Extinction Rebellion, Climate Leaves and Christmas.
In my last blog about art and sustainability I talked about climate change in relation to my art making, and I feel it is timely to go deeper into this topic.
A decade ago, after two years living in Sydney, Australia, I had become increasingly aware of environmental changes that were happening in Australia and elsewhere. Some of these changes included extended drought conditions in the rural areas and the resulting impacts on river systems, the alarming rise in species classified as endangered, bleaching of the coral reefs and concerns around biodiversity loss and deforestation. Climate change was still not discussed regularly in the mainstream media at the time, but scientists were warning us that global warming was occurring, caused by increased carbon levels in the atmosphere. The scientists were clearly stating that subsequent changes in climate were having an impact on the rural areas and ecosystems in Australia and around the world. Despite this, many scientists faced criticism for these statements and were attacked for being “alarmist,” a problem that still occurs despite the evidence to support their research and the increasing effects of climate change upon the planet.
Upon my return to New Zealand I started making art about the climate in 2009, and spent time researching the science. The paintings I did that year were an attempt to come to grips with a huge topic. I did a series of small paintings inspired by Antarctica, paintings about endangered species, and paintings about the Anthropocene. At the end of 2009 I exhibited some of these small paintings and four larger paintings about the major planetary systems – Biosphere, Cryosphere, Troposphere and Anthrosphere. I knew that this was a difficult topic and that the paintings probably wouldn’t sell. I was surprised at how few artists were making artworks about climate change – to me it felt like this required urgent attention and engagement from not just the art community but all people.
“The cryosphere is an all-encompassing term for those portions of Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground. ” (Wikipedia, 2019). Cryosphere, the painting pictured above, with a faint map of Antarctica drawn on the canvas, was about the threats to the polar regions in a warming world.
The Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica collapsed in the summer of 2002, disintegrating in a month. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/LarsenB More recently, scientists fear that the West Antarctic ice sheet could also collapse.
It is scary and horrible to see and experience, a decade after I started making these climate paintings, the effects of climate change happening with increasing rapidity and devastation across the planet. Despite agreements and pledges by governments, very little has been done to limit warming and environmental destruction, with terrible consequences for all life on our planet. Urgent change is needed to prevent mass extinction, ecosystem collapse and to keep our home habitable for all life.
I have continued to make paintings that are about climate and the planetary ecosystems that we depend upon for survival. It wasn’t until I started nature printing that I felt that I had found a good way to convey some of ideas that I wanted to express. I made a conscious decision to put nature first in my artworks – to make the biological world of plants the subject, rather than the human world. To preserve and protect our environment we must first see the planet as a living entity and home that we are a part of, and our role in this sphere is as kaitiaki/caretakers of all life for future generations.
Of course being human, it is inevitable that our attitudes towards nature, uses of plants and other cultural meanings ascribed to flowers and plants find their way into the artworks. Looking at other artists who also put nature at the forefront of their artworks, I found myself drawn to artists such as Van Gogh, Dutch still life painters, Japanese Zen painting traditions and contemporary UK artists such as Angie Lewin. The powerful artworks of indigenous Australian painters have also been a strong influence, beginning when I was quite young, growing up in rural Victoria. More recently I have researched others who have used nature printing techniques.
After taking a larger scale “global” approach with the early abstract paintings, the nature printed artworks are, by contrast, almost micro in their approach. They often begin with small, overlooked plants, the sort you may walk past in the street and fail to notice, or those growing in neglected urban areas or in areas that haven’t been “developed.” I nature print with both endemic species and introduced plants, the sorts you find in forests, gardens, berms and in the streets of cities. Each painting begins with time in these places. Walks are part of the artwork and help me reconnect with nature.
For the past few months I have been doing a series of small A4 size artworks that I call “climate leaves,” usually one a week and posting them online every Friday to coincide with the global climate strikes and Fridays for Future climate strikes. Every week that passes it feels more urgent, to turn our attention to the natural world, and work together to repair, protect and regenerate nature. Finding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels and protecting areas of existing forests should be an absolute priority. It is up to all people to prevent climate breakdown. Every person needs to think about what they can do and to act now. It start with small, simple things. For example, this Christmas avoid “tidying up” your garden with poisons that kill not just weeds, but also harm bees and everything beneficial in the soil. A layer of cardboard and mulch will do a better job without the poisons. For the past few years we have had a living Christmas tree that gets planted in the garden each year. It seems crazy to be cutting down a pine tree to celebrate Christmas when we are in a climate crisis. If enough people make changes it can have a big impact.
Because I am an artist I am making art about nature, for nature. You’ll find my art in The Hourglass, the newspaper published by Extinction Rebellion in the UK. hourglass.news
It’s great to be in this issue with other independent artists who are also concerned with climate change and how to make art in a climate emergency. Last weekend I met some other people who also care deeply about the planet and we raked a huge Extinction Rebellion symbol into the sand at Piha beach. Coastal communities like Piha are extremely vulnerable to climate changes. I would encourage everyone to find out about local environmental groups and how you can work together, to help ask for change at all levels to prevent climate breakdown. If you want to learn more about Extinction Rebellion you can visit their website and the XR Auckland Facebook page is a good place to connect with local groups in the Auckland area.
I’ll be taking a break over Christmas to spend time with family but I’m going to continue making art about nature, for nature, with nature. If you would like to support my work and receive downloadable nature printed artworks each month please join my creative community on my Patreon page. Patreon is a subscription service for creators where you can receive exclusive rewards and content for as little as $US1 per month. https://www.patreon.com/celestesterling
You can also find my art via Corokia Studio on Felt NZ, where I have fine art prints available. Pickups of botanical prints (Auckland only) can be arranged up until Christmas Eve.
Merry Christmas, Meri Kirihimete from New Zealand.
Celeste Sterling, December 2019