What is Environmental Art?
As you know, the mission of The Healing Power of ART & ARTISTS is based on caring deeply about raising awareness about art that has a positive impact on individuals, society and the environment. That’s why you’ll find a series of articles about artists concerned with environmental issues. We also present online exhibitions such as “Our Bond With Nature”. I’m often asked the question, what is Environmental Art? This article provides a basis of understanding of the topic and explains its roots, the artists who identify with this movement, and its importance today.
To begin, Environmental Art is a very broad term. It embraces a variety of practices and movements such as, and not limited to, Land art, Earth art, Sustainable art, and Conceptual Art. As a movement, environmental art emerged in the 1960s. The leading artists associated with this type of art included Jean-Max Albert, Piotr Kowalski, Nils Udo and Robert Smithson.
Although we associate Environmentalism as a recent phenomenon, it is not a new concept. Early interest in the environment was a feature of the Romantic movement in the early 19th century. The poet William Wordsworth had traveled extensively in the Lake District and wrote that it is a “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”. The origins of this movement can be traced to the Industrial Revolution when there was a outpouring of response to increasing levels of smoke pollution in the atmosphere.
Even before that time, we could argue that Environmental Art began with the Paleolithic cave paintings of our ancestors. The cave paintings represented aspects of nature important to early humans such as animals and human figures.
Although currently there is no strict definition of Environmental Art it spans diverse scientific, social, and political areas and primarily addresses environmental issues. The movement also encompasses other topics of concern such as climate change and the climate movement.
Diane Burko is a contemporary artist who lives in Philadelphia, PA. Through her powerful photographs and paintings she depicts a deep concern about our fragile natural environment. Read an article about her written by Mary Lou Dauray here.
The impact of environmental art spans the globe and is represented by a range of organizations from regional grassroots groups to large entities with many different expressions that vary from country to country.
Equally diverse is the manner in which environmental artists approach this artform. They demonstrate a versatility in using a wide range of media, techniques and styles.
Artist Janel Houton finds inspiration in the local culture and natural surroundings of Boston, Massachusetts, and in national and global themes concerning protection of the earth and climate change. Read her article “Art that Focuses on Environmental Concerns” here.
Many of the artists who identify with the environmental movement have explored the relationship between mankind and the natural environment. These artists are often concerned about ecology, health, and human rights issues and dedicate their art to the these subjects. Environmental artists can also be found in connection to conservation and green politics.
One of the main characteristics of environmental art is that is usually created for one particular place, cannot be moved, and obviously cannot be exhibited in museums or galleries. But, there are exceptions, as environmental artists use a wide range of different techniques. They also may provide photographs of their installations that can be exhibited in galleries and museums and sold and collected as works of art.
The creators of environmental art help us to understand nature, the eco-systems, the environmental forces and materials to be aware of, and the damaged environmental areas of concern.
Needless to say, artists who are dedicated to pursuing the many areas of environmental art play an important role in the artworld as well as our society. They raise awareness about the multi-faceted and serious environmental problems facing our planet.
What is Eco-Art?
Although Environmental Art is sometimes referred to as the ecology movement it is important to mention that Eco-Art, Ecological Art, or Ecoart, is a subcategory of environmental art. It is confusing because the terms are often used interchangeably. This art practice embraces an ethic of social justice in its content and form.
Alexandre Dang is a French visual eco-artist who uses the energy of solar technology as the animating force in his work by bringing together science, environmental concerns, and humanism. Read an article about Alexandre Dang by Mary Lou Dauary here.
Like Dang, many artists affiliated with eco-art adhere to such principles as: the interrelationships in our environment and often create works that employ natural materials, or engage with environmental forces such as wind, water, or sunlight. Other artists associated with eco-art may reclaim, restore, and remediate damaged environments and re-envision ecological relationships. They use creative measures to propose new possibilities for co-existence, sustainability, and healing.
The fascinating topic of eco-art will be a subject for a future article.
Here at The Healing Power of ART & ARTISTS we embrace all aspects of Environmental Art and will continue to promote artists who pursue the many different aspects of the movements. We present exhibitions such as “Our Bond With Nature”. Learn more about this exhibition here.
“Resources for Artists Who Care About Nature & The Environment: Opportunities to Advance Your Art Career & Create Positive Change” is a comprehensive ebook for artists who create nature-inspired and related artwork who are looking for ways to exhibit their art and build sales in this art market.
You’ll find resources, venues,and opportunities to expand your global art community, advance your art career, collaborate with like-minded professionals, and get more publicity.
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Filed Under: Articles, Featured ArticlesTagged With: Alexandre Dang, Diane Burko, eco-art, Janel Houton, Jean-Max Albert, Nils Udo, Our Bond With Nature, Piotr Kowalski, Robert Smithson. environmental artSours: https://www.healing-power-of-art.org/what-is-environmental-art/
Art genre engaging nature and ecology
Genre of art engaging nature and ecology
Environmental art is a range of artistic practices encompassing both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works. Environmental art has evolved away from formal concerns, worked out with earth as a sculptural material, towards a deeper relationship to systems, processes and phenomena in relationship to social concerns. Integrated social and ecological approaches developed as an ethical, restorative stance emerged in the 1990s. Over the past ten years environmental art has become a focal point of exhibitions around the world as the social and cultural aspects of climate change come to the forefront.
The term "environmental art" often encompasses "ecological" concerns but is not specific to them. It primarily celebrates an artist's connection with nature using natural materials. The concept is best understood in relationship to historic earth/Land art and the evolving field of ecological art. The field is interdisciplinary in the fact that environmental artists embrace ideas from science and philosophy. The practice encompasses traditional media, new media and critical social forms of production. The work embraces a full range of landscape/environmental conditions from the rural, to the suburban and urban as well as urban/rural industrial.
