What does a pencil have to say about the future? What does a song, a smell, a coyote, or a lush Haitian garden teach us about how to live in a world in flux? Artists are examining these questions as they try to make sense of climate change.
The following eight artists are a few of the many who are making space to imagine different possible futures, allowing people to see the world in new ways, and encouraging them to come together to create climate solutions.
Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg blur boundaries with sculpture
In their work, Chicago-based sculptors Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg tease out the role humans play in our natural ecosystems. Together they “interrogate the idea that something called nature exists at all and that we are separate from it,” Black said.
“How has the way that we relate to the natural world created this crisis that we’re in?” Black asked rhetorically. “And how the hell do we get out of it?”
In 2016, Black and Ginsburg visited a California forest decimated by sudden oak death. The disease is caused by a water mold — a fungus-like, parasitic organism — that infects oaks and other trees. Climate change may make forests more vulnerable to sudden oak death outbreaks because the stressed trees are less resistant to disease, and extreme storms help spread the water mold that causes sudden oak death.
Working with scientists and sawyers, the sculptors felled an infected tree. After quarantining, milling, and drying the lumber, they shipped it to Chicago, where they made it into 7,000 pencils. The pencils are part of a piece called 7,000 Marks, which also consists of handmade tables that hold the pencils.
Black and Ginsburg hold interactive workshops and collaborate with immigration activists, conservation biologists, geologists, science fiction authors, artists, and philosophers. Together, workshop participants use the 7,000 Marks pencils to write and draw as they work to understand their own personal and their communities’ relationships to nature.
The conversations and workshops they host around them are intended to work toward solutions to address the climate challenge. “We need to have really multiple ways of engaging the question through words, through images, through art,” Ginsburg said. “They all work together: the news, the scientists, and the artists. It’s really like a slow-moving shift. We need all to be working together, because it’s hard to change behavior.”
Left: Artists break apart and smooth the pencils created from the tanoak tree. Center: The 7,000 Marks pencils stand upright in the middle of specially created tables. As the pencils are used, their height and uniformity will change. Right: A young participant in a 7,000 Marks workshop uses one of the pencils to draw. (Photos courtesy of Sara Black)
Rebecca Lee Kunz runs with myths in her ‘Story Paintings’
Rebecca Lee Kunz, an artist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, creates her work using printmaking, paint, natural materials like leaves and stones, and more.
“I believe that there is one divine creative place where all humans can meet,” Kunz said. “We are all born with inherent creativity, and the more we can dwell in that place, the more we can learn and heal. When I’m in that magic space, I try to listen and take it in like a healing salve. In that place, there is nothing dividing or separating any of us from all of creation — from the animals, from each other, from stardust. It’s all there, waiting to be remembered. If we can just remember to go to that creative place, we can come up with brilliant and innovative solutions to problems such as climate change.”
“Sky Split,” left, tells the story of how the U.S. government tried to strip Cherokee women of their traditional knowledge by giving them industrial tools like spinning wheels and metal needles. “From Cinders,” right, examines how we emerge from grief and despair. In Cherokee culture, ravens signal good luck after disaster. (Photos courtesy of Rebecca Lee Kunz © 2021)
In the spring of 2022, Kunz went for a run on a trail near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives. It was the golden hour and as she ran, the landscape began to melt away.
“Coyote skin :: Dusty Paws” is a self-portrait by Kunz. She wrote: “Coyotes began to call out as the sun started to set. Through their calls, I listened to their messages — messages that sounded like ancient code being spoken in Coyote. Messages about how to move forward in balance, how to guide my children through this strange time, and how to simply survive. I was reminded that we have been through this before, but that we must listen and learn from our past. Not only did our human survival depend on it, but the Earth did as well.” (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lee Kunz © 2021)
These visions led to Kunz’s series, “Story Paintings: A Mythological Narrative Told by the Creatures of the Anthropocene.” In each work, she uses printmaking, watercolor paintings, and graphite drawings. The series draws inspiration from the Cherokee creation myth and seeks lessons about survival and the future.
“Sky Vault Descent,” has Kunz reacting to the Cherokee creation myth in our time. “According to Cherokee mythology,” Kunz wrote, “when animals, plants and humans were equal, when animals still spoke, they lived on the Galun’lati, the Sky Vault, high above a vast body of water. There was no light and no dark. The animals and people looked at each other and felt crowded. Something had to be done. As they looked down to the water’s surface, they wondered what was beneath it. Could there be a new safe place to live? Water Beetle and Great Buzzard went down from the Sky Vault, and though a series of events, made land from water. This land became Mama Earth and it was now floating on a vast ocean, attached to the Sky Vault by cords, one on each corner of the four directions. This Earth provided all that they needed. But alas, this was not made to last forever. According to prophecy, when the Earth one day becomes old and worn, the cords will begin to fray and eventually break. The Earth will sink back into the sea.” (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lee Kunz © 2021)
Terry Evans’ photography stitches the prairie together
Photographer Terry Evans also is inspired by lessons from the land. Evans grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and her work has revolved around prairies since 1978. As she spent time in the prairies, her awareness of climate change grew.
