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Earth Day feature: Painting a picture of a planet in peril


Some environmental problems are so severe or obvious that, at least eventually, they can't be ignored. Smog choked big cities for decades until Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act, which imposed aggressive new limits on harmful industrial and automotive emissions. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire several times over the course of a century, and those images fueled the Clean Water Act, which sought to curb pollution of the nation's rivers.

America and the world as a whole now face a new generation of environmental problems. But the problems pose a conundrum, since they aren't as obvious as the brown-yellow-gray haze of smog, nor do they have the shock value of a flaming river at the heart of a major city.

Climate change is the perfect example of this. It's a massive, multi-faceted problem that's only getting worse, and it's already causing harm to every place on the planet. But the discussions around its manifestations – increasing global average temperatures, melting polar ice and rising sea levels, intensifying heatwaves, harsher storms – haven't done much to inspire a sense of urgency among Americans. In turn, there's been little will or incentive for politicians to act aggressively on new laws and policies that would slash the carbon emissions driving climate change.

Present-day environmental problems lurk just out of sight, sinister but disguised, which presents a challenge for building public interest and awareness. They exist as abstract concepts in the minds of many people. But there's an undervalued tool that excels at turning the abstract into the tangible, at rendering visible the unseen, and at eliciting emotional responses. It's art, and practically every major social, cultural, political, and revolutionary movement for the past century has drawn on its imaginative, inspirational, and evocative powers.

Francisco Goya's painting, "The Third of May 1808," was an indictment of the horrors of war, depicting the execution of Madrilenian patriots by Napoléon Bonaparte's army during the Peninsula War. That work influenced other artists, including Pablo Picasso, who painted "Guernica" as a reaction to the Nazi's use of the Basque town for bombing practice. During the late 1980's, as the HIV and AIDS crisis worsened and entered the public eye, activists used graphic arts and visual art to demand government and institutional action.

And earlier this month, artists including renowned photographer Nan Goldin joined drug policy activists in Washington to call attention to and protest the FDA's role in the opioid crisis. In addition to a die-in, they installed giant spoon sculptures at various drug manufacturing companies. Designed by Domenic Esposito, each of the "Opioid Spoon Deployments" bears the FDA logo and telltale, tar-like stains in the utensils' bowls.

Right now, artists across the US and the world are using their work to thrust issues such as climate change, plastic pollution, the loss of wilderness and green spaces, and overconsumption in front of audiences. (The artistically staid New York Times recognized the growing importance of this collective work in a March article titled "Can Art Help Save the Planet?")

New York City-based photographer Virginia Hanusik is an architectural researcher involved with New York University's multidisciplinary Climate Working Group. Her photographs of coastal Louisiana show how the people who live there are adapting to rising waters and coastal erosion, and to policies requiring that any house below sea level is elevated. She's made photos that tell the story of a new, disquieting normal and has intentionally refrained from using disaster images.

That sort of awareness is needed everywhere, and Rochester is no exception. Locally, rainstorms have been increasingly intense and destructive. Fruit farmers have lost crops because of early warm spells followed by bud-killing cold snaps. These are the kinds of things scientific researchers say will become more frequent for the Rochester-Finger Lakes region.

Yet there's a disconnect. An estimated 72 percent of Monroe County residents say global warming is happening, but only 38 percent believe it will harm them personally, according to data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

We're living in the Anthropocene era, a term scientists coined to refer to the time when humans started having a major impact on the planet. Humans have transformed the land over time and created environmental crises, so any representation of a landscape makes a comment about the environment, says Tate Shaw, director of the Visual Studies Workshop, a school that emphasizes art as social commentary.

Even a "bucolic plein air painting," a style of painting on-site that's rooted in Impressionism, says something about the environment now, Shaw says.

Several artists in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region have used their work to bring attention to environmental issues, whether local, national, or global. The artists depict the region's natural beauty to encourage its long-term protection. They create interactive projects to connect people with elements of nature. And they show the hidden aspects of pervasive plastics pollution.

Christine Sevilla

The late Christine Sevilla was well known in environmental circles and was a devoted naturalist, keenly interested watersheds and wetlands. And one of the causes dearest to her – and to many other environmentalists and conservationists across the Finger Lakes region – was the permanent protection of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes' shores.