History: landscape painting and representation
It can be argued that environmental art began with the Paleolithiccave paintings of our ancestors. While no landscapes have (yet) been found, the cave paintings represented other aspects of nature important to early humans such as animals and human figures. "They are prehistoric observations of nature. In one-way or another, nature for centuries remained the preferential theme of creative art." More modern examples of environmental art stem from landscape painting and representation. When artists painted onsite they developed a deep connection with the surrounding environment and its weather and brought these close observations into their canvases. John Constable's sky paintings "most closely represent the sky in nature". Monet's London Series also exemplifies the artist's connection with the environment. "For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life, the air and the light, which vary continually for me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere that gives subjects their true value."
Contemporary painters, such as Diane Burko represent natural phenomena—and its change over time—to convey ecological issues, drawing attention to climate change.Alexis Rockman's landscapes depict a sardonic view of climate change and humankind's interventions with other species by way of genetic engineering.
Challenging traditional sculptural forms
The growth of environmental art as a "movement" began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In its early phases it was most associated with sculpture—especially Site-specific art, Land art and Arte povera—having arisen out of mounting criticism of traditional sculptural forms and practices that were increasingly seen as outmoded and potentially out of harmony with the natural environment.
In October 1968, Robert Smithson organized an exhibition at Dwan Gallery in New York titled “Earthworks.” The works in the show posed an explicit challenge to conventional notions of exhibition and sales, in that they were either too large or too unwieldy to be collected; most were represented only by photographs, further emphasizing their resistance to acquisition. For these artists escaping the confines of the gallery and modernist theory was achieved by leaving the cities and going out into the desert.
”They were not depicting the landscape, but engaging it; their art was not simply of the landscape, but in it as well.” This shift in the late 1960s and 1970s represents an avant garde notion of sculpture, the landscape and our relationship with it. The work challenged the conventional means to create sculpture, but also defied more elite modes of art dissemination and exhibition, such as the Dwan Gallery show mentioned earlier. This shift opened up a new space and in doing so expanded the ways in which work was documented and conceptualized.
Entering public and urban spaces
Just as the earthworks in the deserts of the west grew out of notions of landscape painting, the growth of public art stimulated artists to engage the urban landscape as another environment and also as a platform to engage ideas and concepts about the environment to a larger audience. While this earlier work was mostly created in the deserts of the American west, the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s saw works moving into the public landscape. Artists like Robert Morris began engaging county departments and public arts commissions to create works in public spaces such as an abandoned gravel pit. Herbert Bayer used a similar approach and was selected to create his Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in 1982. The project served functions such as erosion control, a place to serve as a reservoir during high rain periods, and a 2.5 acre park during dry seasons.Lucy Lippard's groundbreaking book, on the parallel between contemporary land art and prehistoric sites, examined the ways in which these prehistoric cultures, forms and images have "overlaid" onto the work of contemporary artists working with the land and natural systems.
Alan Sonfist introduced a key environmentalist idea of bringing nature back into the urban environment with his first historical Time Landscape sculpture, proposed to New York City in 1965, and visible to this day at the corner of Houston and LaGuardia in New York City's Greenwich Village.
Environmental art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape. Pioneering environmental artist, Mary Miss began creating art in the urban environment with her 1969 installation, Ropes/Shore, and continues to develop projects involving extended communities through City as a Living Laboratory.Agnes Denes created a work in downtown Manhattan Wheatfield - A Confrontation (1982) in which she planted a field of wheat on the two-acre site of a landfill covered with urban detritus and rubble. The site is now Battery Park City and the World Financial Center, a transformation from ecologic power to economic power.
Andrea Polli's installation Particle Falls made particulate matter in the air visible in a way that passersby could see. For HighWaterLineEve Mosher and others walked through neighborhoods in at-risk cities such as New York City and Miami, marking the projected flood damage which could occur as a result of climate change and talking with residents about what they were doing.
Main article: Ecological art
Ecological art, also known as ecoart, is an artistic practice or discipline proposing paradigms sustainable with the life forms and resources of our planet. It is composed of artists, scientists, philosophers and activists who are devoted to the practices of ecological art. Historical precedents include Earthworks, Land Art, and landscape painting/photography. Ecoart is distinguished by a focus on systems and interrelationships within our environment: the ecological, geographic, political, biological and cultural. Ecoart creates awareness, stimulates dialogue, changes human behavior towards other species, and encourages the long-term respect for the natural systems we coexist with. It manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art. Ecological artist, Aviva Rahmani believes that "Ecological art is an art practice, often in collaboration with scientists, city planners, architects and others, that results in direct intervention in environmental degradation. Often, the artist is the lead agent in that practice."
There are numerous approaches to ecoart including but not limited to: representational artworks that address the environment through images and objects; remediation projects that restore polluted environments; activist projects that engage others and activate change of behaviors and/or public policy; time-based social sculptures that involves communities in monitoring their landscapes and taking a participatory role in sustainable practices; ecopoetic projects that initiate a re-envisioning and re-enchantment with the natural world, inspiring healing and co-existence with other species; direct-encounter artworks that involve natural phenomena such as water, weather, sunlight, or plants; pedagogical artworks that share information about environmental injustice and ecological problems such as water and soil pollution and health hazards; relational aesthetics that involve sustainable, off-the-grid, permaculture existences.
There is discussion and debate among ecoartists, if ecological art should be considered a discrete discipline within the arts, distinct from environmental art. A current definition of ecological art, drafted collectively by the EcoArtNetwork is "Ecological art is an art practice that embraces an ethic of social justice in both its content and form/materials. Ecoart is created to inspire caring and respect, stimulate dialogue, and encourage the long-term flourishing of the social and natural environments in which we live. It commonly manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art." Artists who work in this field generally subscribe to one or more of the following principles: focus on the web of interrelationships in our environment—on the physical, biological, cultural, political, and historical aspects of ecological systems; create works that employ natural materials or engage with environmental forces such as wind, water, or sunlight; reclaim, restore, and remediate damaged environments; inform the public about ecological dynamics and the environmental problems we face; revise ecological relationships, creatively proposing new possibilities for coexistence, sustainability, and healing.