“Up until recently, it’s been the untouched, pristine prairie that I thought carried all the wisdom that could instruct me, could guide me,” she said. “But more recently, I have realized that all land matters. And my husband and I are entrusted with some land in central Kansas, where we have an old farmhouse, where we spend a lot of time. And I always used to think of that place as a place that I went for restoration and relaxation. And in the past couple of years, I’ve realized that a lot more is required of me than that. I have an obligation to that land itself, to really know it, to know it deeply. And I think also to tell its story.”
That’s what Evans does in her newest series, “Ancient Prairies,” which features composite images of iconic ecosystems in Kansas and in Chicago, where she lives.
“The South Pasture” features photos of Evans’ Kansas land in the spring. In her project statement, she wrote, “These prairies would not exist without human care, and ‘Ancient Prairies’ serves as a tribute to the kinship between humans and nature.” (Photo courtesy of Terry Evans)
“We’ve seen plenty of pictures of terrible industrial destruction, and I want to give pictures of hope, without pretending that the rest of it doesn’t exist,” she said. “I want to be truthful. But the only way we can have hope is if we feel a real personal connection and relationship to land and landscape, to the home, to the ecosystems where we live.”
“Bur Oak with Roots,” made in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Terry Evans)
Madjeen Isaac brings neighborhoods to life with oil paint
Landscapes and traditions also play in the work of Brooklyn-based painter Madjeen Isaac, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who as a child grew up in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood. Through a series of oil paintings, she collages Haiti and Brooklyn, urban asphalt and verdant garden, and imbues the worlds she creates with color and joy.
Isaac said of “Weathering the Storm,” oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches (2020): “I finished that piece towards the end of 2020. You know, I think that was a very hard year for lots of people, and it kind of was one of those pieces where I felt like I needed to look on the bright side and look forward … And I was also thinking about storms in Haiti, or just when it rains, there are folks who will just have fun in the rain, take baths sometimes, and just bringing that aspect of joy was my goal for that piece. And also I just imagined, what if that was a thing here where we all danced in the rain and just had fun. So just bringing those elements of what folks do back home to here in Brooklyn.” (Photo courtesy of Madjeen Isaac)
Environmental justice is a common theme across Isaac’s work. Once, when visiting Haiti, Isaac saw her uncle’s large garden and learned about how her mother had grown up on a farm.
“All these things made me think about just our ways of living in the city and how immigrants are often stripped of — I don’t want to say knowledge — but they no longer are connected to the Earth as they once were,” she said. “In thinking about environmental justice, I like to think about what are ways in which we can lean into our ancestral practices of agriculture over here.”
She has also spent recent summers working in community gardens in the neighborhood. “There’s so many large brown buildings with huge lawns. And I always like to imagine, what if we had more autonomy with the spaces that we occupy? And how can we transform these lawns and our rooftops and grow our own foods to live off of?”
In “Amongst the Fruits of Our Labor,” oil on canvas, 33.5 x 45 inches (2021) (left), and “In the Palm of Our Hands,” oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches (2020) (right), Isaac imagines lush gardens filling her Brooklyn neighborhood. (Photos courtesy of Madjeen Isaac)
Isaac’s work radiates feelings of community. “When I’m navigating or commuting through these spaces, I’m often thinking about the smells that come up, whether it’s from different bakeries or restaurants; the people and the sounds that they make and their languages,” she said. “Capturing not just what I see but what I feel has been super important because I often, although I’m existing in these spaces, there is also lots of nostalgia that comes up for me because these spaces are also changing very quickly due to gentrification, and I think that it’s super important to capture what is here before things are just completely different.”
Painter Jack Coulter turns sound into action.
Sensory experiences also play an important role in the work of Jack Coulter, a painter from Northern Ireland. Coulter has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which one sensory experience (like sound) can trigger experiences in another sense (like sight). He recently created a painting called “Future Generations.” It’s based on youth climate activist Greta Thunberg’s work and a song from English pop-rock band The 1975, which blends an ambient track with Thunberg speaking about the climate crisis.
“Future Generations” is on auction with Sotheby’s and is expected to raise up to $20,000 for Thunberg’s foundation.
“It was a very emotional process in general. The title “Future Generations” essentially represents life and death all at once,” Coulter wrote in an email.
