my climate story

Earlier this month I participated in The Climate Reality Project‘s leadership training program. It was a solid week of information, presentations, discussion and networking. One of our first assignments was to write our “climate story” — a account of how you became personal invested in the issue of climate change. Here’s mine:

A mission to help people become more empathetic towards nature. 

I am a professional artist, and have been creating meditations on the everyday significance of nature for nearly 20 years. I was originally drawn to work with the most familiar details of nature — such as leaves, seeds, bark, flowers, ice, shells — not because of an urge to save the environment or talk about climate change, but because of a simple love and appreciation for the natural world we see everyday. But starting last year, I began seeking a deeper purpose for my art. I began working on defining the “mission” behind my art making, to discover its meaning and value beyond aesthetics. I wanted to learn why I have been drawn to create this specific kind of “natural abstracts” above all other forms of art.

What I learned was that I want the work that I do — the art I make, my writing about my process, and even my role as an artist — to work towards deepening our personal bond with the natural world. I hope to be able to help people become more empathetic towards nature, encouraging them to become more invested in the issues of climate change and conservation.

The way I make my art

I make my art from the fallen leaves, sticks, and seeds that I find everywhere around my suburban neighborhood. Whenever I am outside, whether walking the dog or waiting for the kids’ school bus, I am constantly picking up interesting leaves I find in my path. I am not looking for picture-perfect leaves, but ones with character and a story. I keep a constantly renewed collection of leaves in my studio, stashed in boxes and sorted on tables. I slowly work my way through this collection, carefully examining each piece, and looking for the artistic potential I first noticed on my walk. Some leaves I can work with immediately, while others can take me months or years to “get to know” first. When a leaf finally grabs my interest, I’ll then spend hours, days, or even weeks photographing it. I built a custom workspace — part jury-rigged, part recycled, and part high-tech — that allows me to explore the leaf from every possible perspective, as slowly and carefully as I need. I almost feel like a sculptor working with stone, using my camera to shape this raw material into compositions of dimension, texture, and motion. I work until I no longer see just a leaf, but discover something compelling beneath the surface.

The reason I make my art 

Even though I constantly work with nature in my art, I don’t overtly make art to get people more interested in the environment. I make this art simply because I was drawn to it. Even after almost 20 years of creating these natural abstracts, I am still in awe of the creative potential of a humble leaf. But I have started to realize that my art — through the ideas, reactions, and moods that it inspires in people — can play a positive role in the cause of climate change.

Our primary experience with nature isn’t from national parks or beautiful vistas — it is through the countless small interactions we have every day, walking outdoors, crunching leaves underfoot. These seemingly insignificant experiences form the basis of how we think about the natural world, and our relationship to it. I believe that if we as a species are going to start to respect and preserver nature as a whole, we have to start with these familiar, humble experiences that form the basis for our relationship with nature.

I work exclusively with the most familiar details of nature — the parts of the natural world we see everyday — because I want to carefully slow down how we experience them, so we can start to build a rapport with every single leaf or seed. When we take the time to see each part of nature, no matter how small, as an individual worthy of respect, we come to appreciate its imporance and value. My believe my art helps grow these familiar moments into a deeper and more personal bond with nature. I hope that when we recognize the significance of our everyday natural world, we are more likely to value and protect all of nature. 

The mission for my art

As a result of these ideas, I have created for myself a new mission. I believe it’s hard to care for something so big and abstract as “nature” or be invested in saving things that are distant from your daily life. So I create art designed to foster a tight personal connection with the nature that you find all around yourself, where ever you are. I want the work that I do to help deepen our personal bond with the natural world we experience every day, thereby helping us become more empathetic towards nature as a whole. This, I hope, might help lead to us being more invested in the issues of climate change, and encourage us to take greater responsibility for protecting the environment.

As I make my art, I am also undergoing an independent study project to deepen my understanding of the philosophy of nature, art, and meaning in the spirit of Dillard, Thoreau, and Emerson. My premise is that the way we see nature impacts how we think about nature, which impacts how we live in and relate to nature, which finally impacts how we live with and protect nature. I am focusing on these key questions: How do we perceive, experience, and understand nature? How does this experience of nature effect how we think, impact our language and our values? How does the way we think about nature (via our language, art, philosophy) effect how we eventually behave towards it? I’m on a journey to learn what I can, and share what I learn. 

Conclusion

My art doesn’t directly get people interested in the environment. Instead, my art makes nature personal, which can then lead the people to become more aware and empathetic to climate issues. With my art, I want to help people to break their habits of how they see and think of nature. I want to encourage them to stop seeing as something distant and separate, and instead see it as integral to their lives. I think of my work on the first phase of a big marketing campaign about our climate reality, encouraging people to discover their own awareness and empathy for nature, so that they may become more open and passionate about learning how to help.

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