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Glimpses: Contemporary Eco-Art

It would be impossible to present a comprehensive view of the thousands of artists around the globe who are devoting their talents toward the restoration of biodiversity and resilience, but we are delighted to offer these glimpses into the inspiring works of just a few.

By Amy Nelson

Article Index

It could be argued that any form of art that deepens human relationships with the natural world furthers ecological conservation, restoration, and regeneration.  Whether in the form of an interpretive sign, a performance, an abstract sculpture, a documentary film, or a painting, art can play a powerful role in healing the planet.

Paul Colangelo

National Geographic Explorer and conservation photographer Paul Colangelo has garnered grants and awards from the BBC, the Smithsonian, and numerous other prestigious institutions. Perhaps more rewarding, however, is the knowledge that his work contributed to the protection of a region of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters, birthplace of three of the province’s greatest salmon-bearing rivers: the Skeena, Stikine and Nass. The subalpine basin has one of the largest intact predator-prey systems in North America, and is the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation.

In 2009, Colangelo traveled to the region to photograph swimmer Ali Howard’s 610-kilometer swim of the Skeena, from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. The swim was intended to raise awareness of the need to protect the Skeena watershed and the many First Nations communities who have called it home for thousands of years.

Struck by the beauty, significance, and vulnerability of the region in the face of encroaching oil and gas interests, Colangelo knew he needed to do something.

“Shell Canada was planning a coal-bed methane development that would cover nearly a million acres of the headwaters with wells, roads and pipelines,” he explained. “This would not only fracture wildlife habitat, but the water-intensive process of coal-bed methane extraction risked contaminating the three salmon rivers.”

“After standing in this incredible landscape and hearing local people describe just what the area means to them, “ said Colangelo, “I felt the need to tell this story and paint a picture of the Sacred Headwaters for those who might never see it themselves.” In the four-year effort that followed, he did just that.

Together with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis and the International League of Conservation Photographers, Colangelo created  Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass , a book that celebrates the land and culture and shines a light on the threats. His breathtaking photographs have not only raised awareness and dollars, they helped affect policy. On December 18, 2012, the B.C. government announced that Shell Canada would relinquish its tenure on the land, and that oil and gas development would be banned in the Sacred Headwaters.

But there is work yet to do. “While this was a major victory for the Sacred Headwaters, this ban is limited to oil and gas exploration,” cautions Colangelo. “There are still a coal and copper-gold mines proposed for the Sacred Headwaters.”

That is why he is now at work on “Surviving Todagin, a project he hopes will help protect Todagin Mountain from threats posed by mining. The mountain, located within the Sacred Headwaters, is home to what is thought to be the world’s largest herd of Stone’s sheep. Having camped on the remote plateau for five months to take photographs and map out the movements of the herd, Colangelo has gone to great lengths to share this story with the world, and we can’t wait for it to be told.

Joyce Hwang, AIA

Architect Joyce Hwang has long been interested in urban wildlife. Hwang is a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, and principle at Ants of the Prairie, an architecture and research practice focused on creating approaches to confront the pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies.

“In dealing with issues of sustainability in architecture, most of our conversations tend to focus more on the building envelope and  less on how we accommodate wildlife and biodiversity, “ said Hwang. “But biodiversity is becoming increasingly important to architecture.”

Fascinated with what she viewed as one of the most underappreciated members of urban wildlife community-the bat-Hwang began developing design concepts for bat habitat in 2007. Awarded a grant from the New York State Council on the Art, she was able to implement one of the concepts.  Bat Tower, a 12-foot, vertical cave made of plywood, raises awareness of bats as a critical component of our ecosystem.

Installed in Griffis Sculpture Park near Buffalo, New York, Bat Tower is the only art in the park specifically designed to create conditions for habitat.According to Hwang and the biologist with whom she worked on the project, bats are often spotted around the tower at dusk, but the structure is not warm enough for year-round habitat. It is, however, serving as an important summer stopover.

Hwang’s continued tinkering with bat habitat designs led her to create Bat Cloud, a concept she submitted for consideration as a public art project for the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute’s “Fluid Culture” program.  When it was selected, Hwang worked with students to bring her vision – a floating structure comprised of individual “pods” that serve as bat sanctuaries – to life.

Installed in Buffalo’s Tiff Nature Reserve, Bat Cloud is constructed of steel wire mesh, the pods are insulated with layers of foam and plastic. The bottom of the pods holds soil in which Hwang’s team planted native violas, which receive fertilization from the bat guano.