He said he wanted the painting to do justice to Thunberg’s speech in a visual form. “During the process, it felt hopeful and melancholic simultaneously. I wouldn’t say there was a fearful approach, it was actually quite the opposite. In this day and age, doing something positive for the climate crisis almost feels like a rebellious act.”
Catherine Sarah Young gives climate change a physical form
Many artists are inspired to bring climate change into their work after a direct experience with it. Catherine Sarah Young hopes her work helps people understand and talk about their experiences with climate change.
Originally from the Philippines, she first began to grapple with climate change in her work as a reaction to Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones in history, which struck the Philippines in 2013. (The storm is known in the Philippines as Super Typhoon Yolanda.)
In her piece, “The Sewer Soaperie” (2016), Young turns raw sewage into luxury soaps. She wrote: “During extreme storms in the Anthropocene, many cities are ill-equipped to handle the flooding that follows. One reason is the coagulated grease in the sewers, with some as big as airplanes, leading these to be named ‘fatbergs.’ Among the sources of grease is used oil that is poured into sinks, which drains into the sewers and hardens in the pipes. The world already experiences extreme storms because of climate change, and cities will experience even more flooding that is exacerbated by human actions. The project raises awareness on this by taking the grease from different points of its journey— from the used cooking oil that restaurants throw in the sewers, to raw sewage, to grease that hardened in open pipes. These were sterilized and turned into luxury soaps through the artist’s experiments. The project started in Medellin, Colombia during a residency and continued in Manila, Philippines.” (Photos courtesy of Catherine Sarah Young)
“I could not and cannot escape climate change even if I tried,” she wrote in an email. “From wading in floods (which inspired the work “The Sewer Soaperie”) to walking through smog. Even Australia, where I have been based since right before the pandemic — and which I had initially imagined to be a paradise — has suffered intense bush fires.”
Young wrote: “In ‘The Weighing of the Heart’ (2021), anatomically correct human heart sculptures are cast out of ashes and other organic remains from the Australian bushfires. It references the scene of ‘The Weighing of the Heart,” a spell in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In casting the ashes with resin, Young arrests the metabolism of the remains back into the soil, creating objects of memory in a political landscape that forgets the bushfire crisis periodically.” (Photos courtesy of Catherine Sarah Young)
“Even though the topics I work on are difficult, I see my practice as an optimistic one,” Young wrote. “I intend to create projects that evoke the sublime, but also inspire action in myself and the people that engage in my work. For example, in the artwork ‘The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store,’ I make perfumes of what we will lose because of climate change. As smell and memory are closely linked, I hope to inspire us to conserve these scents to also save the memories we have of it. I think art is a world that is very porous, and I would like to help unlock the collective hopeful imaginations that I know we all have.”
“The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store” (2014) features scents of things and places — from coffee to wine — that might be lost as a result of climate change. Young wrote: “The first collection included scents that may well disappear as we know it because of global warming and consequential sea level rise, superstorms, and decreased biodiversity, such as the scent of coasts, forests, several crops, etc. Succeeding collections have been made depending on the city I was in.” These perfumes are created by Young using chemical distillation and standard perfumery techniques. During exhibitions, visitors are allowed to smell the perfumes. As smell and memory are closely related, viewers are invited to reflect on how potentially losing these scents could affect their lives and it is her intention that they are motivated to preserve them and act on climate change. (Photos courtesy of Catherine Sarah Young)
Dana Jung illustrates a better world
Dana Jung, an illustrator from Korea, uses her work to create a picture of a more sustainable world for humans and animals. Like Isaac, Jung pulls green space and nature into urban landscapes. In particular, Jung focuses on air quality and how much more beautiful the world would be without fossil fuel pollution.
“Air pollution has been a critical threat to where I live,” she wrote in an email. “I would like to see a different form of life in the city. Cities where children run in the open air; where everyone welcomes the breeze of nature; where people understand how they are responsible for a sustainable future.”
This illustration by Dana Jung was part of a C40 Cities campaign. C40 is a network of mayors and cities working to combat climate change. (Image courtesy of Dana Jung)
The work of artists like Jung can help scientists communicate the complex problems that come with climate change and inspire solutions.
Mika Tosca, a climate science professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, says art can help widen imaginations about climate solutions. “A lot of people agree with the science of climate change but are uninspired to act on it. Why?” she said. “What is the point of all this knowledge that we keep creating if it’s not inspiring solutions?”
And working toward solutions creates solace for the artists too. “I feel really happy to be an artist in a crisis moment because there’s so much possibility,” Black said.
Editor’s note: This article was corrected to say that photographer Terry Evans grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas; and that she lives full-time in Chicago, not part-time.