For her exhibit "In Abeyance," the late Christine Sevilla paired images of suburban sprawl with scenes from Hemlock and Canadice Lakes. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINE SEVILLA
  • For her exhibit "In Abeyance," the late Christine Sevilla paired images of suburban sprawl with scenes from Hemlock and Canadice Lakes.

The city once owned land around the lakes, but the state bought the properties in 2010, permanently ensuring that the two bodies would remain the only Finger Lakes with undeveloped shores. The properties are now a state forest.

In 2007, Sevilla produced "In Abeyance," an exhibit of photographs and other visual art that juxtaposed views of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes with images of residential and commercial sprawl in Monroe County. She and others believed the sprawl around Rochester was endangering the historically protected shorelines.

The sprawl meant new water lines and new customers that the Monroe County Water Authority had to serve. To make sure it could meet the demand and maintain reliability on the county's east side, the Authority built a new treatment plant in Webster.

Activists and some elected officials worried that the new plant might eventually render the city's water supply unnecessary. And with that came a reasonable worry that the Hemlock and Canadice land could be sold off and developed.

Christine Sevilla's exhibit "In Abeyance" advocated for the permanent protection of the Hemlock and Canadice Lakes. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINE SEVILLA
  • Christine Sevilla's exhibit "In Abeyance" advocated for the permanent protection of the Hemlock and Canadice Lakes.

But Sevilla had been a persistent voice in the call to preserve the shores, and "In Abeyance" was perhaps her biggest public volley. She died tragically in 2009, however, and didn't get to witness the local environmental community's success with Hemlock and Canadice.

Sevilla's other work included a map and guide to the Black Creek watershed, for which she made the photos and produced the design and "Thanatopsis," a series of invasive-species photographs. "Thanatopsis" was presented as a calendar and framed as "A meditation on death and a lament for the losses, even extinctions, caused by the injury we do to diversity and habitat."

In 2010, the Genesee Land Trust named a wetlands preserve in Caledonia after her to honor her commitment and contributions to environmental protection.


Americans have a fraught relationship with food and, as consumers, many of us are disconnected from its production. We imagine cows grazing in pastures, chickens pecking away at feed in their spacious pens, and neighborly farmers tending to their crops by hand. Absent are images of mechanization, poultry battery cages, and concentrated animal feeding lots. And many consumers don't consider how far their food has traveled to make it to grocery stores.

EcoArtTech examines that disconnect in "Food Convenience Labor Luxury." New media artists Leila Nadir, a writer and the founding director of University of Rochester's Environmental Humanities Program, and Cary Peppermint, an associate professor of art, environment, and emerging practices in the university's Department of Art and Art History, contrast their own experiments around more traditional food sourcing and cultivation practices with industrial agriculture in the 2017 project.

For its OS Fermentation project, EcoArtTech used custom electronics and software that allowed microbes from fermenting foods to take their own "selfies." Through OS Fermentation, the collaborators sought to expose the public to fermentation as an alternative to industrial food preservation processes. Shown is an installation from the curated exhibition FOODshed: Art & Agriculture in Action, which was shown at two galleries in 2014 and 2015. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY ECOARTTECH
  • For its OS Fermentation project, EcoArtTech used custom electronics and software that allowed microbes from fermenting foods to take their own "selfies." Through OS Fermentation, the collaborators sought to expose the public to fermentation as an alternative to industrial food preservation processes. Shown is an installation from the curated exhibition FOODshed: Art & Agriculture in Action, which was shown at two galleries in 2014 and 2015.

The resulting video portrays both California's Central Valley – a former desert transformed through irrigation into the nation's leading produce-growing region – and the artists' efforts at foraging, clearing land for gardens, digging out forest springs, preparing meals from scratch, and other practices.

"This video reflects the dilemma of many who care about food, environment, and sustainability: How to balance dependence upon convenient and wasteful industrial infrastructure while forging new paths that are not entirely practical in the context of demanding modern lives," says the website description.

"Food Convenience Labor Luxury" is one of several Nadir and Peppermint works that incorporate environmental themes. Another uses an interactive smartphone app to expose people to natural features, while others center on food.

