by Heather Zises
As we become socially conscious of our impact on the environment, sustainable choices have become increasingly available. Several industries have adopted eco-friendly practices from paperless offices to reusable grocery bags. Therefore, ‘going green’ in the art world doesn’t necessarily mean using a verdant palate. Most likely it references a spate of socially conscious artists who are spreading awareness of climate change through the creation of sustainable art. Whether abstract or explicit in content, these artists are examining ecology and environment to inspire thoughtful action when it comes to the fragile state of our planet.
Historically speaking, art and nature have always been a popular pairing, from Monet’s dreamy Water Lilies, to the Hudson River School’s lush landscape paintings. In the early 1970s, artistic practices were turned upside down by the emergence of land art, predominantly in the United States. Studio artists abandoned their traditional galleries in favor of large, natural isolated spaces. Using the landscape’s raw elements as production materials such as rocks, earth, sand, salt, or vegetation, unique installations began to weave their way amongst the Great American landscape. Renowned site-specific works like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) were literally groundbreaking in concept but simultaneously controversial. The predominant cultural attitude maintained that land art was anti-ecological since its creation required a transformation of the land i.e., bulldozing, digging or displacement of natural materials which ultimately disrupted nature. This led to a reevaluation of land art and spawned a movement called Reclamation Art, which aimed to rehabilitate polluted spaces or abandoned industrial areas.
Types of Sustainable Art
Today’s socially conscious artists employ various techniques to inspire social awareness while protecting the environment. In addition to reformed art, there are several sustainable types, too. Bio Art is the process of working with live tissue, bacteria, and other living organisms. Eco Design is taking the environment into consideration when building or creating art. Ecological Art is functional art that focuses on restoration and activism. Renewable Energy Sculptures bring renewable energy to communities in a unique and artistic way. Upcycling—which is arguably the most ubiquitous form in the last 25 years—is art created from material previously deemed unusable, unwanted, or broken.
For those artists who wish to use “green” products, there are a variety of options from which to choose. Painters can select multiple brands of natural paint and pigments on the market whose ingredients are sustainable. This means that the paint is environmentally friendly because of the way it is formulated, manufactured, or packaged. It should also mean that the paint is less toxic than mainstream products aka human and animal friendly. Some distinctions — like Fair Trade Certified, for example — have clearly defined standards the product has met. Companies like Natural Earth Paint source their pigments and ingredients from businesses across the globe, all of which are tested by government-certified labs. They are labeled non-toxic and use 100% recycled packaging. M. Graham & Co. uses walnut oil as a binder in most of their paints. This is convenient as walnut oil eliminates the need for solvents when cleaning brushes.
It should also be noted that the overall effort of paint manufacturers becoming more eco-friendly follows the industry’s efforts to produce materials that are less harmful to artists. Certain products whose ingredients included heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt or lead have been reformulated to reduce toxicity. In the past, some paint colors were so hazardous that they were taken off the market. Notorious shades like White Lead, Scheele’s Green, Cadmium Red, School Bus Yellow, and Uranium Yellow will never see the light of day again, due to their noxious fumes and pernicious impact on humans, animals, and the environment.
Safe Disposal of Artist Materials
Another valid concern for eco-conscious artists is how to dispose of their wastes. Paint scraps, painted canvases, and painted papers all contain toxic elements that should not be part of regular trash disposal. If you are working with solvents, one recommended technique is to evaporate a solvent by putting it outside in the sun until it becomes a solid mass of pigments which can then be taken to a landfill. Once at the landfill, there should be designated areas for safe disposal of solidified paint.
Some artists make their practice more sustainable by using organic materials. Italian artist Bettina Warner exclusively uses salt in her works. Her striking paintings and sculptures harness the beauty of nature through Sicilian salt that represents knowledge, wisdom, and its importance to life on Earth.
Israeli Artist Esther Naor regularly uses cooked rice to create sculptures and installations. For Naor, rice was a basic food that linked to her consciousness of warmth, love, and security of her childhood.
Agora artist István Jenő Kovács find inspiration in nature and has been using sand and other materials for his paintings for several years. “The colors, textures, and inherent mystique make these materials excellent for creating pictures of existence”, says the artist.
Artists who make work with upcycled materials raise awareness of the pollution crisis and consumerism culture while making a positive social and ecological impact. Whether dumpster diving, combing landfills or digging through electronic graveyards, most materials can be transformed into art, provided you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Australian artist Marina DeBris uses upcycled trash and marine debris to raise awareness of ocean and beach pollution. Traveling artist Corinne Loperfido creates works of art containing bottle caps, toothbrushes, wine corks, dismantled ornate wooden furniture, jar lids, dried-up markers, stove knobs, and car parts. Her goal is to give new life to the objects through art while simultaneously inviting people to rethink their participation in the continuation of overconsumption and the subsequent destruction of our planet. Steven Rodrig is an innovative artist who restructures discarded circuit boards and electronic parts to form extraordinary arts that are organic and mechanical at the same time. The goal of his art is to bring awareness to the fact that technology is evolving at a rapid rate, and new generations of PCBs (printed circuit boards) are produced to leave previous designs outdated.
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Many artists handle the packing and shipping of their own works–perhaps even more so now in the pandemic era. Swapping out your usual cardboard and paper packaging for recycled cardboard and paper will not only save the trees but also dollars in your wallet. Keep an eye out for materials marked as FSC-certified. They are sourced from sustainably managed forests meaning you can identify which materials are guaranteed 100% eco-friendly. If you need protective packaging for fragile items, avoid using Styrofoam packing peanuts. Styrofoam material is not biodegradable or recyclable, therefore when it enters our landfills, it basically never leaves. Using biodegradable packing peanuts or corrugated bubble wrap (which is made from up-cycled corrugated cardboard) is a great solution and both are widely available to order online.
Changes of this magnitude cannot happen overnight, but today’s artists are making a statement by addressing various aspects of local and global environmental situations in their socially conscious art. With various forms of pollution becoming increasingly serious, one hopes this collective effort will strike the consciousnesses within all of us.