Contributions by women in the area of EcoArt are significant, many are cataloged in WEAD, Women Environmental Artists Directory founded in 1995 by Jo Hanson, Susan Leibovitz Steinman and Estelle Akamine. The work of ecofeminist writers inspired early male and female practitioners to address their concerns about a more horizontal relationship to environmental issues in their own practices. The feminist art writer Lucy Lippard, writing for the Weather Report Show she curated in 2007 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, which included many environmental, ecological and ecofeminist artists, commented on how many of those artists were women.
Within environmental art, a crucial distinction can be made between environmental artists who do not consider the possible damage to the environment that their artwork may incur, and those whose intent is to cause no harm to nature. For example, despite its aesthetic merits, the American artist Robert Smithson's celebrated sculpture Spiral Jetty (1969) inflicted permanent damage upon the landscape he worked with, using a bulldozer to scrape and cut the land, with the spiral itself impinging upon the lake. Similarly, criticism was raised against the European sculptor Christo when he temporarily wrapped the coastline at Little Bay, south of Sydney, Australia, in 1969. Conservationists' comments attracted international attention in environmental circles and led contemporary artists in the region to rethink the inclinations of land art and site-specific art.
Sustainable art is produced with consideration for the wider impact of the work and its reception in relationship to its environments (social, economic, biophysical, historical, and cultural). Some artists choose to minimize their potential impact, while other works involve restoring the immediate landscape to a natural state.
British sculptor Richard Long has for several decades made temporary outdoor sculptural work by rearranging natural materials found on site, such as rocks, mud and branches, which will therefore have no lingering detrimental effect.Chris Drury instituted a work entitled "Medicine Wheel" which was the fruit and result of a daily meditative walk, once a day, for a calendar year. The deliverable of this work was a mandala of mosaicked found objects: nature art as process art.
Leading environmental artists such British artist and poet, Hamish Fulton, Dutch sculptor Herman de Vries, the Australian sculptor John Davis and the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy similarly leave the landscape they have worked with unharmed; in some cases they have revegetated damaged land with appropriate indigenous flora in the process of making their work. In this way the work of art arises out of a sensitivity towards habitat.
Perhaps the most celebrated instance of environmental art in the late 20th century was 7000 Oaks, an ecological action staged at Documenta during 1982 by Joseph Beuys, in which the artist and his assistants highlighted the condition of the local environment by planting 7000 oak trees throughout and around the city of Kassel.
Ecological awareness and transformation
Other eco-artists reflect on our human engagement with the natural world, and create ecologically informed artworks that focus on transformation or reclamation. Ecoart writer and theoretician Linda Weintraub coined the term, "cycle-logical" to describe the correlation between recycling and psychology. The 21st century notion of artists' mindful engagement with their materials harkens back to paleolithic midden piles of discarded pottery and metals from ancient civilizations. Weintraub cites the work of MacArthur Fellow Sarah Sze who recycles, reuses, and refurbishes detritus from the waste stream into elegant sprawling installations. Her self-reflective work draws our attention to our own cluttered lives and connection to consumer culture.Brigitte Hitschler's Energy field drew power for 400 red diodes from the to-be-reclaimed potash slag heap upon which they were installed, using art and science to reveal hidden material culture.[better source needed]
Ecological artist and activist, Beverly Naidus, creates installations that address environmental crises, nuclear legacy issues, and creates works on paper that envision transformation. Her community-based permaculture project, Eden Reframed remediates degraded soil using phytoremediation and mushrooms resulting in a public place to grow and harvest medicinal plants and edible plants. Naidus is an educator having taught at the University of Washington, Tacoma for over ten years, where she created the Interdisciplinary Studio Arts in Community curriculum merging art with ecology and socially engaged practices. Naidus's book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame is a resource for teachers, activists and artists. Sculptor and installation artist Erika Wanenmacher was inspired by Tony Price in her development of works addressing creativity, mythology, and New Mexico's nuclear presence. Oregon based artist and arborist Richard Reames uses grafting techniques to produce his works of arborsculpture and arbortecture. He uses time-based processes of multiple plantings of trees that are then shaped by bending, pruning, grafting, in ways that are similar to pleaching and espalier. These works have ecological advantages including carbon dioxide sequestration, habitat creation and climate change mitigation.
Renewable energy sculpture
Renewable energy sculpture is another recent development in environmental art. In response to the growing concern about global climate change, artists are designing explicit interventions at a functional level, merging aesthetical responses with the functional properties of energy generation or saving. Practitioners of this emerging area often work according to ecologically informed ethical and practical codes that conform to Ecodesign criteria. Andrea Polli Queensbridge Wind Power Project is an example of experimental architecture, incorporating wind turbines into a bridge's structure to recreate aspects of the original design as well as lighting the bridge and neighbouring areas.Ralf Sander'spublic sculpture, the World Saving Machine, used solar energy to create snow and ice outside the Seoul Museum of Art in the hot Korean summer.
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How the Ecological Art Practices of Today Were Born in 1970s Feminism
From the perspective of 2020, the 1970s glimmerwith lost opportunity. In a decade of scandal, stagflation, and political turmoil, an ecological consciousness awakened in tandem with critiques of patriarchy, militarism, and industrialization. Together, these issues prompted discussions about the limits of growth, the dangers of reckless technological development, and the potential for environmental disaster—concerns that still resonate today.
