Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

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Stephanie Lerner, SineSaloum, 2018, fishrope, plastic litter & epitonium shells. Courtesy of the artist.

The confluence of science, technology and art offers an array of pragmatic and creative opportunities for future generations to make improvements within the world we all share. One of the major issues that will affect generations in the not too distant future is the continued transformation of our waterways from being sources of life to being bodies of conflict. Our oceans, seas and rivers have been experiencing vast amounts of human-induced trauma for decades. Eventually, time will run out for these vibrant ecosystems, which sustain all life on this planet. Many waterways are overfilled with pollution from consumer goods such as plastic. If we don’t decrease the current rate of plastic pollution, which ends up in the water, there will actually be MORE plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050. This is obviously a devastating premonition for life as we know it on Earth. Fortunately, advances in technology allow scientists to safely and effectively study the oceans and waterways. Raising awareness about these issues and finding creative solutions are essential steps in realizing a bright and sustainable future for the environment.

Art is like science and engineering in that it is informed by inquiry based research, theory testing and transformation of ideas or materials into something new. Artists, like scientists and engineers, seek to develop responses to big questions. Artists have aligned their creative output with many major scientific issues since before the dawn of civilization. Our knowledge of human history and the natural environment were initially discovered through visual records evident from cave paintings depicting the inquisitiveness and experiential learning within pre-historic communities. Over time artists have helped us increasingly relate to our surroundings and develop innovative new ideas and products. For example, we see artistic innovation that informed scientific research inside the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, through John James Audubon‘s colorful and accurate depictions of American birds, and in the development of urban agricultural environments like Mary Mattingly’s SwaleAlternatively, the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was just as innovative as a draughtsman visualizing the brain on paper as he was in studying the physical elements of the brain in his laboratory. In all of these examples, visual art played an essential role in the synthesis of scientific discovery and innovation.

Today’s students will inherit a world that is in need of innovations that will ensure its salvation. Art centered education can impress upon students the need for environmental empathy by showing examples of how artists such as Sto Len, Steven HirschWilliam Miller, the Newtown Creek Armada and Stephanie Lerner symbolize the effects of pollution as material or subject matter in their work. All at once, these works are aesthetically pleasing, romantic, tragic and dire. They remind us that in life, death is always present and our struggle to create a beautiful world is interconnected to our mortality. However, there is also a great sense of hope to be gained by understanding that visual art has the power to incite change and impress upon people’s positive relationships with the world around them. These artists implore us to become better custodians of our natural resources so that we can sustain nature’s marvelous qualities for many generations to come.

Steven Hirsch and William Miller’s abstract photography, transcends the often negative description of the murky, dark and slow moving water of the Gowanus Canal. Hirsch’s camera captures a brilliant spectrum of colors that reflect off the water’s surface, which immediately brings to mind the Impressionist works of Monet as well as Post-WWII color field painters. Hirsch’s photographs create an epic visual narrative, which is indicative of Greek mythology. Here, we see that beauty transcends the devastation that has overtaken the canal, and it is calling loudly to us for help. Similarly, the canal’s aesthetic properties become the inspiration for William Miller’s series of photographs. Miller photographs the Gowanus Canal in a manner where abstract forms are juxtaposed with recognizable imagery. Reflections of the clouds and sky are visible in some of the photographs, which transforms the viewer to an otherworldly state. It is hard to imagine the toxins below the surface, however, Miller subtly captures glimpses of refuse and sludgy textures to pull us back to reality.

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Works on paper by Sto Len on view at Volta NY, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Sto Len’s unique printmaking process, transports his practice from the studio environment into the heavily polluted waters of the Newtown Creek. He improvises on the traditional style of Suminagashi (floating ink) printmaking to develop an experiential collaboration and discourse with nature by dipping prepared paper into the creek’s heavily polluted waters and using its detritus as material.

Through watching video installations and looking at documentation by the Brooklyn based art collective Newtown Creek Armada, students can analyze how artists realized a problem (extreme pollution in the Newtown Creek), developed their research and sought to address this problem to the public.

Stephanie Lerner is an excellent artist that students can look to for inspiration on working with recycled materials in order to repurpose problematic pollution into an awe-inspiring solution that is both poignant in its message and visually stunning. Lerner combs the beaches and waterways for discarded plastic products and makes intricate works of art such as tapestries and mandalas, which she creates by weaving together plastic refuse and fishing line; a harmful pollutant that takes 600 years to decompose underwater. By cleaning the shorelines, Lerner is ensuring that the plastic washed onto the beach doesn’t return to the ocean, while also acquiring materials for her poignant yet beautiful works of art.

Valuable materials in the art room can be sourced by having the school community (teachers, parents, students) contribute plastic, paper/cardboard and other refuse, which can be used for weaving, sculpture, collage and printmaking projects. Traditional materials should ideally be substituted for earth friendly, recycled and repurposed materials whenever possible.

Artistic learning has many benefits for inter-disciplinary innovation. When artists use their artistic knowledge and skills –put those elements of art and principles of design to practical use and transcend relying on traditional art materials, which can add to surplus waste and pollution as well– to seek to address big issues that impact our civilization, the results are transformative throughout our collective culture. Art influences society by raising our awareness, affecting our emotions, translating experiences across time and place, and giving us a sense of self within the world. When artists explore ideas and problems within other disciplines like science and technology, they can truly make essential contributions to the present and future stewardship of our environment.

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