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Ecological Art: Valuable as well as Beautiful

Science, studies, data, and facts are highly prized in the environmental movement. They provide us with the most up to date information in order to take action and often show others just how urgent our cause is. However, there is also much value to be found in fields other than science.

While striving for environmental awareness, it is important not to underestimate the potential of art to educate and motivate. Its visual, interactive, and emotional qualities create a unique opportunity for people to take in information. Looking at a piece of art, we can feel the message rather than hearing it. This can help an idea click in or foster a more personal connection to an issue in a way that news articles, education systems, or scientific facts sometimes can’t.

For those of us already committed to environmental causes, art can bring us together and inspire us towards new or continuing action. It can also help us access the emotional side of environmental activism—the need for reflection, healing, and community in the face of eco-grief and anxiety.

Many have realized these benefits of art and its potential to be incorporated into environmentalism. A new type of art called ecological art, or ecoart for short, has been gaining traction. Rather than just depicting nature, as historic environmental art did, ecoart focuses on revealing the problems that plague our ecosystems and encouraging solutions to them. Artists often utilize natural materials or processes in their art pieces as well. Ecoart notably blurs the line between art and activism.

And we don’t have to look far for some great examples! The following are just a few artists here in Southern California actively creating and sharing ecoart:

Kim Abeles has been participating in ecoart since before the term was created. Her work also centers on biography, geography, and feminism, but has commented on the environment for over 30 years. In 1987, she created her first piece in a series called Smog Collectors that she has carried on ever since. It involves cutting stencils of images and putting them on various materials from fabric, to wood, to porcelain plates. The pieces are then left outside for different lengths of time. After this time is up, the particulate matter in the air has accumulated on the surface and created the stenciled images.

Abeles’ very first Smog Collector was the outline of the San Gabriel Mountains as seen from her studio in Los Angeles. It was inspired by the fact that the mountains are often hard to see through the LA smog. Abeles used this piece to physically represent the problem she saw outside.

The first Smog Collector (1987)

In 2020, California State University Fullerton displayed all of Abeles’ Smog Collectors to date. This growing collection includes a variety of images drawn in smog on all kinds of surfaces, even clocks and tables. There are also a series of “Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates” with the faces of US presidents created on them. These plates were left out in the smog for different amounts of time depending on the president’s environmental record.

"Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates" (1992) Smog (particulate matter) on porcelain plate. The plates were left out longer, depending on the president’s environmental records.

Some of her Smog Collectors through the years have even drawn attention to indoor air pollution like Dinner for Two in One Month of Smog, a table and two chairs set with a smog covered tablecloth and dishes.

Dinner for Two in One Month of Smog (2011)

Through this and Abeles’ other work, she attempts to visualize problems around us that are often invisible, like air pollution. She hopes this will help viewers understand the issues in order to take action against them. Read more about Kim Abeles and her work here, here, and here.

Carolina Caycedo, based in Los Angeles, creates art in a variety of mediums including photo, video, artist book, performance, sculpture, and installation. Her work often focuses on environmental justice, especially the harm of extractive industries on nearby local communities and the importance of a transition to renewable energy that is just to all.

One project that has been ongoing since 2012, Be Dammed, highlights the story of communities in Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico that have been impacted by the construction of hydroelectric dams. Caycedo, who was born to Colombian parents, visits these locations to conduct field research and creates her art based on the people she meets there.

Serpent River Book, 2017

Be Dammed encompasses many different projects. Serpent River Book, a 72 page accordion fold artist-book, holds archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, and satellite photos about the people and places Caycedo worked with. Another piece within Be Dammed is a collection of hanging sculptures called Cosmotarrayas made from handmade fishnets and found objects from the areas. Mirrored and altered images of bodies of water form Caycedo’s Water Portraits which are hung or displayed performatively in exhibitions to give the water active, living qualities.

Cosmotarrayas, 2016.

Water Portraits, 2016

A recent project, Amulets for Fair Energy Transition, created just this year (2023), focuses on the challenges we face converting to renewable energy. The technologies that will get us there require extracting minerals, which has the potential to harm the ecosystems and communities nearby. The amulets are made from these materials including aluminum, graphite, copper, lithium and cobalt and serve as amulets of protection for the places concerned. Check out here and here if you’d like to explore more of Carolina Caycedo’s art.

Amulets for Fair Energy Transition, 2023

Ruth Wallen was originally an environmental scientist before translating her passion for the environment into art. Through her interactive installations, nature walks, web sites, artist books and performative lectures, she hopes to promote discussion of environmental and social justice.

Otay Mountain

Wallen lives in San Diego County, which she remarks “is home to more threatened and endangered species than any other county in the continental United States,” (it’s true!) and often uses the ecosystems found there in her work. One of her early exhibitions, Cascading Memorials, provided a space for viewers to grieve the loss of nature as well as envision a better future. It featured photo montages of areas in San Diego County that have experienced loss from urbanization, invasive species, fires, droughts, and climate change.

Cuyamaca Mountains

Along with these were pages from her journal and sketchbook that provide context and a prompting question for each location. Living up to its name as a memorial, at the center of the exhibition was “a place to grieve” where notebooks were left for people to share their experiences and memories of the places and species that are being lost.

Finally, Wallen encouraged viewers to look to the future. At another station called “a place to envision a future where all beings may flourish,” people wrote their hopes and visions for a better future on paper leaves that formed a tree on the wall.

Cascading Memorials demonstrates Ruth Wallen’s goals of fostering thought on environmental issues, connection to the environment and each other, as well as a belief that things can change. Wallen has continued to create striking montages documenting the condition of these sites in San Diego county and other locations in an ongoing project called Walking with Trees. You can see these pieces as well as Ruth Wallen’s other creations here.

Regrowth after fire. Big Basin State Park, 40" x 46" (or larger) 2022

We hope you enjoyed the ecoart pieces highlighted here! If you did, there are many more artists to explore that are working to spread awareness and commitment to the environment just like we do.

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