Both the environmental movement of the 1970s and the emerging feminist revolution rejected social and scientific models based on domination in favor of an approach to society and nature that emphasized interconnection. Both sounded alarms about the continuation of the status quo. Both called for a radical reordering of human priorities. The two came together in a philosophy of ecofeminism that paired the liberation of women with the restoration of the natural environment.
Ecofeminism was powerfully articulated in Carolyn Merchant’s 1980 book, The Death of Nature. A historian of science, Merchant took a skeptical view of the Scientific Revolution, which lies at the heart of the prevailing narrative of Western progress. Instead of regarding the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, and Bacon as laudable advances in human civilization, she linked them to the triumphal subjugation of nature and a more general paradigm that extended to the treatment of women. She described how the organic, female-centered vision of nature was replaced by a mechanistic, patriarchal order organized around the exploitation of natural resources. And she advocated holistic approaches to social organization that reflected the principles of the then-new science of ecology.
Concepts such as these galvanized artists. It is striking how many pioneers of Eco art are also deeply committed feminists. They pursue a feminism that is less about breaking the glass ceiling than about reordering the systems that perpetuate inequity. Their feminism centers on the interconnections of society, nature, and the cosmos. It expresses itself in artworks that make these connections legible.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles came to environmentalism through her roles as artist and mother. She suggested that the practice of “maintenance” commonly associated with domesticity and “women’s work” might serve as a constructive model for the larger social, economic, and political systems that support contemporary life. This conviction blossomed into her life’s work as the unsalaried artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, where she works to dramatize the part played by waste management and recycling in sustaining a healthy city.
Agnes Denes, also a New York–based artist, was deeply involved in the activist feminist community in the 1970s. She was a member of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, which pressured museums to show more art by women, and a founding member of A.I.R., the first women’s co-op gallery in the United States. During those years, she also developed the complex body of work recently presented in a retrospective at The Shed in New York, which featured, among other pieces, documentation of her 1982 Wheatfield, planted on two acres of soil that had been excavated to build the World Trade Center. The iconic photographs of this project, with yellow wheat swaying before Manhattan skyscrapers, served as a reminder that even the mightiest urban system could not survive without the ancient art of agriculture.
Ukeles and Denes share a systemic understanding of reality. “No element of an interlocking cycle can be removed without the collapse of the cycle,” Merchant wrote.¹ Ecofeminist artists espoused a sense of the earth as a living thing and explored Indigenous practices that predated the Scientific Revolution. Ecofeminism did not exclude men. Echoing ideas expressed as well by such visionaries as the famous naturalist John Muir and the futurist Buckminster Fuller, ecofeminism presented a vision of society that leveled hierarchies and emphasized cooperation and collaboration over individual action. In doing so, it set the stage for tendencies such as social practice art, relational aesthetics, and ecological activism that have become widespread today.
Helen and Newton Harrison worked together as a husband-and-wife team from 1970 until Helen’s death in 2018. Their collaborative process has provided one of the most influential models of Eco art practice. Drawing on Conceptual art’s use of documentation and charts, the Harrisons combined maps, sketches, and aerial photographs in blueprints that suggest system-wide approaches to specific ecological situations. Accompanying texts include factual descriptions of problems and strategies along with poetic dialogues blending diverse quotes from planners, ecologists, botanists, and foresters with the artists’ own voices. The Harrisons saw themselves as instigators rather than conventional art-makers. They used their position as informed outsiders to insert ideas into policy discussions about land and water use here and abroad. While their proposals have rarely been adopted in toto, their principles have made their way into numerous city plans and environmental projects. A series of proposals for restoration of the damage done to the watershed by the Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena, California, ultimately informed the 1993 design of the 1,300-acre Hahamongna Watershed Park. The plan incorporates such Harrison proposals as recreation areas, flood management, and habitat restoration.
Newton was a sculptor and Helen an English teacher in the New York City school system when they married in 1953. Before they were Eco artists, the Harrisons were political activists. Helen was the New York coordinator for the 1961 Women’s Strike for Peace, which targeted nuclear weapons testing. Later, as part of the protests against American intervention in Vietnam, the duo helped form the Tompkins Square Peace Center. By 1972, they were gaining renown for their environmental work. That year they exhibited at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, the legendary art center cofounded by Judy Chicago, after Arlene Raven overruled other members who resisted participation by a team that included a man. Then, as now, it was difficult to disentangle the Harrisons’ individual contributions to their collaborative work.
The Harrisons’ language is relational. Asked in a 2010 interview about her overall perspective on the planet, Helen replied: “As we destroy the earth, the ocean, the air we are inevitably destroying all that makes life possible for ourselves.”² To counter this destructive ethos, the Harrisons proposed a gestalt shift: instead of seeing the field of ecology as a small area of human activity, they proposed that humans be viewed as small figures within a larger system of natural forces. From the late 1990s onward, they rethought the scale of their projects, drawing up sweeping plans that regard national borders as artificial boundaries, and piece together formerly separated watersheds, mountains, and land masses to form coherent ecological wholes. Each such work provides a feasible map for the ecological reclamation, restoration, and reinvention of specific watersheds or environmental systems.
For instance, a 2001–04 project titled Peninsula Europe redrew the map of the continent, eliminating political borders so that the natural system of drain basins and forests can be seen as a whole. This chart forms a backdrop for the artists’ suggestions of transnational strategies to establish green farming, restore biodiversity, and redirect irrigation systems. The Harrisons invoke metaphors to dramatize their ideas. Casting a Green Net: Can It Be We Are Seeing a Dragon? (1996–98) imposes the visual image of a dragon over a map of Northern England to present its estuaries as an interconnected whole.
