At Large  July 7, 2022  Cynthia Close

“Ecoart in Action:” Promising Guide for Ecological Artivists

Image featured in "Ecoart in Action." Photo by Othello Anderson. Courtesy New Village Press.

Fern Shaffer, Cornfield Outside Mineral Point, Wisconsin, 1997. Costume made from canvas and raffia.

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” — Alanis Obomsawin

In the nineteenth century, the Hudson River School artists painted grandiose American landscapes. After two centuries of human development, our land is no longer such a pretty picture. Environmentalists, in turn, must stop seeing nature as scenery that should be preserved like a painting in a museum. Our 'feverish world' instills a creeping sense that our very existence, human dependence on nature, is an impending catastrophe wrought by climate change.

Smithsonian American Art Museum. Bequest of Helen Huntington Hull, granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, who acquired the painting in 1873 for ​“The Locusts,” the family estate in Dutchess County, New York.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868. Oil on canvas. 72 x 120 1⁄8 in. (183 x 305 cm).

Meanwhile, artists have been sounding the alarm for decades. This was the focus of a 2018 symposium held at the University of Vermont. The artists and speakers who participated have been joined by a growing symphony of voices taking part in an ever-expanding network of international exhibitions and events, like the Extraction Project, that highlight the importance of bearing witness to and making visible humanities contributions to global warming.

Now, ecoartspace and the Art & Environment Initiative (A&E) are taking artist activism to the next level. Both organizations were founded in the 1990s and have since provided a soapbox for artists whose philosophy, process, and product laid the groundwork for the kind of ecological change that brings results.

In 2022, sixty-seven members of the Ecoart Network, a group with over 200 artist members, collaborated on a new book: Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities. Edited by Amara Geffen, founder of A&E; Ann Rosenthal, ecological artist (or eco artist); Chris Fremantle, founder of EcoArtScotland; and life-long eco art activist Aviva Rahmani, the book provides a road map, drawn by artists, that leads to a more sustainable future.

Published by New Village Press.

Ecoart In Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities (2022). Edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle, and Aviva Rahmani.

Ecological art does not fit neatly inside any one field, yet practitioners may use the tools of painters, sculptors, and performance artists to make meaning beyond the personal. For decades artists have collaborated with scientists, creating work that defies classification and ignores the boundaries between science, art, and politics. Our current period of earth's history, dubbed the Anthropocene, is named for us—the species responsible for the greatest impact.

To reach people beyond the confines of museum walls, the contributors to Ecoart in Action have gone deeply into communities where people live and work, expanding the criteria of who can consider themselves an environmental artist, activist, or writer. Thus, one can look to artists to inspire hope that we can save ourselves and to provide practical solutions to critical environmental challenges.

The book is divided into three sections: “Activities” provides suggestions written primarily for educators, “Case Studies” shares the authors’ experiences and gives information to contextualize their work, and “Provocations” focuses on theories and ideas underpinning eco art practice. Collectively, these elements function as tools to provoke further thought and action beyond what is currently known.

Ann T. Rosenthal, Completed Banners for Phipps Environmental Center, 2018. Acrylic paint on upcycled vinyl banners.
Image featured in "Ecoart in Action." Photo courtesy New Village Press.

Ann T. Rosenthal, Completed Banners for Phipps Environmental Center, 2018. Acrylic paint on upcycled vinyl banners.

Image of the installation process for River of Trash (2017) at the Turchin Center for Visual Arts in Boone, North Carolina.
Image featured in "Ecoart in Action." Photo courtesy New Village Press.

Image documenting the installation of River of Trash (2017) at the Turchin Center for Visual Arts in Boone, NC.

Ruth Wallen, Remember the Trees, 2018. Installation (detail), Mesa College Art Gallery, San Diego, California.
Image featured in "Ecoart in Action." Photo courtesy New Village Press.

Ruth Wallen, Remember the Trees, 2018. Installation (detail), Mesa College Art Gallery, San Diego, California.

Each section includes a detailed description of a project or activity and the contributing artist’s biography. This information reveals the amazing diversity of practice among the artists engaged in this work.

Ann Rosenthal received her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1999. Her section on creating botanical art banners is about reconnecting residents with the unique biodiversity in urban neighborhoods.

Chicago-based artist Fern Shaffer employs ritual in her portion to, “explore internal realities that are intuited deep within us.” In 1997, dressed as a shaman in raffia and canvas, she performed a ritual in a Wisconsin corn field. Shaffer teaches others how ritual can help break down the barriers that the routine of normal, everyday life can build.

Another section focuses on a location-based case study called Collective Vigilance: Protecting the Headwaters of the New River. It was initiated by artist and filmmaker Tom Hansell and offered through the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. This joint project between students and community partners eventually led to an exhibition entitled River of Trash, held at Boone's Turchin Center for Visual Arts in 2017.

In the final chapter, the reader will find A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief, written by multi-media artist and current co-chair of the MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Program at Goddard College Ruth Wallen. The premise of this final installation is that we need to recognize and mourn a loss before we can respond to such devastation.

Renowned art critic Lucy Lippard has supported the work of many of the artists included here. She applauds this book, “...packed with brilliant ideas for a vast number of contexts and participants, Ecoart in Action is crucial to our hopes for a sustainable future.”

It provides a way, through art, to translate despair into action for positive change.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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