Two mixed-media collages of mine, Sound the Climate Alarm (at left) and an older piece called Laughing and Crying (below at right) are currently on display in a group exhibit exploring issues related to the environment. The exhibit, titled Terra Verde, features the ceramic work of Eleanor Heimbaugh, and can be viewed at NOTO ArtsPlace in Topeka, during Topeka’s First Friday events on May 1, 2015.
Sound the Climate Alarm is an imaginative depiction based on my experience of a significant moment in the movement to tackle climate change. On September 21, 2014, a small group of people in Lawrence, Kansas, gathered for a moment of silence and then tooted party horns, rattled cans of rocks, whooped, hollered and sounded off in any way we could think of to make the loudest noise possible, to “sound the climate alarm,” in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of others at The People’s Climate March in New York City and beyond. Regarding the moment in New York, the New York Times reported,
The climax of the march came in the early afternoon. All along the route, crowds had been quieted for a moment of silence. On Avenue of the Americas at 57th Street, there was an eerie silence as marchers raised their arms and looked down.
Then at exactly 1 p.m., a whistle pierced the silence, setting off a minute-long cacophony intended as a collective alarm on climate change. There were the beats of the drums and the blaring of horns, but mostly it was whoops and cries of the marchers.
At South Park in Lawrence, Kansas, after a simultaneous moment of silence with those in New York, a voluminous sound rang out too. When I first envisioned a collage about that noisy moment, I had wanted the look of the sound to be as big as possible, a visual cacophony. So in the collage I made images of saxophones layered upon bike horns, on top of other horns, and then party blowers. In addition, the repeated words “you and you and you and you” add to the visual confusion and also invite (or implicate) everyone into the meaning of the piece. And yet even with all of that going on, the visual impact is still subtle. The look of the sound is atmospheric and thinly skeletal, a subtlety that happened in the creative process that I decided to keep. And then a bird flew into the piece and I painted it black.
Compared to the climate alarm that I heard, my visual expression is low-impact, and yet I am pleased with it. For me its meaning is enhanced hanging in the exhibit beside Laughing and Crying, another colorful collage that I made seven years ago with an image of a person laughing surrounded by insects, birds, and blossoms. The piece depicts strong emotions and expresses how I feel about the environment today. It is the words in the collage, “I laughed so hard I cried” and “I cried so hard I laughed,” that express the emotional contradictions that I feel each day in our rapidly warming world. For example, a gorgeous spring day in the face of climate change can feel like beauty and terror combined: birds, blossoms, and butterflies along with heat, drought, and tornadoes.
Even so, Laughing and Crying is primarily a visually joyous piece with an orange bird smack in the middle surrounded by lots of activity, full of hope. Sound the Climate Alarm, by contrast, includes the same bird but this time it is painted black and appears on a background full of sunny-yellow energetic emptiness, a warning color scheme. When I see these two pieces together in the context of an exhibit about environmental concerns the alarm in the one piece is for me reinforced by the joy in the other and again I think of spring in a climate-changed world, a feeling of wonderment that is also full of discontent. How many more beautiful springs will there be before all we have left are summers? In a climate-changed world, what will happen to my son?
(The exhibit Terra Verde at NOTO ArtsPlace, 903-5 North Kansas Avenue, Topeka, KS, features Eleanor Heimbaugh’s clay pieces with additional contributions by James Anthony Martin, Betsy Knabe Roe, Ashley Russell, Nicole Wilson, and Hi Stockwell. The exhibit was curated by Michael Lou Bradley with assistance from Drew Douglas Simons, Fine Art Intern from Washburn University. View the exhibit during Topeka’s First Friday events on May 1, 2015.)
The awards ceremony was on Sunday, November 2, 2014, at the Lawrence Arts Center, Lawrence, KS. Ceramic artist Kim Brook made this year’s awards. I was honored along with Dr. Marilyn Stokstad (Arts Educator), Lauralyn Bodle (Musical Arts), Heidi Raak and The Raven Book Store (Creative Spaces), and the Lawrence Civic Choir (Performing Arts).
Here is a Lawrence Journal World article about this year’s awardees.
I loved making this piece for the Lawrence Public Library’s Banned Book Trading Card Celebration. Mine was one of seven selected for reproduction and handed out to library patrons last week. Card packages are also available for sale through the library. Here’s what I wrote about my entry:
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet the Spy is a classic children’s novel published in 1964. According to a number of sources, it was banned from some libraries and schools for “setting a bad example for children.” In an unsuccessful attempt to ban the book in 1983, critics complained that it “teaches children to lie, spy, backtalk, and curse.” Harriet the Spy has won numerous awards and is often listed as among the best children’s novels. The climax of the book occurs when Harriet’s friends find her spy notebook, read it, and discover that they have been spied on, too. Hurt by Harriet’s harsh words, they retaliate. With the help of Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, Harriet eventually learns how to regain their trust.