As the devastation created by climate change escalated, the Harrisons’ warnings became sharper. Their last big initiative, an ongoing project begun in 2007 and continued by Newton after Helen’s death, is named The Force Majeure, after the term for extraordinary circumstances that can nullify a legal agreement. Sometimes described as “acts of God,” such conditions are considered beyond the control of the parties involved. The Harrisons use the term to express the forces unleashed by climate change to which we must learn to adapt.
This project introduces a planetwide approach. The Harrisons’ ideas have a utopian tinge that they argued is necessary, given the scale of the dangers. Newton characterizes recent proposals made for Sweden, Scotland, and the Mediterranean under the aegis of Force Majeure as “counter-extinction work.” They involve relocating whole ecosystems, adapting those that remain to the new conditions, creating fully self-sustaining “green cities,” establishing cooperatively owned agricultural commons, enhancing the landscape’s ability to hold water in drought-prone areas, and fostering systems that reverse the entropic loss of carbon dioxide from soil. To implement such plans on the scale necessary, the Harrisons concede, would require radical limits on growth, development, and population.
Artist Aviva Rahmani also makes use of legal ideas. Her Blued Trees Symphony (2015–) is a performance work made with a forest by painting a musical score on the trees. The project poses the question: can the copyright law that protects art be used to protect land in danger of seizure under the rule of eminent domain? Like the Harrisons, Rahmani has deep roots in both feminism and environmentalism. In 1968 she founded the American Ritual Theater to present performances about rape and domestic violence. Then, in the 1970s, she undertook her first works with nature, photographing sunsets and making exchanges between the water from the taps at CalArts in Valencia, California, and the Pacific Ocean. She used plastic bags to transport tap water to the ocean, and replaced it with salt water that she flushed down the toilets at the school.
The various iterations of Blued Trees Symphony are designed to slow the construction of oil and natural gas pipelines across the country. In recent years, there have been numerous demonstrations against such projects, the most prominent being the Dakota Access Pipeline protests staged by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Rahmani decided to take a different tack, inspired by Canadian sculptor Peter von Tiesenhausen, who copyrighted his entire ranch as art in 1996 to forestall the intrusion of a pipeline. The company withdrew its claim before the artist’s gambit could be tested in court.
Rahmani went a step further. Instead of copyrighting a single plot of land, she conceived of Blued Trees Symphony as an infinitely expandable artwork. She pits the principle of eminent domain, whereby private land can be claimed in the name of public good, against the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. That piece of legislation protects the moral rights of artists, notably by preventing an owner of a work from altering or destroying it while continuing to display it under the artist’s name. With this in mind, Rahmani has composed a “symphony” whose score is literally written on trees growing on property in danger of being appropriated for a pipeline. She works with landowners and teams of volunteers to mark trees with sine waves in nontoxic blue paint. Each tree represents a note and each cluster of trees a chord. Each third of a mile constitutes a musical measure.
Visitors to the woods can imagine the symphony as the whisper of wind and twittering of birds among the painted trees. Or the symphony can be played on-site by musicians and singers who perform the painted score as they move through the forest. The work can also be realized digitally by feeding aerial GPS images from Google Earth into MuseScore software. Rahmani sees the project as giving trees a kind of agency. Linked together through the symphony, they communicate with each other and with humans.
A Blade of Grass, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that supports activist art and social practice, organized a mock trial to test the legal standing of Rahmani’s work at the Cardozo School of Law in 2018. The judge ordered an injunction against a hypothetical corporation. Earlier, in 2015, the Spectra Energy Corporation had defied a cease-and-desist notice from Rahmani and cut down the painted trees in Peekskill, New York. Undeterred, she has continued to create iterations of the symphony in Upstate New York, Virginia, West Virginia, and Saskatchewan. “All combined, any such litigation slows the corporations from cutting down the trees while other litigation by activists compounds to make it an expensive legal process for them,” Rahmani says. “At the very least, we contributed to drawing attention to the problems.”³
Rahmani recently responded to a call from Native American activist Winona LaDuke to come and help combat a major new oil pipeline designed to transport oil from Canada’s tar sands across Lake Superior. She has plans to add a new one-third-mile-long measure to her project in Minnesota.
Betsy Damon’s art practice embodies a stark philosophy, as she explains: “Nothing is worth saying unless it acknowledges interconnectivity.”4 This principle has guided her work since the 1970s, when she put on interactive street performances in New York, handing out pouches of flour as the 7,000 Year Old Woman (an age chosen because it supposedly predates patriarchy) and, as the Blind Beggarwoman, crouching over a begging bowl and asking passersby to share stories. In 1985, when she cast in handmade paper 250 feet of a dry riverbed in Castle Valley, Utah, Damon realized she wanted to create work with a more direct impact on the ecosystem. Since then, she has focused on water, celebrating it as a living thing, a source of life, and a foundation of health.
In 1991 Damon founded Keepers of the Waters, a nonprofit organization that serves as the umbrella for her diverse activities. Though she also creates water-
related drawings and paintings, Damon’s primary aim has been to educate the public about the nature of living water systems and their potential restoration, defining those systems as water deriving from natural sources and flowing exclusively through streams and rivers fashioned by nature. One recurring theme in her projects is water’s ability to cleanse itself when unimpeded by development and industry. Her work has taken her across the United States and to China and Tibet, where she collaborates with local artists, residents, and government officials.
Much of Damon’s current work evolved from a project in China. In 1995, when the country was still sensitive to public assemblies after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, she found herself in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. Overcoming official suspicion by avoiding explicit political messages, she organized a two-week series in which a group of artists produced temporary public artworks and performances that dramatized both the history and consequences of the industrialization of the Funan River. The success of this venture led to a return invitation, this time to create a city park that she dubbed the Living Water Garden. The six-acre site, which opened in 1998, includes a natural wetland that acts as a water cleaning system, an environmental education center, an amphitheater, and interactive water sculptures, including a giant fish that symbolizes regeneration. The Garden’s purpose is to demonstrate the use of natural processes to cleanse water. As with the earlier festival, it was the product of extensive community meetings and discussions about local water conditions.
