How Art Can Inspire Climate Action

Written by Chris

September 3, 2020

Alaska’s climate activists have raised the alarm on the need for the 49th states’ Congressional delegation to take climate action for people, wildlife, and public lands. Read one activist’s story on engaging artists and teaching advocates how to speak out through homemade artwork. And learn how you can call for climate action, too!

It started with a conversation. While talking to an introverted friend about his new job as a climate organizer at National Wildlife Federation affiliate Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), Matt Jackson heard how his friend often felt left out of activism. Letter writing and rallies didn’t work for them. They said they wished they could paint Senator Lisa Murkowski a picture to show her how they felt about climate change.

That was in January, and the idea took off. Artists were contacted, spaces reserved, funding and supplies rallied. SEACC would host a series of workshops led by local artists where anyone could make art about climate change. SEACC would take photos to make sure their work was seen by key decision makers like Senator Murkowski, who could become a climate action champion as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I knew there was a desire for this kind of work in Southeast Alaska, and not just from the grassroots side,” Jackson said. “I think many artists today are thinking about how their art can foster change without being heavy handed or didactic. So to bring artists and our organization together to provide these workshops for our communities was a win for all of us.”

Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic

Like everything else in the world, all of the plans for this series of events were thrown out the window as the first round of Hunker Down mandates took effect around the nation.

“I was surprised. It was naive of me, but somehow I just thought it wouldn’t reach Alaska. Wrong,” said Jackson of the coronavirus.

For two weeks the future of the idea was in limbo. Jackson struggled with whether to delay the event series or forge ahead with virtual events. Eventually, it was the artists who decided to continue the series in a streamlined format over Zoom. Ultimately the series—rebranded as “Hunker Down for Climate Change”—wove the many crises of 2020 together into productive creativity.

“Art has power to inspire, to make sense of madness,”said artist and workshop host Ellie Schmidt. “And also to help us just feel the madness when there’s no sense to be made.”

Five artists from around the remote archipelago, a temperate rainforest where most communities are on islands off of any road system, led workshops in mediums from zine-making to touch-screen graphic design. The outcomes were not always classically beautiful, Jackson recalled with a laugh.

At a workshop hosted by Matt Hamilton of Ketchikan, another locally known artist was struggling to use an app designed for a touch screen on her desktop computer.

“Using my mouse instead of a digital pen, my moves were awkward and the illustration was produced totally by the seat of my pants. I don’t even know where all the red came from. As the session wrapped it up I wanted to make the piece work for climate change, and the tag line just fell into place,” the anonymous artist said.

Art for Climate and Racial Justice

Although Jackson was sure to provide whatever support the artists’ needed and kept climate change centered in each workshop, it was important to support creative freedom and flexibility for the different artists. He was already in talks with Juneau artist and activist Naawéiyaa Tagaban when George Floyd was murdered on May 25.

“We knew right away we couldn’t ignore it, and Naawéiyaa, being an Alaskan Native man and already a police abolitionist, we were just kind of lucky that he was already lined up for the next event,” Jackson said.

Tagaban made signmaking the focus of his workshop, and encouraged folks to make sign art about Black Lives Matter as well as climate change.

“It’s important to me that we talk about both [climate change and systemic racism] because they are inseparable: climate change affects people of color disproportionately,” Tagaban said. “And also without the wisdom and experiences of Indigenous people and people of color, we’re not going to be able to solve the problem of climate change either.”

One of Jackson’s favorite images came from that sign making workshop. After each workshop, participants were prompted to send a photo of their work to be added to SEACC’s portfolio of art to be submitted to Senator Murkowski’s office.

As Jackson recalled, “This one person didn’t submit right away, and so a few days later I sent her an email asking if she would share her work. Later that night, I get this amazing photo with a wild mountainside showing through the negative space of her cardboard sign. It was a completely unprompted idea, and it just goes to show the latent creativity in our communities that we can solicit and give a platform to. We could have done an entire workshop just on that one idea that she came up with on her own.”

Although the event series has wrapped up, the art that was created is still getting mileage. Select pieces are being presented to Senator Murkowski over the August recess, Schmidt is compiling the portfolio into a climate change zine, and prints are being ordered for a traveling gallery show around the region.

“Art empowers the people who create it, but one of the great things about art is that it endures. It helps us imagine a different future, it helps us define a new kind of culture. When people made art in these workshops, it’s like they made seeds that we can plant over and over again.”

How You Can Take Action

Inspired to take climate action? Here are three ways you can join in from across the country:

  1. Make Art for Change: First, make a collage from old magazines to tell your climate story, grab some cardboard to make a cardboard cutout like Nellie Metcalfe did, or create your own zine. Then share a picture of your masterpiece on Instagram, tagging @southeast_ak_wild@nationalwildlife and your representatives to Congress (Find your member of Congress here).WATCH: Learn how to make a zine!
  2. Send a Message: Call on your representative and senators to take climate action for people and wildlife!

    Take Climate Action

  3. Spread the Word: Share this blog with Alaska’s congressional delegation by retweeting this tweet:

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