Great Walk by Darren Sears, watercolor on paper

Interviews with three artists making art about climate change, conducted by Erin Heath, 350 Bay Area Contributing Writer and Content Manager

THE ARTISTS

Ivy Stevens-Gupta / Artist, color theorist, marketing consultant, instructor, and color therapist

I create colorful paintings ranging from photo-realism to abstract. When I create art it is usually inspired by free-flowing shapes found in nature. My distinctive organic aesthetic is the result of multiple layers of acrylic paint mixed with polymers, oil, inks, and resin on stretched canvas or birch board. I am also a color therapist and art instructor. I live in a town in upstate New York called Ithaca. However, I have been spending the last five months enjoying California and Washington. BTW—the west coast does a superior job in recycling, utilizing electric cars and producing organic food. I hope to implement these strategies to my hometown.

Darren Sears / Painter informed by ecology, landscape architecture, geology, art history, and photography

I view the natural environment in spatial rather than scenic terms—as maps of linked experiences rather than collections of disjointed landscapes. Finding these landscapes too boundless, disorderly, and difficult to absorb, it’s hard for me to understand and appreciate them without knowing where they end and what lies beyond. Though ecological edges and sequences rarely seem to be the focus of artists or just about anyone else, I see them as giving definition and meaning to a landscape, as a frame does to a picture or dark does to light. Inspired by travel and imagination, I create oil and (most recently) watercolor compositions that are fragmented as if multiple perspectives are being compressed into a single view, organizing nature into discrete, comprehensible slices. These maps (or “worldviews” as I call them) represent wider and more diverse geographies than could be captured by any single scene.

I’m from Ohio, based in San Francisco and represented by Hang Art Gallery in Union Square. My background is in environmental studies and landscape architecture, and the latter has had a strong influence on my urge to bring clarity and order to the physical environment. In fact I think of myself as a designer or environmental artist constrained (so far) to standard artistic formats rather than a painter depicting scenery in a traditional, stand-alone sense.

Belinda Chlouber / Visual artist

I was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma. When I was about six months old, my parents moved to Arizona to the Navajo and Hopi reservations where we lived until I was about ten. These years in Arizona profoundly influenced me as an artist and a person.

After receiving my BFA from Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri and then briefly studying at Parsons school of Design in New York City, I moved to California. While in New York I worked in publishing as a graphic designer and production manager then later in San Francisco as a graphic designer. After my first daughter was born I started teaching art and doing freelance graphic design as well as making and exhibiting my artwork full time. I have shown my artwork regionally, nationally and internationally.

I have always had an interest in, and worked with through my artwork, issues surrounding the environment. Particularly after living in New York City—as the contrast between where I grew up, in Arizona and the Midwest, and New York were so different. Living in New York City I craved nature and the natural world, and it was there that I began noticing the odd color of the sunsets and I began questioning our system.

I have been researching our climate crisis for the last several years and using that research to inspire my mixed media paintings and collages. Some of the pieces are hand tinted monoprints with gold leaf. My latest series is inspired by the fictional book “The Overstory” by Richard Powers and non-fictional book “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. I have used gold leaf in the trees to symbolize how valuable they are to us. Much of my work addresses humanity’s relationship to the natural world and within my artwork I search for solutions to bring that relationship into balance.

Air of Earth by Belinda Chlouber, mixed media monoprint

When did you start making art related to climate change, and what was the catalyst for that?

IVY: I’ve been creating art since I was old enough to hold a crayon. However, I started creating environmentally inspired paintings about 8 years ago.

I’ve always been obsessed with color and nature and these two elements tend to find their way into my art. I believe it is imperative that we all do our part to help preserve natural resources. I think creating art that highlights our nature resources (lakes, forests, plants and animals) can be healing for some people to view.

DARREN: My work has long been environment-related, so the adoption of a conservation-oriented message involved a broadening of meaning and purpose rather than a significant shift in subject matter. That change happened over the past few years with the increasingly dire news about the planet, along with firsthand observation of ecological impacts and vulnerabilities in Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Canary Islands, and the Caribbean. The feeling of total comprehension (and even control) that draws me to ecological contrasts and edges, especially on islands and mountain peaks, has come to include a strong protective impulse—it’s these environments that are particularly sensitive to climate change and related threats. Plus, an appreciation of how ecosystems and landscapes fit into their environmental contexts is essential to any effort to protect them. The places I depict range from idealized to mostly fictional, but they express my distress at the fragility of the real locales that inspire them.

BELINDA: After receiving cochlear implants four years ago for severe hearing loss, as part of my therapy. I started, just by chance, listening to books on climate change. Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate” had just come out. This became the catalyst to start working on a series of artworks about how society changes and how we can cope with such a dramatic systemic problem as climate change. I attended The Climate Reality Conference lead by Al Gore and was trained as a climate reality leader to better help communicate our climate crisis, which for me has been through my artwork as well as curating exhibitions about climate change. There are so many artists working on and addressing our climate crisis. Helping to give them exposure has doubled my ability to have an impact and bring the climate issue to the forefront.

Floreana by Darren Sears, watercolor on paper

Do you think it’s important to make art about our changing climate? Why?

IVY: We all have our gifts. Some people cycle, run marathons, swim, or perform musical concerts to raise awareness for worthy causes. As a visual artist, I feel it is my responsibility to use my talents to educate others about the greatest threat to our future. I think some people need to be reminded that wildfires, droughts, and flooding are the result of rising temperatures due to climate change. Many of my paintings depict beaches, glaciers, plants and bodies of water that are most vulnerable to climate change.  