Damon has taken this model to other locations. She characterizes Keepers of the Waters as a catalyst: while letting control remain in local hands, her organization brings together community leaders and experts, and helps them brainstorm solutions. The point is to facilitate change rather than author a specific solution. Sometimes the process is frustrated by local politics. This was the case in a similarly motivated project in the disadvantaged Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 2012–16. There, Damon worked with a community group to hammer out creative plans to address local water problems. Among the ideas proffered were redirecting rainwater to mitigate flooding and creating a cistern as a centerpiece for an urban park.Despite the enthusiastic input of local artists and residents, Damon said, the project came to naught when it was abruptly canceled by funders seeking a more top-down approach.
One of Damon’s current efforts involves a cleanup of the Mississippi River. Again, the project involves bringing affected parties together—this time with a focus on taking down dams, restoring water flow, and reconnecting small creeks and rivers. Damon’s work routinely involves a wide-ranging educational effort. Her website, blog, and newsletter detail the latest news from scientists, artists, and other activists on issues ranging from the toxicity of tap water throughout the United States to green solutions like reforestation and eco-friendly lawns. She is currently completing a memoir-cum-tool-kit titled A Memory of Living Water that chronicles her journey, lays out her philosophy, and evaluates the activist approaches she has explored.
Like Damon, Bonnie Ora Sherk came to Eco art through performance. In the 1970s she undertook a series of works in San Francisco that questioned human dominance over the natural world: she sat in an evening gown in a flooded highway interchange; she turned derelict public spaces into temporary Portable Parks, creating the astonishing sight of farm and zoo animals communing on concrete islands adjacent to a freeway offramp; accompanied by a caged rat, she ate lunch in a cell at the zoo while the tiger next door looked on. She created an entire ecosystem in a museum gallery, complete with trees and various animals, and allowed the constituents to interact. These works culminated in a seven-year project titled The Farm (1974–80), located at the intersection of freeway overpasses in San Francisco—a more expansive, longer-term correlate to the Portable Parks. The Farm comprised organic gardens, an animal sanctuary, art exhibitions, and performance spaces for musicians and actors.
This led Sherk to her current work, a series of projects under the title “A Living Library.” In 1981 she envisioned the first one next to the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, which at the time was a drug haven nicknamed Needle Park. Her idea was to create a series of Gardens of Knowledge analogous to the information shelter provided by the nearby library. Gardens around the periphery and in the center featuring different kinds of flora and fauna were to have been the basis for a variety of interactive educational and cultural programming. There were to have been gardens with themes like Mathematics, highlighting patterns in nature, or Religion, exploring the symbolism of various plants. Though the project was never realized, it provided the spark for her current work.
“A Living Library” (Sherk notes that the acronym A.L.L. sums up her ambition to address all living systems) is now a loose set of initiatives in various locations that Sherk hopes will develop into a global network. Supported by grants, the Libraries transform blighted areas by engaging schoolchildren and community members in nature walks, gardening, restoring native plants, and implementing rainwater harvesting systems. These activities are incorporated into educational programs for the local schools’ curricula.
One Living Library is located next to a branch of the public library on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Begun in 2002, the work creates community-run gardens and learning zones in a thirteen-acre park on this island in the East River not far from the United Nations. Programming includes workshops on everything from worms and seed-saving to food security and food sustainability. In San Francisco, A Living Library in Bernal Heights is the beginning of a park that will span the eleven neighborhoods that are part of the Islais Creek Watershed. The project includes the first leg of a nature walk that will link schools, parks, streets, housing development campuses, and other open spaces. Already, the project has transformed a previously barren hill, whose runoff once exacerbated local flooding and sewage overflow, into a lush garden full of native trees and plants.
Today, a burgeoning Eco art movement owes many of its assumptions and approaches to the ecofeminist orientation of pioneers like these. Recent MacArthur fellow Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991–) uses targeted plantings to cleanse soil of heavy metals—an iconic example of “green remediation.” Nils Norman has created communal urban farming parks. Amy Balkin seeks out legal ways to make parcels of land and air part of the public domain. All these artists rely on a critique of the instrumentalist ideology of modern capitalism and technology that harks back to Merchant’s analysis of our problematic fixation on progress. Yet recent museum shows by Denes and Ukeles notwithstanding, this kind of art often fails to register in the mainstream art world. Eco art projects typically engage large groups of collaborators from outside the art world, meld art with other forms of cultural expression, blur aesthetic and practical considerations, and generally defy existing commercial and critical frameworks. But as the climate crisis deepens and we look for answers, this may be the art that matters most.
1 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, New York, Harper Collins, 1980, p. 293.
2 Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, interview by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, “The Harrisons,” SexEcology, July 4, 2010, sexecology.org.
3 Aviva Rahmani, quoted in G. Roger Denson, “Earth Day EcoArt by Aviva Rahmani Confronts Deforestation, Fracking, Nuclear Hazards in Eastern US Woodlands,” Huffington Post, Apr. 21, 2016, huffpost.com.
4 Betsy Damon, “Public Art Visions and Possibilities: From the View of a Practicing Artist,” A Memory of Living Water, forthcoming.
This article appears under the title “All or Nothing” in the May 2020 issue, pp. 40–49.
WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL ART?
CHARACTERISTICS AND AIMS OF ENVIRONMENTAL ART
Environmental art encompasses these traditional genres and modern art, addressing ethics and conservationist activism. This new approach to art emerged at the end of the sixties and, unlike the classics, it does more than depict a landscape or include the environment in its creations. The environment becomes the work of art, to raise awareness of the harm we are causing to the environment and call us to action.
