Climate Change: Making the Global Personal Through Art

 By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

What does climate change mean for Philadelphia?  As a large, complex, global process, it’s not an easy concept to wrap our minds around.

As you might expect, climate models project pretty clearly that Philly will face a future that is hotter and wetter.

According to CUSP – the Climate & Urban Systems Partnership , scientists predict that in our region we could experience as many as three additional weeks of days over 90° by the 2020s. All that heat not only is unpleasant, but can also lead to serious health risks.  CUSP also found that the Northeastern US has been experiencing more frequent extreme precipitation events than any other region in the country. Not only will we get more total rain, projections say that climate change will cause heavy downpours to become even more common and intense.  Philly’s tidal rivers are also impacted by projections of sea level rise, and the combination of more rain and rising sea levels is concerning for low-lying homes and infrastructure, like the airport.

It definitely helps to have localized data about climate change to understand the impacts, but even so, we can still not fully understand the implications of climate change, or worse, feel powerless to do anything about it. Art about climate change has a unique potential to make these problems personal and relevant – just what the Schuylkill Center’s latest gallery show strives to do.  As part of the Center’s Year of Climate Change in 2016 and our ongoing effort to talk about climate change in new, relevant ways, our gallery show this fall unpacks what climate change means for our region. 

In Going Up: Climate Change + Philadelphia, eight artists from around the country – Daniel Crawford, Lorrie Fredette, Jim Frazer, Eve Mosher, Jill Pelto, Kaitlin Pomerantz and John Heron, and Michelle Wilson – explore the future of our hotter, wetter Philadelphia.  The artists are not only looking at heat- and water-related issues, but also the spread of Lyme disease, destructive bark beetles, and even the connection of our dietary choices to our carbon footprint.

Jill Pelto takes up climate indicator data—that is, information such as CO2 concentrations that act as signposts for the climate as a whole—as a key piece of her paintings. In these works, exquisitely detailed watercolors, the contours of landscapes are the graph lines of changing climate data, making something visually compelling and emotionally evocative from the raw numbers.  She even created a new piece for this show interpreting four different sea level rise scenarios for Philadelphia.

In Daniel Crawford’s string quartet compositions, each note represents the average temperature of a single year, demonstrating change over time and inspiring listeners to use different senses to understand these warmer years.

Warmer weather supports deer tick reproduction, raising the risk of Lyme disease in our region, an issue explored by ceramic installation artist Lorrie Fredette.

Jim Frazer’s paper works evoke the paths eaten by bark beetles as they burrow beneath tree bark, spreading more rapidly in warmer temperatures and threatening forests.

In 2014, Eve Mosher used surveyor’s chalk to mark ten feet of storm surge, where the water would rise to in particular Philadelphia neighborhoods under certain climate forecasts.

Artist duo Kaitlin Pomerantz & John Heron  created handmade paper works made from trash and dipped into the Delaware River, allowing pollution itself to create the artwork and raising questions about the carbon footprint of art itself.

Last, Michelle Wilson explored the impact of individual food choices through a conceptual project, and in the gallery will show an 8.5 foot cube, which occupies the space that 35 kilograms of CO2 takes up in the atmosphere, the amount saved by eating a vegan diet for one week.  Yes, eating less meat puts less carbon in the air.

Together, these eight artists have created a new avenue into the tangled knot of climate change.  Instead of bombarding a visitor with data, the vital information is transformed into beauty, into innovative communications and evocative images which stand in their own right as works of art, but which also invite the visitor to understand our warming world in new, personal ways.