prompted by Anna Kaye
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, 45,500 years ago, red ocher was carefully brushed onto a cave wall to render the bristly form of a native pig. These ancient beginnings form a parallel with renowned environmental artists Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison who, 10 years ago, created art featuring a 120-pound pig named Wilma interacting with a constructed pasture to raise awareness about soil degradation. Since the beginning, humans have been tied to the shared ecosystems that we inhabit and have been recording their relationship to the environment through a variety of creative forms, such as storytelling, music, sculpture, painting, dance, writing, and more. The earth also records its history as seen geologically through the stratigraphic layers of rock. In examining Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old history, we can see that it is a dynamic system of change.
Filmmaker Erin Espelie uses art and science as inspiration to explore microorganisms that were one of Earth’s first life forms. She states that science and art “oscillate around the same impulse: curiosity.” Through our investigations, we have unraveled Earth’s mysterious beginning. The atmosphere began as the planet cooled from its initial formation when the crust erupted with volcanic gasses. As the Earth cooled enough for water to collect, bluish-green microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria thrived and produced free oxygen. These organic life forms, still in existence today, changed the Earth’s climate when they produced too much oxygen to the point at which their numbers rapidly decreased—overpopulation can dramatically affect Earth’s natural cycles.
Out of the water, where these early life forms began, species evolved into photosynthesizing plants that then influenced wildfire as a natural planetary cycle. In the book Burning Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time, writer and geologist Andrew C. Scott explains that through the record of ancient fossilized charcoal, we can see that wildfire has been a part of our landscapes since plants began over 400 million years ago. In present day Truckee, California, co-directors of the ArtSciConverge Artist Residency Program, Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix examined fire history in Comstock-era* trees to discover that the Sagehen forest had thrived for thousands of years under the management of the Washoe Tribe. In contrast, after European settlers arrived, the forest experienced an increase in fire severity. The consequences of megafires and drought in the West, and other parts of the world, are linked to climate change as well as the human tendency to develop an out-group bias, resulting in the decimation of populations: animal/plant/human.
In her article, “We Claim the Deep: Art & Ocean Memory,” artist Kathie Foley-Meyer uses scientific findings to cope with the severe loss of human life from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. She states that atoms from bodies lost at sea have a potential residence time of 260 million years in our oceans. In physics, it’s understood that matter cannot be created nor destroyed—it simply transforms. Foley-Meyer employs these transformed, residual atoms in the ocean to immortalize and illuminate her ancestors’ lives. Radio Healer, a Xicanx** and Native American-led collective founded in Phoenix, also suggests that metaphor helps us navigate the anxieties brought on by climate change. They state that metaphors and stories can ”provide opportunities for curiosity, reflection, and empathy by suggesting alternative, adjacent ways of understanding, anchored to historical and present realities.” To survive on Earth, we must manipulate our surroundings. However, we can do it with mutual appreciation in regards to understanding the web of life, the act of sharing, and learning from the consequences of our actions to make healthier choices for our collective future.
On February 14, 1990, a photograph taken by Voyager I, 6.4 billion kilometers away from the planet, inspired us to see Earth as a pale blue dot. This photograph, acting as a tool for both art and science, changed our perception of our home. Observing the infinite space that surrounds our tiny blue planet helped us to understand how remarkable and precious life is. Through shattered stones, artist Nina Elder, in her video It Will Not Be The Same, But It Might Be Beautiful, reminds us that the earth is changing—it always has and it will continue to. While we might not be able to fully reassemble the pieces, we can support each other through these dynamic changes. All living organisms are an important part of Earth’s vibrant ecosystems. Each of our unique experiences with the planet will contribute to both finding solutions and adapting.
Art and science provide us with the opportunity to explore, more deeply, humanity’s role and influence in our world. Creative/inventive thought processes promote a journey into an uncertain future where both imagination and hypotheses can work together to solve complex issues. What personal experiences have you had with the climate crisis in the West? While climate change impacts all of us, it continues to affect people disproportionately, such as underserved, marginalized communities. Do you see a connection between social, racial, and environmental justice? If so, what do you think is the root cause? Do you think we’ll be able to solve the climate crisis? If not, why? If so, how?