Our polluted air and oceans, global warming, deforestation and the consequences of mass consumption for the environment are among the subjects dealt with by contemporary environmental art through photography, painting, drama, dance and sculpture, among other disciplines. Ecoart uses natural, sustainable materials like earth, stones, leaves and branches.
Tthe main aims of environmental art are to:
Raise awareness of the dangers facing the planet and promote its conservation.
Encourage communication and citizen participation to protect nature.
Incentivise political commitment to fight global warming and its impact.
FROM 'LAND ART' TO 'ARTE POVERA'
Environmental art encompasses other, similar movements, such as ecological art, arte povera and land art. The last of these changes the landscape by installing large-scale works of art, such as gigantic spirals, ditches and ramps created using the land itself or natural materials, to inspire emotions in those who view them. The first examples of land art appeared in the United States at the end of the sixties and, generally, the works mutated and ended up disappearing due to erosion.
Keys about environmental art.
SEE INFOGRAPHIC: Keys about environmental art [PDF]
Arte povera (poor art) emerged in Italy during the same period as land art and is characterised by the use of 'poor' raw materials that are easy to obtain, such as earth, rocks, plants, etc. The purpose is to provoke thought by working with the materials and observing its specific qualities. These are works that reject the commercial side of art, that require public intervention and are transformed over time as the materials used break down.
GREAT ENVIRONMENTAL ARTISTS
Drawing environmental art
Meet the artists changing the landscape of environment art
With the fidelity of video game CG and film effects growing by the day, the ability to create spectacular environment and landscape art has never been in higher demand.
Such images can set the tone of an entire piece. Here we introduce the most creative artists in the field today so you can discover their techniques and learn how to paint landscapes as amazing as theirs.
01. Finnian MacManus
Finnian MacManus is a concept artist working in the film and game industries. "When designing landscapes I always start with the background history and culture of the area I'm creating," he tells us. "Landscapes and architecture have their own character, expressed by their patterns and shape relationships. I try to accentuate these and push them further than reality.
"To create palettes, I rely heavily on reference images that are shot without filters, to get the true colour of a scene from the earth. It's then, by pushing these grounded palettes past reality, that I believe you can create a wonderful and mysterious mood.
"I owe a ton of the knowledge I have now to the concept artist John Park. One of the great things he taught me and other students at Brainstorm School was to reinforce our foundational background before starting with 3D and photo texturing. I feel it's very important to have a good knowledge of perspective, design and composition before jumping into the greater challenges that this industry offers."
02. Oscar Gregeborn
"My work is always approached with the goal of making a spectacle," says freelance artist Oscar Gregeborn. "For me, a successful painting is not one where I receive compliments on my rendering or some other aspect. It's one where the viewer is so drawn to the painting that they feel an urge to explore every part of the world I've created.
"Although I equip myself with many different tools and techniques when creating a painting, exploratory colour choices and otherworldly designs are the facets I utilise the most.
"When I first started painting, my initial focus was to copy reality. But my good friend Jesper Friis taught me that by bending the rules of reality, you can achieve a far higher visual impact. Remember that the possibilities of art are limitless, so use the tools given to you to create a feast for the eyes!"
03. Maxwell Boas
As an art director and production designer at DreamWorks Animation, Maxwell Boas has to work fast. "A lot of the time I only have a few hours at my desk to execute an idea," he reveals.
"So I've created a habit of being very clear with the concept before I begin to paint. I usually do quick, loose thumbnails and explore rough colour ideas before I start on a piece. There's nothing worse for me than to have invested the time and energy in a painting and not be happy with the concept, composition or lighting idea later on down the road.
"I have been fortunate to have worked with the talented production designer Raymond Zibach. He has taught me to ask, 'What is the artistic statement I am trying to make?' Whether it's a bold composition, a unique colour palette or a lighting idea to help stage a character, staying true to that initial idea creates a stronger, more emotional piece of art."
04. Andrey Surnov
Freelance artist Andrey Surnov is particularly interested in developing and imagining environments for online games. "I see them as the most defining aspects of the worlds we're developing," he explains.
"Landscapes are powerful storytelling tools, impacting the player with more immediacy than narration or lore, yet their potential is often overlooked or underrated. Character design is too crowded a space, because most young artists seem to gravitate towards it.
"The best advice was given to me by my curator: don't compare your pieces with artworks created by more skilled artists who are working in the same style. Instead, be so unique that such comparisons are irrelevant."
05. Jessica Rossier
"The imagination of an artist is boundless, I'm sure we all agree," says Jessica Rossier, co-founder of visual development studio Wardenlight. "The immensity of that is something that has excited me for many years, and creating environmental design enabled me to exploit this passion beyond character design.
"Each new image I invent seeks to exploit the space in the best way possible, to create ever larger and more impressive environments.
"I like playing with scales of magnitude. The photobashing technique is the one I prefer. It involves working with an existing photograph and transforming its shape completely to produce an entirely different creation."
06. Christian Dimitrov
For freelance matte painter and concept artist Christian Dimitrov, finding the balance between the big, epic landscape and the little stories incorporated in it is a big part of his job. "I'm still learning about how to find this balance," he tells us.
"I hope I'm achieving the feeling of a different world in my works and that I can engage people with the stories the painting is telling. One of the techniques I use most often is the Quick Selection Tool with Refine Edge option in Photoshop CC. It's a wonderful tool for extracting all kinds of elements, such as clouds, buildings, trees and so on.
"One of the best and most profound bits of advice I've had was from Dylan Cole: 'The hardest thing about painting is maintaining the spirit of a sketch in a final illustration.' This kind of analysis opened up my eyes and made me think about design in a new, completely different way. This is something that I continue to learn about and try to be better at."
