Using artwork to address climate change

"Glacier IV: CalvingPorcelain" (2010), a work by Paula Winokur that suggests icebergs and glaciers. Winokur was overwhelmed by seeing a glacier in Alaska. JOHN CARLANO / Courtesy Racine (Wis.) Art Museum
"Glacier IV: CalvingPorcelain" (2010), a work by Paula Winokur that suggests icebergs and glaciers. Winokur was overwhelmed by seeing a glacier in Alaska. JOHN CARLANO / Courtesy Racine (Wis.) Art Museum (JOHN CARLANO / Courtesy Racine (Wis.) Art Museum)
Posted: April 17, 2014

For Horsham sculptor Paula Winokur, a defining moment came when she was in a small boat in Alaska, viewing a glacier. Suddenly, the whole front of it calved off.

"It was an overwhelming experience," she later recalled.

For Philadelphia sculptor and furniture maker Peter Handler, an altered planet was more of a gradual realization. And when the recession brought about a slowing of commissions for his custom furniture, a friend suggested it was an opportunity to pursue what he wanted.

Both realized they had to address climate change through their art.

Winokur now makes stark porcelain forms that suggest icebergs and glaciers. Several are in museum collections.

Handler began a series of pieces that represent a coral reef, endangered toads, and Maldives, an Indian Ocean nation threatened by sea-level rise.

Wednesday night, both are participating in a panel discussion about how artists can inform - and inspire - discussions and action on climate change.

It's the inaugural event of "Honoring the Future," a project of the nonprofit Open Space Institute that seeks to "harness the power of art to educate, empower and engage the public" on the topic.

"Artists have the ability to communicate about climate change in ways other than science," said Handler, one of the founders of the group. "Artists reach people's emotions."

In other words, their work provides another entry point for people whose eyes glaze over at the mention of how experts are now measuring up to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, up from 280 in the late 1700s.

"I think artists have an enormous amount to contribute to this discussion," said Fran Dubrowski, an environmental attorney and educator in Washington who is the group's project director.

She likens climate change art, which Handler and others say is a rapidly growing field, to the music of the 1960s that "propelled a lot of cultural change."

"Here, the visual component is what's so important," Dubrowski said. "Most Americans don't get to the Arctic or Antarctica. . . . It's really hard for them to sit someplace and understand the scope of what is happening."

But "when you see time lapse photographs" of a glacier gradually shrinking - as photographer James Balog has done - or "when someone does a chalk line that shows you where the water line is going to be," - as Eve Mosher has done - "you can see it, you can feel it, you can understand it. That's what artists do."

Mosher, a New York artist, is taking her water line project to Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond at noon April 27, starting at 2701 Castor Ave.

That event is part of an exhibit linking art and climate change at the Chemical Heritage Foundation on Chestnut Street.

Artists' works there interpret rainfall, winds, the Delaware estuary and glaciers. Last fall, outside the Wilma Theater, a light show called "Particle Falls" by digital media artist Angela Polli provided a real-time visualization of air quality data.

It opened last July, and so far has shown that art can provoke different kinds of discussions, said the project leader, Jody Roberts, who also is director of the foundation's Institute for Research.

Roberts said ever-more-precise scientific measurements have "yielded all sorts of wonderful knowledge about the world. But that's very different from experiencing things. And the art helps to make that connection."

"The idea is to break up the aggregate into smaller pieces. Having a debate about climate change is too big. But having a discussion about what our experiences are and our daily lives is something we can all participate in."

Handler long ago switched from fiction to reading about climate change. He's also become a climate change activist.

And then there's his art. "To me, part of it is creating beauty, and engaging people in the work that I do," he said. "Then they get into it. And then they get the message."

Winokur, meanwhile, has traveled to Greenland to see more glaciers and icebergs. She considers herself "a subtle activist. My feeling is I want to make this work and bring it into the gallery and have people say, 'oh yeah, I should think about that.' That's my hope."

Tonight's discussion will begin at 7 p.m. in the South America Room of International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Panelists include Winokur, Mosher, Handler and Lillian Ball, an environmental artist who designs storm water management projects. Admission is free. For more, www.honoringthefuture.org


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

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