DARREN: I do, because though we’re starting to see the effects of climate change here and now, for those with the power to bring about change it’s still too slow and invisible of a problem. Warnings and explanations can only go so far to appeal to our emotions, which even for those of us who claim to base our decisions on information and logic, are what ultimately drives action.

But having said that, I think we’re being unrealistic if we expect that art as it’s currently made and consumed is going to have a significant impact. The audience for environment-themed art is likely pre-selected to care about the issue, and even if it’s that audience who can be most counted on to act if artwork nudges them over the edge, it’s nowhere near large enough. I’d even say that the typical art viewing/experiencing/buying community in general isn’t who we need to reach. We need to somehow mobilize more artists to focus on climate change-related topics, in more varied types of media, disseminated in ways that the general population can’t avoid. As someone who started out by designing real-world spaces and would ultimately like to get my foot back in that door in new ways, I think more and bigger collaborations between the arts and related professions can go a long way to influence the public consciousness.

BELINDA: Yes, I think it’s incredibly important as the arts are a way to reach people’s hearts. I remember someone telling me that years ago the Climate movement made a conscious effort to include artists and bring them into the fold and after that everything changed and people started to pay more attention. I think it is because the science, truthfully, is very dry and can be very boring to most people. Which makes it very easy to ignore.

See also: What Is Climate Change Anxiety, and What Can We Do About It?

In your opinion, what are the intersections between climate change and art? Climate change and beauty?

IVY: I think climate change and art are directly related. On the one hand, art as a form of communication can evoke an emotional response to the horrors of climate change. At the same time, there is so much beauty to be found in nature that can inspire art. I’ll go for a hike in one of the many gorges located in Ithaca, NY, and marvel at all the organic shapes of leaves, different species of birds, bees buzzing around and waterfalls and then go back to my studio to try to paint these images on canvas. I’m thankful that I live in such a beautiful part of the country that has not been severely damaged by climate change.

DARREN: In a sense no art can avoid the issue of climate change—all art deals either with life as we know it or life as we imagine it, and both of those are going to change dramatically. With art focusing on the environment, natural or cultural, the connections of course can be particularly explicit, and they will become more so both organically and (hopefully) through activism. All human pursuits will follow this path to some degree, but artists have a unique opportunity to both reflect and shape the direction of the world because if they take risks, generally no one else shoulders the consequences. Ideally society could work out a way for artists to shoulder less of them too.

On climate change and beauty, it depends on how beauty is defined. Even undesirable or terrible things can be considered beautiful as pure images. In that sense, a world largely remade by climate change need not lack beauty, and art is (and has been) in the unique position to exploit that tension by “packaging” discomfort and tragedy in ways that people can take in. Though for me “beauty” goes far beyond the traditionally scenic or inviting, I personally have trouble finding it in places that are unhealthy, particularly nowadays. (The image can’t easily overcome the content.) So I choose to call attention to environmental issues by representing fear of losing beauty that we have rather than fear of ugly things to come. There’s room for both, but the latter can end up inspiring resignation rather than urgency. It’s true that latching on to things that aren’t going to last as we know them, rather than accepting and adapting to change, can also lead us away from the most viable solutions. But for us to survive we’re going to need both of those as well.

BELINDA: I started working with my mother’s and grandfather’s poetry and writings in my artwork in 2011 after my mother passed away. After several years of thinking about legacy and what that means in the world today I came to the conclusion that it really didn’t mean much without a habitable planet. Our legacy, as humans, has been passed down through the arts and the writings of our ancestors. Without a hospitable planet what we create now, aside from reversing our current direction, has little meaning. I really hate to think the legacy of our species could be that we were the catalyst for the sixth great extinction.

As far as beauty and climate change I do see an intersection in that much of the time beauty tends to be fragile and fleeting, for instance, a flowers fleeting beauty. We have missed the beauty that has always been there in the natural world. This is poetically tragic and extremely sad for us.

We need to shift our idea of beauty to that of “Earth’s Wild Beauty.” And work to create and integrate the beauty of biomimicry into our cities and homes and lives.

Northern Lights by Ivy Stevens-Gupta, acrylic, ink, and resin on canvas

Does reading news about climate change affect your art-making? How?

IVY: Learning more about human-made climate change does have an impact on my art. It creates a top of mind awareness about global warming. News about melting glaciers, global food and water shortages along with rising sea levels help to educate me. Our planet and all living creatures are in a state of emergency. I now look for products that are not toxic, try to recycle art materials and waste less supplies. I think the next generation gets it. My adult children use glass straws, shampoo bars and eat sustainable food. They also educate me about clean living and through osmosis, I follow their lead and circle back to the studio to create more colorful, nature inspired art.

DARREN: So far it’s had a minimal effect on the subject matter itself, but it does increase my sense of urgency and has made me think differently about my potential audience. It’s also led me to think about the artwork as part of a broader set of activities, including writing and design, that can have a wider potential impact than just creating objects for aesthetic appreciation. This is one reason that I call the works “worldviews”—art-making or “object-making” is only one, incidental representation of how I experience the natural world and aspects of it that I most fear losing, not an end in itself.

BELINDA: There was a time about a year ago that I really felt it was all impossible and I couldn’t do this kind of work. But through the help of a retreat I went on and much reflection I was able to shift my thinking and learn how to cope with the effects of climate change and all the bad news it brings. In making my artworks I work to make them “beautiful” but the message is tragic. Much of human history is filled with us failing to live up to our potential but in the past we have been able to rebound and remake civilization. This is the first time though that everything is at stake.

It is my hope that humanity will eventually realize it’s potential and be able to live in harmony with Earth and all the other amazing creatures that live here.

Firestarter by Ivy Stevens-Gupta, acrylic, gold leaf, and resin on canvas