This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine. Subscribe here.
How to practise drawing environment
Hello, here I will show you a few practices that will help you to learn drawing environment.
Painting environment was always a trouble for me – I just love drawing characters and never spend as much time practicing drawing enviro as on people. Of course, that’s not a good thing if my artworks lack a good background.
Below I’m posting a quick tutorial on how to learn to draw backgrounds I did for my friend.
Learning how to draw an environment
The most convenient way to practice is drawing from a photo resource. So my first step is selecting the photo with a landscape. You can find really great photos here: EarthPorn– on Reddit’s community. You can also try a Virtual Plenair on Google Maps, take a screenshot and basing on it, paint the landscape in your graphics software.
It doesn’t matter what graphics software you use or if you use traditional media. The practice’s goal is to learn how to draw an environment – understand how the light behaves, picking the right color and building your visual library.
For digital painting I use Adobe Photoshop, so the screenshots are from this software.
A few tips before starting:
I start drawing on a really small canvas. I don’t want to spend much time on drawing each photo – so I set up time alarm to 20 minutes. Remember, it’s just a practice, so don’t get fixated on creating a perfect drawing.
When I think that the drawing of my environment looks quite good, I zoom in the drawing and add the necessary details. That way I focus mainly on the composition and light, not the details.
Don’t use the pipette tool to get the right color. Try to select a proper color from a palette on your own – this will train your “eye” and allow to choose more suitable colors in your other paintings.
- Ok, so here’s my first step. I choose a photo to draw from the “EarthPorn” Reddit community and take my first approach to it.
2. Below you can see my first attempt to draw the photo. I tried to paint it right away with colors. It didn’t go well, so I decided to take another shot.
3. A second attempt to draw the jungle – in black and white. I decided to take a different approach and this time I drew the image in black and white to focus on composition instead of the colors. To make it easier, I also removed colors from the photo.
- After painting the photo in black and white, it’s time to add colors. I simply add another layer in Adobe Photoshop and select it’s mode to “Color”.
That’s all! As I mentioned before, I don’t practice painting environment on a big canvas.
Below you can see another screenshot made during my painting. That’s the canvas size I use for practicing painting landscapes – I zoom in only when I’m painting details. On the left is a photo, and on the right is my painting.
You can see great results even after few weeks of regular, daily training (that was in my case).
I drew the next exercises using the colors (without the “white and back” step). Below you can see paintings from my training.
Most of the paintings took me about 15 minutes. My favorite one is in the top right corner – I love the shadows there. The last one was really tricky when it comes to choosing the color.
To be frank, I always disliked drawing backgrounds – I saw nothing interesting in them. But now I really enjoy painting landscapes, especially mountains – they are simply beautiful. And the attempt to capture this beauty in paintings is a real challenge.
Anyway, If you are here to learn how to draw landscapes and environment, here are my last words – don’t give up and draw as much as you can!
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How do I become an environment artist?
This is often a role that requires several years’ experience working within games art, but some employers will take on a junior environment artist who supports a senior environment artist or art director initially.
At school or college:
Learning traditional drawing, painting and sculpting is useful as a way to demonstrate artistic flair outside software.
If you want to go to university, it would be useful to take A-levels or highers in:
- Art and design
- Graphic design
- Graphic communication
Or you might want to take any of the following vocational Level 3 qualifications:
- BTEC Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
- UAL Diploma/ Extended Diploma in Art and Design
- BTEC Extended Diploma in Creative Digital Media Production
- OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Graphic Design)
- BTEC Diploma in Graphics
If you can add some physics or computer science into the mix, that will give you a rounded set of skills that are ideal for a career in games.
If you want to straight into a job or apprenticeship, these Level 3 qualifications will equip you with relevant skills:
- Aim Awards Diploma/Extended Diploma in Games Animation and VFX
- AQA Technical Level Entertainment Technology: Video Games Art and Design/Design Production
- OCR Technical Diploma in Digital Media (Digital Content for Interactive Media)
- AQA Technical Level IT: Programming
- OCR Technical Diploma in IT (Digital Software Practitioner)
- BTEC Diploma in Computing for Creative Industries
Build a portfolio:
Learn the software, experiment with games engines and start creating work that you can show to admissions tutors or employers. This is essential. Go to build your games portfolio to learn how.
Create a level of a game using software provided by the publishers and set it in a great environment.
Look for an apprenticeship:
You’re unlikely to find an apprenticeship as an environment artist in the games industry but you might find a role as a junior 2D artist that could equip you with some of the skills that you need. It might be worth taking up that role and moving into games environment artist at a later point. Check out What’s an apprenticeship? to learn more about apprenticeships and find an apprenticeship to learn how to find one in your region, or approach companies directly. Go to ScreenSkills information on games apprenticeships for the main apprenticeship schemes in games.
Get a degree:
Most people in the games industry have a degree. Get one in games art, graphic design or any 3D digital art. Have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses in games. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the games industry.
Get to know people in the games industry by attending events, including games conferences and expos. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest and knowledge in the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this.
Search for jobs:
Use the UK Games Map to find out if there are games companies near you, then go to their websites directly and check out their open roles. You could also check out ScreenSkills games industry job boards. Some employers will take on a junior environment artist if they have a strong portfolio, showing creativity, flair and software skills.
Look outside games:
It’s also worth considering computer artist roles in any other industry as using similar software will build up your skills. You can use this and any professional artwork you produce to continually improve your games art portfolio, putting you in a stronger position for an entry-level role in games.
You might also be interested in…
Being a level designer, 3D modelling artist or texturing artist in the games industry. You might also be interested in being a modelling artist, texture artist or an environment artist in visual effects (VFX), or a modeller or background designer in the animation industry. Alternatively, you could consider being an art director or production designer in the unscripted TV industry.