A picture is worth a thousand words. Art can be a powerful medium to drive home the message of climate change, and give us an emotional whack in the head the way reams of words can’t.
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From sculptures, textiles to paintings, many artists – call them “artivists” – are doing just that. Here are some of the most noteworthy.
Lands End Exhibit, San Francisco
An exhibit of climate change and environmental art by 27 international artists, Lands End, is on display through March 27 in San Francisco on national parkland. Ranging from Andy Goldsworthy, the British “land artist” whose art supplies are branches, rocks and clay, to Turkish artist Gulnur Oznaglar, who transforms plastic bottles into replicas of marine life threatened by climate change like jellyfish, plankton, and algae, the exhibit features several artworks made from plastic from the ocean.
Fittingly, it’s located at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in the Cliff House, a historic clifftop restaurant with jaw-dropping views of the ocean, first opened in 1863, which closed in 2021.
“As is often the case, artists are at the vanguard of social change,” says Cheryl Haines, executive director of FOR-SITE Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to create and present art about place, who organized the exhibit near the Lands End Lookout in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
(FOR-SITE also commissioned Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s art about human rights and free expression on Alcatraz, San Francisco’s former island prison, in 2014-15.) Its online shop sells items from $5 magnets bearing a Weiwei quote (“A small act is worth a million thoughts”) to limited-edition artworks, including $15,000 rugs.
“As is often the case, artists are at the vanguard of social change.”Cheryl Haines
A large translucent blue sculpture composed of plastic bottles commissioned by FOR-SITE, The Last Reef by Oznaglar, hangs from the ceiling near the entrance. An arresting “buffet” of what looks remarkably like pasta in many different shapes and sizes, arranged on white ceramic plates in the former kitchen of the Cliff House, turns out to be plastics found on a beach in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County.
Composed of eyeglass frames, toothbrushes, hair curlers, toys, container fragments and other items, For here or to go by One Beach Plastic is intended as a jarring reminder that stuff we throw out often returns to us as micro-plastics in our food.
The husband-and-wife duo, who collect discards from remote Kehoe Beach, then sort by color and transform them into art, have picked up over two tons of plastic on this one beach since 1999. Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, who note viewers are surprised that their colorful artworks consist of “thermoplastic junk of our throwaway culture,” have exhibited at museums and research centers from Zurich, Hamburg to Hong Kong.
When a dead whale washed up on a Point Reyes beach (over 450 pounds of fishing nets and other plastics were found in its stomach; scientists concluded it died of starvation), the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito asked the pair to create art from it. Their Ghost Net Monster stands in the courtyard of the marine rescue, rehabilitation and research center.
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In Blue Marble Dress, created by Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, the dress is actually created entirely from marine trash, mostly upcycled plastic, in partnership with the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans, hand-cut into disks, then layered and hand-stitched. The title refers to the famous 1972 photograph of our earth from space, The Blue Marble. Her garments “fuse artisanal craftsmanship with multi-disciplinary technologies, positioning fashion as a diverse and sustainable engine of innovation,” her artistic statement says.
In Andy Goldsworthy’s Geophagia, white clay from a mine in Northern California’s Gold Country covers wooden restaurant tables in the Cliff House’s former dining room. The bone-dry look and crackle patterns reflect the severe years-long drought in California and our connection to the earth.
The work, also commissioned for Lands End, hints at white tablecloths and dishes used in restaurants. The British artist also has three installations in the Presidio, a nearby park also in the GGNRA, composed of trees felled during its reforestation efforts, Spire, Tree Fall and Wood Line.
Across town, there’s another climate change art exhibit, Tides of Change (January 29-February 26) in the city’s Mission District, sponsored by The Drawing Room. “The function of art is to do more than tell like it is – it’s to imagine what’s possible,” author Bell Hooks once said, quoted on the gallery website.
Knitting for Climate Change
The Tempestry Project sells knitting or crocheting kits to make a textile that’s a dramatic depiction of temperature and air quality changes over time, which can be customized to your home state.
Balls of yarn in different colors, sets of temperature data (US, your home state, global) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a color key and worksheets are in its kits. Their goal: to scale down the talk about climate change to something that is “accurate, tangible, relatable and beautiful,” says co-founder Justin Connelly.
Its Original kits show daily high temperatures for a specific location and year, month by month. (Obviously, multiple kits for the same location demonstrate trends over the years.) In contrast, its New Normal kits show annual deviations from average temperatures from 1880 to the present. (Over 100 years are in each New Normal kit; each year is a stripe.)
Its shop sells Global New Normal kits for $65, State New Normal kits for $70, and Triptych kits, which contain enough material to knit three wall hangings 40” x 8” for the US, a state and global (or crochet three 60” x 8”) for $195, plus scarves, shawls and yarn. Each color of yarn represents a five-degree temperature gradient from -30 to 121 F, like Thaw (31-35 F), a blue, or Cinnabar (96-100 F), a red. Climate change and environmental nonprofits get $5 from each New Normal kit sale and $2.50 from each Emotion kit.
Founded in Anacortes, WA in 2017 by three friends, Tempestry (named after its temperature tapestries) and its kits have become so popular nationwide, they’ve inspired local climate change-minded knit and crochet groups and museum exhibits across the US. Its Death Valley, California, Alaska and Pennsylvania textiles were in Mapping Climate Change, an exhibit at Ursinus College’s Berman Museum of Art through November 2021.
Some earth science professors even use their textiles as teaching aids. Its inspiration was work by Ed Hawkins, a British climate scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, on “warming stripes”. A quick glance at his charts show weather in the US, Canada, Australia to Germany heating up at a startling rate.
Meanwhile, quilter Lorraine Woodruff-Long sewed a quilt depicting screenshots of San Francisco’s air quality index during September-November 2020 in four-inch squares. One infamous day (September 9), when the daytime sky was such an eerie red-orange, cars needed headlights to drive (and some locals like me felt it was like living on Mars), is included. Photos of the surreal sky, caused by wildfires raging in Northern California, went viral worldwide. A photo of this San Francisco Air Quality Index quilt is under her website post on November 27.
In Ireland, over 2,500 volunteers knitted a giant tapestry of Cork City’s temperatures and rain at different times of day every day for one year back in 2005. Called The Knitting Map, the project was spearheaded by multi-media artist Jools Gilson.
Credit: Courtesy of FOR-SITE, photos by Robert Divers Herrick
Cliff House by Sharon McDonnell