“Art and Science.” In Art and Science, by Jane Lilly Benale, Jeff Brown, Ann Futterman Collier, Nina Elder, Erin Espelie, Faerthen Felix, Kathie Foley-Meyer, Megan Gafford, Kim Hahn, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Cherish Marquez, Indigo Moor, Radio Healer, Adrien Segal, Livy Onalee Snyder, SWEAT, and Xiuhtezcatl. Denver: Tilt West, 2022. Available on and after October 3rd at: https://journal.tiltwest.org
Felix, Faerthen, ‘Sagehen Forest Project Summary,’ Sagehen Forest Project, 2015, http://sagehenforest.blogspot.com/2015/08/sagehen-forest-project-summary.html (accessed September 13, 2022).
Scott, Andrew C., Burning Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time, Oxford University Press, September 4, 2018.
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Exhibition: “Change is in the Air,” https://forces.si.edu/atmosphere/ (accessed September 10, 2022).
Wei-Haas, Maya, “This 45,500-year-old pig painting is the world’s oldest animal art,” National Geographic, National Geographic Partners, LLC, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/45500-year-old-pig-painting-worlds-oldest-animal-art, (accessed September 10, 2022).
* Comstock-era refers to the large-scale cutting down of trees because of the gold and silver rush that occurred in the latter half of the 1800’s. Sagehen is a 9,000-acre experimental forest managed by the University of California, US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, and the Tahoe National Forest.
**Xicanx is an English-language gender-neutral neologism and identity referring to people of Mexican and Latin American descent in the United States.
Suggested Readings and Background Materials:
- “Art and Science.” In Art and Science, by Jane Lilly Benale, Jeff Brown, Ann Futterman Collier, Nina Elder, Erin Espelie, Faerthen Felix, Kathie Foley-Meyer, Megan Gafford, Kim Hahn, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Cherish Marquez, Indigo Moor, Radio Healer, Adrien Segal, Livy Onalee Snyder, SWEAT, and Xiuhtezcatl. Denver: Tilt West, 2022. Available on and after October 3rd at: https://journal.tiltwest.org
- Science Friday: Indigenous Knowledge is Central to Climate Solutions, April 22, 2022, 17:12 minutes https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/indigenous-science-climate-change/
- Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science by Jessica Hernandez
- Native Land Digital: https://native-land.ca/
- The Climate Question: Can animals evolve to deal with climate change? September 18, 2022, 27: 42 minutes https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct3kjg
- Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush, https://www.pulitzer.org/finalists/elizabeth-rush
- Hidden Brain: We Broke the Planet. Now What? 49:28 minutes https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/we-broke-the-planet-now-what/
- Video games: https://www.indiecade.com/climate-jam-2023/
- Science Friday: With Worsening Wildfire Seasons, How Can We Learn To Live With Them? September 17, 2021, 16:47 minutes https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/living-with-wildfire/ https://www.sciencefriday.com/educational-resources/environmental-justice-evaluating-zip-codes-and-pollution-burdens/
- Scott, Andrew C. 2020. Fire: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 151 pp. ISBN 0198830033, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0198830033
About the Prompter
Anna Kaye was born in Detroit, Michigan and now lives in Denver where she works in her studio creating drawings, paintings, videos, and sculptures that are inspired by the natural world. Witnessing the urban decay from de-industrialization as a child enhanced her sense of empathy, compassion, love for diversity and justice, and reverence for the natural world. She earned her B.S. in geology and fine art at Skidmore College, NY. She continued her education at Yale in painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. She earned her M.F.A. at Washington University in St. Louis where she was awarded the Laura and William Jens Scholarship and a teaching on record position. Kaye’s artwork is a part of international, private, public, corporate, and museum collections including Home & Garden Television’s Green Home. Interviews and reviews include Colorado Matters, Colorado Life Magazine, Westword, and the Denver Post. Kaye donates a percentage of all sales annually to environmental funds. She curates large-scale exhibitions that promote social action and connectivity. Kaye is a former Visiting Assistant Professor and Co-Coordinator of Drawing at Metropolitan State University. She currently teaches at the Denver Art Museum and is represented by the Sandra Phillips Gallery in Denver.