Hwang recognizes the power of art installations to grab public attention and instigate curiosity. “People walking around the Tiff Nature Preserve see Bat Cloud and say, ‘What is that? Why are those things floating there?’ Then, they read the sign and they learn about bats,” said Hwang.

Hwang’s art installations not only influence the public, they influence her-as an architect and professor. Hwang and other University of Buffalo faculty initiated a competition for students to design habitat for relocating a bee hive.  “These types of small-scale projects allow me to think about large-scale architecture in broader sense,” explained Hwang. “How can we think about buildings as participants in our ecology, rather than just structures that keep nature out?”

Basia Irland

Whether she is sculpting, producing documentaries, composing photographs, or writing poetry, artist Basia Irland offers a creative understanding of water while examining how communities of people, plants, and animals rely on this vital element.

Working with scholars from diverse disciplines, she has traveled the world to build rainwater harvesting systems; connect communities and foster dialogue, collaborate in river restoration projects, and inform people about waterborne disease.

“Many of our rivers are suffering,” says Irland. “One of the things we can do is plant seeds along our riparian zones.”  With her project, Ice Books, Irland creates artwork that not only raises awareness of the need to protect and restore rivers, but actually takes part in the restorative process.

Irland carves blocks of ice, some weighing as much 300 pounds, into the shape of books. Into the ice, she embeds riparian seeds that are native to a specific site. Her seed selection is based on both scientific and traditional ecosystem knowledge. Once formed, the ice books are placed into a stream, where they reflect the world around them and release seeds as they melt. In book form, the sculptures connote both academic and experiential learning.

“I think of these [ice books] as a kind of ecological text that people can read in their own personal and poetic way,“ said the artist. In witnessing the melting of these Ice Books, one likely senses both the wondrous beauty, and delicate fragility of our river systems.

Mara Haseltine

A member of both the Sculptor’s Guild of New York City and the Explorer’s Club , artist Mara Haseltine combines her art practice with scientific experiments and environmental restoration.  In 2011, she had the opportunity to board a schooner of the coast of Chile and participate in a portion of a global exhibition to collect plankton and assess ocean health. What Haseltine saw when she viewed these samples with a microscope, was both beautiful and alarming.  The samples not only contained elegant forms of plankton but also fragments of plastic.

This inspired Haseltine to created “A Portrait of our Oceans in Peril,” a series of sculptures of the plankton and plastic, as well as a live performance from Puccini’s La Boheme [in which Rudolfo meets and falls in love with Mimi, with plankton in the role of Mimi]. A film about the project will premier this fall at the Imagine Science 2013 Film festival in New York.

The work does more than allow people to experience what they cannot see with the naked eye.

“I wanted to show how beautiful plankton is, and also create an awareness about how the microscopic world and our megascopic human world are linked,” said Haseltine. “I want people to know that the health of the microscopic world of our oceans, which produces up to half the planet’s oxygen and sequesters carbon dioxide,  is intimately tied to human health. “

Hasseltine’s art is not just awareness-raising. She has crafted sustainable reef systems for coral and oyster reef restoration projects, and believes that “artwork offers a way for the public to engage in science, whether it be ecological restoration or just imagining it in three dimensions.”  Once engaged, she believes, people can not only take pride in, but become caretakers of their local environment.

More Artists

More examples of inspiring eco-art that works to deepen human understanding of and connection to the natural world can be found by peeking into Nature’s Toolbox, a traveling exhibit featuring contemporary artworks from around the world across a wide range of media.

The exhibit includes archival prints of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s concept for self-sufficient, zero-emissions floating cities for refugees displaced by rising waters; a series of short films by Italian actress and filmmaker, Isabella Rossellini, highlighting the mating rituals and delicate futures of various species; a video and mixed media installation by UK artist Chris Drury, which celebrates the ecological significance of the mushroom spore; a series of photographs by Venezuelan photographer Antonio Briceño expressing the role of humans in safeguarding the ecology of Rwanda, and more.

Billed as “a celebration of both biodiversity and human ingenuity,” this exhibit uses the medium of art in correlation with science as a powerful catalyst for creating awareness; engaging communities; and encouraging individual and collective action.

Nature’s Toolbox: Biodiversity, Art and Invention, is produced by Art Works for Change, an organization that harnesses the transformative power of art to promote awareness, provoke dialogue and inspire action

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