Harriet the Spy and I share a fiftieth birthday this year. I first read Harriet the Spy in the mid-1970s when I was somewhere around ten years old. The book inspired my friend Anne and me to follow Harriet’s example. We bought notebooks and became spies too, writing in Harriet’s voice and even in all caps as her words are expressed in the book. I just finished re-reading Harriet the Spy for this submission and I loved it again. Harriet is seriously non-conforming and somewhat subversive. The book, too, is deeply unconventional, critical, and emotionally complicated. While Harriet’s notes on her friends and others are painfully frank and merciless, she is also at times reflective and compassionate, especially towards some who do not share her own privileged lifestyle.
The scratchboard drawing I made for this submission portrays a scene from the book that struck me. On Harriet’s regular spy route she surreptitiously watches Harrison Withers, a man who makes elaborate and beautiful birdcages out of wire. He also has twenty-five cats. Harriet is intrigued by Harrison because, although poor, he appears happy. I loved Harriet’s spying notes on this scene where, using advice given by her nanny, Ole Golly, she tries to sort out what makes sense for happiness:
HE LOVES TO DO THAT. IS THIS WHAT OLE GOLLY MEANS? SHE SAYS PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEIR WORK LOVE LIFE. DO SOME PEOPLE HATE LIFE? ANYWAY I WOULDN’T MIND LIVING LIKE HARRISON WITHERS BECAUSE HE LOOKS HAPPY EXCEPT I WOULDN’T LIKE ALL THOSE CATS. I MIGHT EVEN LIKE A DOG
Animals–mostly birds but other critters too–have taken up residence in my art for many years. I didn’t exactly invite them. Like squirrels drawn to my bird feeder, I don’t recall intending to focus on critters but they have been drawn into my art. And yet I did put up the feeder, and I did create these images, and so of course I invited them. Birds, frogs, cats, cicadas, squirrels and other critters are with us in life and so too in my art. In Steamed (2011), a squirrel chatters noisily like so many colicky babies (or whistling teakettles), clamoring for attention. In Stir (2010), birds with human legs spring forth to dance or fly. And in Composition With Goose (2009), a calm cat and a very wound-up goose hold forth and argue.
But more recently, in the past half-year or so, I’ve changed a little. I am thinking more intentionally about critters, my relationship to them, and the impact of human activity and climate change on them. I think of my pictures as a stage and the animals and people in them as characters playing a part. But instead of using birds or squirrels to tell stories that are really about people, the critters I’m drawing now are playing the part of themselves and are part of the story. In Frog, My Friend, for example, a frog, a casualty of the South Lawrence Trafficway, is carried off by “Death.” Or maybe the frog is our pet frog that died because we just couldn’t take care of him right. Either way, the frog in this story is a frog. In Run!, a Prairie Chicken plays its own part, too, on the run from Death due to habitat destruction and Kansas politics. In Passenger Pigeon: Abstract Memory, a cloud of extinct Passenger Pigeons becomes abstract and fades from memory. In Robin, Been and Gone, a robin is depicted along with several robin-silhouettes, symbolizing presence and absence, a reminder of what pesticides can do to birds. These are of course my images for my very human purposes, too. But I hope that by thinking more about the role of animals in my work, I can remind viewers that we have a relationship with animals, and that this relationship is fragile.
Making work about the negative impact of humans on critters is a new direction in my art, the beginning of a
larger body of work. I was moved to think more about animals in the broadest sense of the word after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Her book includes story after story of scientists worldwide documenting the process of animals becoming extinct because of human-caused global warming. Animals are leaving us now, and they are never coming back.
In my new work I am guided too by collaborating with my composer-friend Lynn Gumert, of Hightstown, NJ. Lynn and I have talked on the phone and we have exchanged emails, images, and sound. We are working together on loosely-related themes in our work, themes that include the impact of climate change on weather, animals, and us. Lynn is working on a series of related short saxophone quartet pieces, and eventually our work will be presented together. Her first notes to me depicted a river. Building on her compositions I am also playing with images of saxophones and literally drawing their “sound,” as in River Song. In this piece, a Mourning Dove plays a saxophone-river. This, too, is another experiment in visual storytelling.
Please join Karen Matheis and me for our two-person show at the Phoenix Underground, opening Final Friday, June 27, 2014, 5 – 9 pm, from June 27 – July 23 at the Phoenix Underground (825 Massachusetts, Lawrence, KS). I’ll show these works and others too, and almost all of them include animals.
I made this in memory of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that went extinct a hundred years ago. I was thinking about the way that artists today make images of the pigeon based on art from the past, and how our “memory” of the birds has become faded and distorted over time.