Signs of Sustainability: Can Art Shake Us Out of Our Climate Denial?

By Gay Nicholson

President, Sustainable Tompkins

In the Finger Lakes, it’s been a summer of extreme drought and repeated heat waves. Elsewhere, fires and floods have displaced tens of thousands. No wonder people feel nervous about what will happen next. But it’s also pretty easy to feel overwhelmed by the complex global nature of climate change, and end up in a kind of daily amnesia in terms of doing anything to address the problem.

Photo provided by Sustainable Tompkins Artist James Leonard setting up his Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies on  Ithaca’s Commons on August 18.
Photo provided by Sustainable Tompkins
Artist James Leonard setting up his Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies on Ithaca’s Commons on August 18.

Worried scientists and activists have been working for years to break through this very human response – trying to find entry into our inner workings to shift the pattern. At the same time there is a growing conversation among artists, sensitive to the many interlocking problems that confront humanity, that this is not a time for object making for galleries and museums. Instead this is a time for being socially engaged, to use art as a means for culture shifting and problem solving – taking advantage of the way art creates shortcuts into our inner consciousness and rearranges the furniture in there.

Sustainable Tompkins recently hosted Brooklyn-based artist James Leonard on the Ithaca Commons with his Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. James has created a performance installation that is not complete until someone from the community joins him inside the tent to talk about their own climate future. The circular tent is a neutral muslin on the outside, but a rainbow of colors inside where bits of recycled clothing have been sewn together to create a ritualistic space for contemplating one’s own relationship with the planet’s warming. On the outside of the tent, small paintings of familiar plant and animal species affected by climate change are pinned.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his art is the way he has adapted Tarot cards to offer a “divination” or reading in response to the climate-related question of the person joining him in the tent. The experience is designed to help people process what he calls “overwhelming climate anxiety.” James was busy all day when we hosted him on August 18, giving his divinatory readings on a first-come, first-served basis.

Martha Walker found the experience both enlightening and informative.

“It was far deeper and more meaningful than I had imagined. The fact that the artist could listen and interpret in real time, while providing useful guidance gave a much-needed boost to my sense of empowerment in regards to the environment,” she said. “Basically, I went into the artist’s tent with a very grim view of the climate’s future. By the time I left the tent, I had a more directed sense of purpose and well being.”

Divination has been used by cultures throughout the world to help people navigate difficult futures. And in a time of trauma and crisis, we have often turned to art that heals. James has tried to combine these ancient tools to create a new kind of art that mobilizes us from our own inner core.

Carol Spence is the chairperson of the arts department at Ithaca High School. She asked about how her own art-making and that of her students could become more meaningful and impactful. In her reading, the discussion recognized the constraints of limited class time and beginner’s skills to fully express complex concepts – yet affirmed that the foundation of planting the seeds of awareness that can evolve over time was a worthy and key role in our climate story. Carol came away with the reminder that “art is a way of knowing and a language essential in our understanding of the human condition.”

I joined James in the tent briefly toward the end of the day, taking in the ancient feel of its circle contrasted with the young energy of its brightly colored and diverse interior. Just like a talking stick, prayer beads, or a meditation chant seem to focus the mind while opening the heart, the act of posing a question and turning over cards seems to clear away the background noise of the mind. It’s not about being given an answer to your question. Rather it provides a moment for sitting with the question inside a bit of structure, making it pause in the dance so the querent can get a better grasp of their own agency in answering the question.

Sustainable Tompkins encourages everyone to be an agent of climate protection. One very simple, quick, and affordable step is to take responsibility for your carbon emissions by offsetting them through the Finger Lakes Climate Fund. Carbon-offset donations help lower-income residents make energy efficiency improvements in their homes. So far we have helped 18 households with over $33,000 in grants to eliminate about 1700 tons of carbon dioxide. Visit fingerlakesclimatefund.org to find out who is making carbon offsets in our community and how you can join them.

The “Signs of Sustainability” series in Tompkins Weekly started in 2007, and features a weekly essay by a local sustainability leader about upcoming events or emerging issues. Those interested in submitting an essay, should contact tom@sustainabletompkins.org.

For more information about Sustainable Tompkins, visit its website at SustainableTompkins.org.