by Keri Maxfield
Art has the power to transform our culture, our way of thinking and acting. I have seen it. In the 30+ years I have worked in art and informal environmental education, I have witnessed individuals and communities connect, discover and understand themselves and their environment in new and meaningful ways through experiencing the arts. In a creative mapping class, I have seen an adult reconnect with the landscape of his youth, identify what is now lost and take a new interest in neighborhood planning. Art and nature journaling workshops have resulted in a deeper awareness in participants of the more subtle changes occurring in local ecology.
“At any age and skill level, art allows us to dream, visualize, relate and problem solve.”
I have also seen artists move from identifying with their craft to identifying with causes behind their work. At any age and skill level, art allows us to dream, visualize, relate and problem solve. Many times this engagement can inspire us to action. This art can be expressed in the form of a well-worn journal, a children’s drawing, a song, placemaking public art or many other modes of creative expression. It is when these experiences lead to a better-defined, stronger-felt sense of community and responsibility, that sustainability grows.
The importance of the arts in transforming society is woven throughout our history. The wefts representing the ups and downs of our culture reveal the importance art plays in society at any given time. In recent history, the rising culture of commercialism of the 60s along with inequities within the social system, led artists to take to the streets and create public conceptual and performance work accessible to all. This led to a widespread boom in experimental arts as culture worked to redefine itself to accommodate greater diversity.
Today, even as we move between STEM and STEAM in education, there is a growing understanding of a much broader role the arts play in supporting strong, sustainable communities. If there is one thing art does very well, it is to communicate the complex and unique relationship we have with the natural world. No one else experiences where you are in this time and place, but you! Art allows you to express this in intricate and beautiful ways and to connect with those who have shared or different insights. Art, on one hand, can express deeply personal feelings, views and values, and on the other hand, can empower and influence whole communities through shared experiences that create civic pride. Throughout the spectrum of arts engagement, there are entryways for the reflection, understanding and dialogue that are key components required for meaningful civil engagement. In this way, art can change minds and shift behaviors.
If there is one thing art does very well, it is to communicate the complex and unique relationship we have with the natural world.
As our society increasingly seeks ways to come to grips with regional and global environmental challenges, art again is in a strong position to support a transformation in culture. It is imperative that today’s communities understand environmental issues happening not only in their neighborhood but half a world away, and how behavior impacts those issues. In the court of learned opinion science is law, but art and design can play a consequential role in communicating and humanizing the complex scientific information necessary to make informed decisions in our changing world. The visualization of data, itself, has become an art form with scientists and artists working together to show patterns, scale and relevancy in communicating important facts to lay audiences. The Earth art movement that emerged out of the 60s and 70s in part as a response to our increasingly commodified world has blossomed today into a prevalent and multi-faceted art form that challenges us to explore our relationship with a changing landscape. Grass-roots neighborhood art projects directed by community organizers help us define values and celebrate a shared vision of our environment. Conservation photographers are revealing magnificent ecological treasures in far away places and much closer, overlooked spaces. They are also exposing devastating destruction in our natural world. Arts-based placemaking is a powerful tool that planners can use to influence and empower personal and community wellbeing.
Furthermore, designers and artists are increasingly looking to nature not only for inspiration but for answers. A new generation of design innovators look to the study of biomimicry or nature-inspired solutions to help people and our planet thrive. They are designing more efficient wind power by modeling blades after the aerodynamic form of humpback whale fins and taking architectural inspiration from the structure of termite mounds to drastically reduce energy consumption in ventilating buildings.
The creative sector knows no bounds and as the future unfolds, a growing number of artists, designers and cultural organizations are primed to use their talents and resources to draw attention to the issues, build understanding and engagement, and design innovative solutions to move us towards greater sustainability. Arts support is community support and my hope is that artists will be increasingly embraced going forward as viable partners in sustaining and strengthening communities.
by Keri Maxfield
Keri is Art Director of the Nurture Nature Center.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)