Some years ago, my family gathered at a ranch in the Flint Hills to spend a weekend and to celebrate my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. As a native Kansas from south central Kansas, I’ve always felt at home in open country and the Flint Hills are that and more, representing a spare and exceptional beauty that is unique to its place.
At night, when we walked outside to experience the Flint Hills night, we saw the stars like we’ve never seen them before and the wondrously speckled expanse of light that is the Milky Way.
That moment inspired several mosaics, among them Night in the Flint Hills, a new commission for the design firm Spellman Brady and Company in St. Louis, Missouri for a hospital in Onaga, Kansas. The Piece is 22″ x 22″.
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.)