John Kastner

Rochester-based illustrator John Kastner paints visceral, cartoonishly chaotic scenes that often lambast humanity's folly. He's recently tackled the impact of consumerist society on the environment, and specifically, the problem of plastic. A few years ago he created "Filthy Animal's Plasticrap," a painting that incorporates the volume of plastic trash he picked up during his short walks to and from work.

The piece depicts a consumer hell: a nightmarish shopping center scene overrun with advertisements and mindless zombie shoppers. A refuge for animals is threatened by encroaching development. And ringing the picture is a garland of plastic bags and Christmas lights, with bits of plastic toys and junk attached here and there. He incorporated handfuls of plastic straws he picked up into the picture, arranged in a line and springing oily leaks, and labeled "The Absolutely Guaranteed We Promise Never Leak (oops sorry) Pipeline."

Detail of John Kastner's "Filthy Animal's Plasticrap." - FILE PHOTO
  • Detail of John Kastner's "Filthy Animal's Plasticrap."

Kastner serves on the executive committee of the Sierra Club's Rochester chapter, and he's also one of the founders of the Seneca Park Alliance, a committee that works to protect the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. He's participated in many spring clean-ups, and is accustomed to seeing plastic fragments in the soil and bags caught in tree branches. In a 2017 interview, Kastner said that it weighs on his mind that so much of it ends up in the oceans and in marine animal's stomachs. And carbon pollution from plastic manufacturing contributes to the acidification and warming of the oceans, he said.

But more than careless litterers, Kastner faults the machine that relentlessly produces and markets stuff to a population that has been groomed to consume and discard things at an alarming rate. He also added some cows into his illustration, and they serve to represent the massive, environmentally damaging factory farms that feed consumers' desire for meat and dairy products.

Denis Defibaugh

Rochester Institute of Technology professor and photographer Denis Defibaugh's interest in the work of painter, author, and adventurer Rockwell Kent took him to Greenland.

In the early 20th century, Kent developed a love of remote, cold corners of the planet where indigenous people have lived for thousands of years, including Alaska, Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, and Greenland. Between 1929 and the mid-1930's, Kent stayed in native Greenland communities of Illorsuit, Sisimiut, Nuuk, and Uummannaq, and he documented the terrain, settlements, and people in paintings and photographs that were turned into lantern slides.

More than 80 years later, Defibaugh visited the same communities and documented them as they are today, forming a comparative study that provides insight into changes between Kent's time and now.

Defibaugh was awarded a National Science Foundation grant in 2016 for his proposal, "Rockwell Kent and Early 1930's Greenland: A Comparative View of Genealogical, Environmental, Social and Cultural Change in Contemporary Greenland."

Defibaugh lived in Greenland for much of 2016 and 2017 and partnered with anthropological social science collaborators and a Greenland historian. His project included oral histories from interviews with Inuit elders, students, and other residents.

In Kent's time, Greenland was a colony under Danish control, and today it's an autonomous constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark. Because Kent spent time immersed in small and remote indigenous communities, he was able to document the impact of Danish policies and the people's relationship to the extreme environment. Defibaugh similarly immersed himself in the relatively untouched communities, which gave him perspective on the vanishing settlements, struggles with the diminishing market for seals and whales, and enduring traditions such as hunting via dog sledding (which is under threat as the vast stretches of ice melt).

Some of Defibaugh's photographs are recreations of exact spaces Kent shot, including Sisimuit Harbor, which looks nearly identical except for the indications of the village's expansion in housing and roads. But his study also touches on the increasingly alarming impact of climate change in the Arctic. Greenland's ice sheet is a mile thick in places, and has enough water in it to raise global sea levels by 23 feet, according to a study that Nature Magazine printed in late 2018. And it's melting at a daunting rate, with an unprecedented amount of runoff.

"The future of Greenland is unclear," Defibaugh wrote in the artist statement that accompanies his "North by Nuuk" project, which documents the modernity of Greenland's capital and can be viewed on his website, "As climate change continues to dramatically affect the ice cap, settlements are slowly being abandoned, and population continues to decline."

This article was updated to include an image that better reflects EcoArtTech's OS Fermentation project and exhibit.