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Artists Interpreting Climate Change, Part 3

Courtesy of Stacy Levy

Last fall I wrote my first of two blogs on how artists are interpreting climate change, and what some artists are doing to prevent it. I continue to be amazed at the creative ways that artists of all types— painters, dancers, actors, writers, and musicians — tackle this issue in their work. 

In my second blog I wrote about the environmental artist Stacy Levy and the “Tide Field” installation of caterpillar-like buoys she created for the Schuylkill River. Levy makes projects that show how nature functions in an urban setting.

Her internationally-recognized art showcases the ways natural forces interact with human-made environments and urban ecosystems. She uses her projects to communicate environmental issues, primarily water-related, to the public. These installations often merge science and art that highlight the relationship between nature and the structures humans create. Not only does Levy garner attention with her art, but her constructions present creative solutions for environmental challenges.

If it isn’t obvious, I have been a big fan of Levy’s work for a while now, so I was absolutely thrilled when she was selected as PennFuture’s first Woman of Environmental Arts at last April’s 2019 Women in Conservation Awards Dinner. PennFuture created The Woman of Environmental Arts Award to honor an individual who utilizes the arts — visual arts, music, poetry, fiction, theater, dance, as well as the curation or promotion of such arts — to bring attention to, or address current environmental concerns in Pennsylvania, and Levy was the perfect first recipient.

At the awards dinner Levy said the following: 

“I am so honored to be given this Penn Future award for Women in Conservation — it combines all that I hold dear: art and the environment. Art is not about decorating a place. It is about creating a connection to the place, a conduit of understanding and legibility. And art has a new role, a new function — art can be the next tool to help repair our damaged environments. It is important to give art a chance to solve issues about storm water drainage, rain infiltration and erosion. Engineers have had this job for years, but they have not always come up with sustainable answers. It is time to give art a place at the table for helping to solve environmental issues.” 

One of the most difficult challenges I’ve seen artists face when dealing with climate change as a subject is how to make it informative without being didactic, accessible to a wide audience, and still make it an aesthetically interesting work of art.

Queens-based artist David Opdyke nailed all three with his installation, “This Land.” The piece had an incredible review in the New York Times last January when it debuted at The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities in Ann Arbor, where Opdyke is the 2019 Efroymson Emerging Artist in Residence. (Disclosure: The Indianapolis-based Efroymson Family Fund, and one of its trustees, Jeremy Efroymson, have been generous past supporters of projects and organizations I was involved with while living in Indiana.) 

The work consists of 528 vintage postcards of United States landmarks. They’ve been arranged on a grid to create a landscape scene of mountains and a sunset that seems to be crumbling at the bottom – but when you zoom in you see that each card has been altered, painted with tornadoes, floods, lighting, sea creatures, forest fires, pipelines, traffic jams, deformed frogs, and a lot more – including blimps announcing that the end is near and advertising a modern-day Ark being built on the shores of Lake Huron – you get the point. 

I strongly encourage you to take a look at it here and use your mouse to zoom in and out on the individual post cards. The work is in North Dakota right now and will be displayed at the Chicago Humanities Festival this fall. It is one of my favorite works that I have yet to see in person and I would love for it come to Pennsylvania sometime soon!

As I’ve said, I’ve been interested in all types of artists, not just visual, and their work focused on environmental issues. And I’m a big reader. So, I was excited to see that not just one, but two Pennsylvania authors have recently penned such stories with Susquehanna River as their setting.  

The first is Brook Lenker, who has worked in many environmental jobs including at the PA DCNR and Dauphin County Parks and Rec., and was a founder of the Susquehanna River Trail Association. His book “The Restorers” is a literary river adventure that mixes a bit of Kerouac and Twain with some Carl Hiaasen. The main character, Reily Watters, is on a 556-mile kayak expedition on the Susquehanna wen confronted with a real estate development threatening the river. 

Author Joel Burcat, also an environmental lawyer, wrote the polluted-water legal thriller, “Drink to Every Beast.” His lead character is PA DEP prosecutor Mike Jacobs. The book is built around his investigation of the death of two teenagers who swam through chemicals illegally dumped into the Susquehanna. I just got my copy and can’t wait to dive in.

Also on my personal stack of books to read this summer is Richard Powers’ novel of environmental activism, “The Overstory,” which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. (I hear that PennFuture’s Director of Policy, Ezra Thrush, is reading it too this summer.) Author Ann Patchett has said that it is “the best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period.” That sounds pretty good to me, but it was the rave review I heard from my mother-in-law and my wife (both artists as well), who have recently read it, that sold me. Please, no spoilers!

Creatively exploring environmental issues is not limited to individual artists and writers. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh is hosting its first “Breathe Better Day” on July 13th to celebrate air quality awareness through art-based lectures and family-friendly activities. Their exhibit Monet and the Modern City will be the basis of learning how artists in the past responded to the rise of industry, and polluted air, when they painted urban industrial landscapes. Wow! As far as I know this is the first museum effort to explore environmental issues and climate change by re-examining art of the past instead of contemporary work. What a brilliant idea.

Speaking of institutions, Hollywood has also made a (mixed) effort at exploring climate change. There is actually a whole category of films now referred to as “Cli-Fi.” My good friend Michael Svoboda has written a number of thoughtful articles about this. I’ll only add, and I’m certainly not the first to do so, that the most popular movie of the summer, Avengers: Endgame, is essentially a movie about (no spoilers, I promise) the dangerous consequences of a ridiculously extreme environmental agenda but with no true solutions offered. In spite of this I really enjoyed it, as long as I didn’t think too much about it. 

What exhibits, books, movies or music have you experienced lately that creatively examine climate change and other environmental issue? I’d love to hear from you! Please email me your thoughts at!


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