Blog 2: Roots of Sound the Climate Alarm

This is the second in a series of blogs about my current exhibit, Sound the Climate Alarm, on display at the Lawrence Arts Center now through Dec. 21, 2020. The first blog in this series is available at this link:

Roots of Sound the Climate Alarm

Robin, Been and Gone in Animals exhibit, 2015

My exhibit Sound the Climate Alarm includes drawings, mosaics, and collages on themes related to climate change, animal extinction, barriers, border walls, and the pandemic. My focus on climate change and related themes goes back about six years, to 2014. That summer, I had a small exhibit at the Phoenix Gallery in Lawrence called Animals. I had just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book called The Sixth Extinction, and in it she describes and explains the mass extinction of animals that is going on today and all of the ways that this process of mass extinction is caused by human activity, including killing animals for feathers and tusks, spreading invasive species, destroying habitats, and climate change.

(left) Death with Cardinals (detail), 2019, and (right) Death with Chicken, 2015

I began making mosaics and drawings in scratchboard and clayboard about extinction. One piece, a mosaic included in the Animals exhibit that is not in this show, focused on robins sitting in a tree (above). While one robin is in full color, the others are obscured or silhouetted to suggest that they had been here but now are gone. I also created some small black-and-white scratchboard drawings of animals in cartoon-like scenes, where the animals are leaving, or being disrupted and carried off by the character Death. I included one of these in my current exhibit, titled Death with Chicken (below), and the influence of Death appears in a more recent piece, too, Death with Cardinals (left).

People’s Climate March Maker Speaker Party, 2014

Another influence on the early work in this exhibit, also from 2014, was a local community event called The People’s Climate March Maker/Speaker Party (left). I served on a committee that helped produce this event, a solidarity event with The People’s Climate March in New York City. At the march in New York, as well as at solidarity events around the globe including ours, there was a moment, at noon eastern time, where the hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the march paused to make the loudest noise they possibly could as a way to “sound the climate alarm.” The folks at the march made a huge noise; they whooped and hollered and used everything from sirens and honking horns to instruments and party blowers, to make a very loud noise.

Sound the Climate Alarm, 2015

After this experience, I became interested in the phrase “sound the climate alarm,” and made some art based on these words (right). I may have latched on to this phrase because I enjoy visualizing sound in my art, similar to how a cartoonist might visualize sound, where marks and lines stand in for the plinks, pops, buzzing, music or anything else I want the audience to visually hear.

(left) Birdsongs, 2015, and (right) Party Blowers, 2015

More of those first “sound the climate alarm” pieces are in this show, too, including a mosaic with birds (below left) whose shapes are silhouetted to indicate presence and absence, with colored lines coming from their beaks to represent sound, and the sound then moves in and around human ears. If we really could hear the climate alarm, what would it sound like? Maybe the climate alarm sounds like birdsongs.

I included visual-sound in a few other “climate alarm” pieces too, including a couple small pieces with people disrupting birds with party blowers (above right), and in the piece Death with Chickens that I mentioned earlier, where Death chases a Prairie Chicken with a blaring-saxophone. The images of people blaring horns and instruments are a way to indicate the hapless disruption of animals by people unaware of their own destructive activity.

With Nature Sing, Bethel College Mennonite Church, 2018
Heating Up exhibit at the Lawrence Percolator, 2016

Additional influences on the work in this show include projects completed between 2014 and 2018 that are not a part of this show but share environmental themes, including two mosaic installations – a mosaic mural at the Free State Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas, and an installation of six small mosaics (above) at Bethel College Mennonite Church, in North Newton, Kansas. Also, in the Spring of 2016, I worked closely with a committee who facilitated a large-scale community project called Heating Up: Artists Respond to Climate Change (right). It was a month-long series of cultural and educational events that involved more than fifty local artists, poets, and musicians, along with faculty and students from Lawrence’s two universities, and representatives from arts and environmental organizations. Heating Up was an exciting project and boosted my interest in responding to climate change in my own artwork, too.  

May You Be, 2019

In the process of looking back at my art over the past six years, I recognize that in our society and culture, value is often measured in monetary or financial terms. But artists can represent a different kind of value through the language of art – beauty, care, alarm, loss, grief, pathways, possibilities. In my next blog, I will share ideas about how I have used themes and symbols as part of this language in the more recent work that I have in this show.

 

Visit my exhibit in-person at the Lawrence Arts Center, now through Dec. 21, 2020. Original art and artist prints, suitable as gifts, are available for purchase. Hours are M-Th 9am-9pm, F-Sa 9am-7pm, and Su 1:30-7:30 pm. As Covid-19 rages on, the Arts Center is pretty low-key these days and it is likely that during a random visit to my exhibit you may find yourself alone in the space. If you would prefer a virtual tour, scroll down the page at this link, courtesy of the Lawrence Arts Center.

