Art as a force of change

11 mins read

On Thursday, Oct. 5, the environmental studies program, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and the arts department co-hosted an event called “Imagine! Art, Environment and Social Change.” The interdisciplinary panel presentation and discussion featured three women who work at the intersection of art, the environment and justice. The three panelists were Ciara Williams ’16, environmental educator at Mural Arts Philadelphia, Syd Carpenter, professor of art, and Cinder Hypki, community artist and organizer in Baltimore. Each speaker brought insight into the multifaceted idea of change through art.

While Mural Arts Philadelphia works on a diverse set of projects, one of their main goals is to connect artists and community members in order to create collaborative murals. Ciara Williams works with communities to engage members in the process of reimagining environmental and social issues through art. Murals with distinct environmental imagery can affect how communities view problems such as trash and litter.

“I believe in order to undergo transformation of the city and ourselves we have to first understand what structures influence the way we experience our environment. It goes beyond individual action and inaction. We must ask ourselves whose communities are most at risk and who is in a position to benefit from the risk imposed upon others. This is where my background as an environmental activist and educator comes into play,” Williams said.

For Williams and Mural Arts Philadelphia, public art is about challenging preconceptions and igniting change. The concepts of the city and the people are inseparable. Public art helps bridge the conceptual disconnect between physical structures and community. Art allows people to better connect with the environment and understand that the environment is far closer than it appears.

Carpenter reimagines the environment through her artwork. Working with forms she witnesses around her, she transforms them into sculpture, challenging our conceptions of shape and identity.

“This is a series that came out of looking at leaves and I thought, ‘what if you blew into a leaf and it expanded and became a three-dimensional form?’. That leaf then kind of becomes like an animal or a beast. I get these different kinds of shapes and forms out of looking at  [a] two-dimensional, flat thing that moves,” said Carpenter.

The idea of reimagining an object’s form forces us to reconsider, in this case, what a leaf is and how its form relates to its meaning. Through the process of engaging with Carpenter’s art, we can begin to see the scope and vastness of the concept “leaf”. By breathing life into her artforms, Carpenter gives social and political power to material objects.

“I’m interested in movement because in the garden, everything is moving. Even when you don’t think it is, it’s moving. I want my pieces to reflect that sense of constant change. It’s very seductive to me and reflects my thinking about how these forms move and live…there’s this kind of silence around them, but it’s this cacophony of form that is really attractive to me,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter employed her method to explore the topic of black farmers in the present day. After visiting and meeting with many farming families, Carpenter constructed a series of ceramic and steel sculptures that portray and rethink the history and present condition of black farmers in the South. Her exhibition “More Places of Our Own” was displayed at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Hypki works a community artist. She sees her medium as the people she works with and last Thursday, the audience was her palette. She asked each of us to find someone we didn’t know and tell them about a time we made a difference, in the broadest sense. The room burst into noise as members of the audience paired up to discuss through example what it means to make a difference. Hypki challenged us to open up and consider change through the art of human connection.

“There isn’t hope for the future unless we forge a collective vision together and we can’t forge a vision together unless we connect with other people, including other people that we don’t know, including other people that make us uncomfortable because they might be different from us…Connection is really difficult unless we are coming from a place of creative self-expression, unless we are in touch with our gut, unless we understand our spiritual grounding, unless we know where we are and where we are headed,” Hypki said.

Giovanna Di Chiro, environmental studies professor, organized the event in order to bridge the gap between the arts and social and environmental justice. The panelists, through their discussion, worked to portray the power of an interdisciplinary approach in the ‘real world’ outside of Swarthmore.

“I thought immediately of the famous quote (usually attributed to Brecht) that ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.’ Each of the panelists engages with their art as a way to imagine and shape a more just and sustainable world through creative media, whether it’s studio art, community or citizen arts, or art as environmental education,” Di Chiro said.

The idea of art as an active agent and not as a passive object was at the thematic center of the discussion. Art, deftly wielded, can shape more than individual consciousness. It can hammer at the collective. This idea allows art to step outside of its own discipline and become a catalyst for social and environmental justice.

“I think the title of Cinder Hypki’s presentation conveys this well: ‘No Justice Without Creativity, Connection, Collective Vision, Hope for the Future.’ I think that blending art and environment studies is an exciting way to create synergies between the arts, humanities, and the natural sciences, something that is essential to the mission of the liberal arts and is more necessary than ever as the world faces greater social and environmental challenges requiring greater leaps of imagination,” said Di Chiro.

Katie Price, assistant director for co-curricular programming and outreach at the Lang Center, teaches a class called Materials that Matter: Environmental Literature in the Anthropocene that studies the intersection of art and environment.

“In thinking about the intersection of art and environment in particular, art is particularly important in that it helps us to see what is not naturally visible and to contemplate what cannot be communicated. The three artists at the event showed us how art moves in different ways: Syd Carpenter’s work positions black farms at eye-level, Cinder Hypki’s work places community hopes visibly within cities, Ciara Williams’ work postures public spaces as sites for environmental justice,” Price said.

Art can give a voice to environments that often seem voiceless: leaves, black farms, impoverished communities, and urban public spaces are just examples. We can think about this sort of art as a collaboration between environment and human where neither is the sole creator. It’s not only humans giving voice to an environment through art but also that environment speaking through the art.

“I agree with political scientist Jane Bennett, who writes in Vibrant Matter that humans have ‘the ethical task […] to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perpetually open to it’. To study the intersection of art and environment is to pay attention to the ‘nonhuman vitality’ of the materials around us. How might we act differently after art moves our attention to the strength of a sculpture, the robustness of a rock, or the intensity of an incinerator? Art has a vibrant materiality that moves us to change,” said Price.

Art can inspire conversation and help us reimagine the way we see the world. It forces us to confront the proximity of the environment and to see objects around us as more than lifeless matter. Art can be a real sociopolitical actant that inspires significant change.

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