relationship to, and artistic expressions of, nature and weather.

The Inuit may live much closer to nature than most Americans do, but "there is still this idea in our society that things are connected with nature," Stuckenberger says. When people talk or write about 9/11, for example, "everyone says it was a beautiful, sunny day," she notes, "as if nothing bad could happen."

With the grim prospect of global warming, all the days ahead will be challenging. But if art "helps us digest what is happening to us," as UVM's Davis suggests, perhaps art can also help define what can, and should, happen.


"Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions Within a Changing Environment," through May 13. Also, "El Anatsui: Gawu," works by the African artist made from found/recycled objects that comment on the adverse effects of globalization and consumerism, through March 4. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., 603-646-2808.

"Robert Adams: Turning Back, A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration," through June 3. Middlebury College Museum of Art, 443-5007.

Upcoming lectures: "Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a Broken World," with conservationist/writer Terry Tempest Williams. March 2, 7:30 p.m., at Mead Chapel.

"Art and Social Conscience," with New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. March 15, 4:30 p.m., at Center for the Arts Concert Hall.

"EnvironMENTAL: Earth-Minded Art," lecture series at the Firehouse Center for Visual Arts, Burlington, 865-7166.

Upcoming lectures: "Community and the Being of Human," with Jackie Brookner. March 1, 7 p.m.

"Greening Film and Visual Studies," with Adrian Ivakhiv, an assistant professor and coordinator of the graduate concentration in Environmental Thought and Culture at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, UVM. March 29, 7 p.m.

"Public Art: Transportation Solutions," with artist Nancy Dwyer. April 19, 7 p.m.

For more info about climate change, visit