“Art Lives!” in “Art Lives!” at CityArts of Wichita

Here is the story of Art Lives!, one of two pieces that I co-created with Erika Nelson for the collaborative exhibit Art Lives!, coordinated by Rachel Epp Buller of the Feminist Art Project.  Women artists from across Kansas were paired for this project to make both individual and collaborative artwork addressing the theme “Art Lives!” in light of the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission a year ago.

 

Here is the process of how Erika and I made Art Lives!  We wrote an artist statement together, trading our writing back and forth to work on in the same way that we worked on the piece itself.  I begin:

 

Stage 1 –  Lora:

 

Erika and I began collaborating on two art pieces after exchanging a couple of emails and talking on the phone. Because we live hundreds of miles apart and still to this day have never met, we decided on a process in which we would each begin making a piece that we would then mail to the other for additional work.  We would mail the pieces back and forth until our deadline — one focused loosely on “politics” and the other on “art lives.” The process would be a conversation, a slow-moving, visual-heavy conversation about the state of the arts in Kansas.

 

I began our piece, that we eventually titled Art Lives!, by painting a baby bird held in someone’s hand. I had toyed with using this image in some of my own art ever since seeing a photo of a baby bird in a National Geographic magazine a couple of years ago that I had made sketches from. I think of the baby bird here as a stand-in for babies of all kinds who are both fragile and yet are amazingly strong and resilient. Was this bird dead or alive? Maybe that would be a good way to start a piece about the state of the arts in Kansas.

 

Stage 2 – Erika:

 

I saw the beginning of Art Lives! and thought about some of the conversations that had been occurring throughout the past year regarding the arts – when is it endangered?  When is it cared for?  Whose hand is that?  It brought to mind a Christmas visit to an area racked by the same issues, but with dire results.  On the banks of an inland sea, two shores exist.  On one shore, bird hatcheries and aviaries, on the other, a mass of death where the wildlife of the sea washes up to become a part of the beach – a beach made only of the remnants of the life that grows just on the other shore.  The bird image that makes up the second layer came from this second shore.

 

Stage 3 – Lora:

 

I had been curious how Erika would respond to my baby bird image, and getting the package in the mail with her visual response was akin to birthday mail. I immediately liked her overlay of the adult bird image, and read her note about where the image came from. While I hadn’t viewed this bird as death absolutely, the image did remind me of a photography project that had made its way around the internet a couple of years ago with photos of dead sea birds whose decaying bodies revealed all kinds of crazy human-made junk that the birds had eaten.

 

Already our image was complicated and I didn’t want another layer to visually clutter the piece. So I decided to include simply the outlines of two sets of embracing hands bordered in yellow, an image I had used in some past work to represent interpersonal support. Bringing women artists from across the state together to support each other as artists was one of the goals of the entire “Art Lives!” project. I felt that this goal had taken hold in our collaboration and I wanted to show this with the image of embracing hands.

 

Stage 4 – Erika:

 

As with the partner exchange being mailed back and forth, weekly, seeing the slip of paper in the PO box alerting me to a package became an exciting part of the process. This time, in seeing the interlocking and overlapping hands, seeming to strengthen and surround the lil’ bird in the center of the image, I thought about the cycles, the circles of life and death, inspiration and struggle, that were recurring themes in the process.

 

I added a swirling, emerging set of forms, derived from the same Christmas exploration as the Salton Sea bird.  Leonard Knight, a visionary artist working in a destitute and desperate area of the California desert, has created a colorful, playful, powerful mountain in the midst of this hard place – a multicolored mountain of adobe and castoffs and paint. The bird forms used in Art Lives! come from the millions of soaring birds that pepper the mountain, appearing in every surface of Leonard’s work.  Their simple innocence of flight, and the marriage of bird-yet-human form seemed to be a connector for the hands and birds in the collaboration, as well as bringing the life/death cycle to the desiccated bird form from Stage 2.

 

Stage 5 – Lora:

 

At this point we evaluated our project over the phone and decided that it was at a comfortable stopping point. And our time was up. I liked the way that Erika’s energetic birds-in-robes (maybe even in bathrobes) seemed to come from death and encircle the baby bird giving the whole piece a sense of regeneration. I added some light blue marks into these robed beings to make a visual connection to the original baby bird. It was also time now to glue down “little guy,” a dead baby bird that Erika had found somewhere and painted blue, that we had mailed back and forth a couple of times for contemplation. The real baby bird added something visceral and tangible to the work.

 

We agreed that I would mount this piece and that Erika would bring our Brownback- collaboration to its conclusion.  After casting about for how to mount it (frame it? stretch it?), I decided to simply paint a solid piece of plywood and glue the canvas to the board with acrylic gel medium.  I’ll spare you the details of my various mounting missteps and simply note that I am pleased with how the piece came out, and I like the way the canvas is set off visually by the black and stippled background.

 

(Also read about Brownback Puppeteer, a second piece that I made in collaboration with Erika Nelson for Art Lives!, and On With the Show, a scratchboard piece I made for the exhibit.)