Interpreting Climate Change

Art with an environmental ethos

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The destruction of nature is kind of a beautiful thing.

Let me rephrase that: In the hands of the 150 painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers and other creative types who submitted their work to the “Nature in the Balance: Artists Interpreting Climate Change” exhibit currently on display at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building, the task of bringing light to the world’s environmental ills resulted in art that is both eye-catching and, in some cases, inherently lovely (yes, the vision of a melting polar ice cap can be beautiful).

For the hanging—which was open to any artist who was a member of the Whatcom Museum, including many from outside the parameters of Whatcom County—participants were asked to respond to the following four questions: What is happening to the Earth? Why is it happening? What are your visions of the future? How can people make a difference?

The exhibit is also a precursor to the upcoming “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012,” which opens this fall. A statement outside the display by curator Barbara Matilsky points out the initial hanging “highlights the museum’s commitment to cultivating relationships with the community of artists in and around Bellingham” as well as stimulating discussions “about the future of our planet.”

A handful of the 150 artists will be on hand at public tours July 25 and Aug. 1 to share how their work addresses climate change, but it’s worth an additional walk-through of the exhibit—either before or after the tours—to get a sense of how all-encompassing the display truly is, and to give yourself a few minutes, or hours, to absorb it all.

When you read the accompanying statements each artist wrote about their work, you’ll see the exhibit wasn’t at all about making cool images for public display. Judging by the comments, the artists put a lot of thought into how climate change is affecting not just them, but also the big blue globe we all call home.

“’Spiraling toward Extinction’ represents the loss of biodiversity resulting from climate change,” Bellingham’s Stephanie Harmon wrote about her mixed-media piece, which depicts some of earth’s smallest life forms “as they fade into the realm of the forgotten and disappear forever.”

Paintings and photos of melting glaciers are a common theme in “Nature in the Balance,” and pieces such as Ron Pattern’s “Lower Curtis, 2011”—which depicts the Lower Curtis Glacier on the south slope of Mt. Shuksan—reminds viewers that climate change is happening everywhere—even close to home.

As well, viewers can expect to see a few apocalyptic scenarios, such as Sumas photographer Nicole Sandoval Postmas’ “Mother Earth,” 2013, which features a woman standing on a beach in a gas mask with her arm around a young boy. In the background, billows of ominous black smoke intercede in the image.

“My photograph represents the apocalyptic future our world faces if we do not commit to repairing the damage humanity has inflicted on our planet by increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere,” Postma writes. “I hope to inspire change through a glimpse into a future where the human race has lost its battle with the effects of global warming, and aftermath of more deadly natural disasters.” 

Even if you’re not drawn to every piece in “Nature in the Balance,” I can guarantee you’ll find at least a few images that resonate. They’ll also make you think.

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