10 Artists Focused on Climate Change and Environmental Justice

This week’s heatwave is sparking ArtsBoston to think about the effects of climate change, and especially how those changes disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. COVID-19 has made it harder for many people to find ways to escape the heat, and soaring temperatures can intensify complications due to air pollution. The pandemic has also caused a cacophony of conversation about how humanity’s relationship to the environment plays a direct role in public health. There’s no doubt that we need environmental justice now, more than ever. 

We’re bringing several artists to your attention who have had an active voice about climate justice for some time now. These ten creators explore themes of the environment through different mediums and with different goals. Some make public art, others showcase their messages through museums or theatrical performances. But a common thread among them is an intent to incite a visceral reaction from the viewer that prompts them to take action. We hope you spend time reading about each artist’s unique goals with promoting environmental justice in their work.

Susan Israel

Susan Israel is an architect, artist, and President and Founder of Climate Creatives. In 2013, she began a public art project called “Rising Waters” to educate people about climate impacts and empower them to act towards a better future. The movement had its origin in Boston, and has since expanded to involve installations in Provincetown, San Diego, Panama, and Hong Kong. Translating scientific data into easy-to-understand visuals, the project welcomed members of the community to join in the creation of the art, such as their collaboration on a piece at the Maverick MBTA stop with the teen workforce of the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH).

Chantal Bilodeau

Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle, a theatre who makes it their specific mission to address climate change issues with their plays. As a playwright, she has penned Arctic Cycle works such as Sila, which was produced by Central Square’s Underground Railway Theatre in 2014. Bilodeau additionally was one of the partners with HowlRound on their 2018 Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening, which you can stream on HowlRoundTV.

Zaria Forman

Forman’s website says it best – the Natick-born artist “documents climate change with pastel drawings.” Her incredible, hyper-realistic paintings draw viewers’ attention to the ever-increasing growth of global warming and sea-level rise. Her work was featured at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, who hosted and documented her lecture on her artwork entitled, “Stillness and Momentum Through Climate Change.”

Kristin Idaszak

Kristin Idaszak is a playwright whose work focuses on the intersection of gender, queerness, and climate change. In a recent blog post for The Playwright’s Center, she writes, “Environmental plays must be actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, inclusive, and accessible. Climate justice advocacy illuminates the climate crisis as inextricable with racism, economic injustice, gender-based oppression, and ableism.” Check out more about her work on New Play Exchange!

Artichoke Dance Company

Founded in 1995, Artichoke Dance Company creates work that pairs dance with civic engagement. Their pieces have addressed issues such as plastic pollution mitigation on Coney Island, single use plastic bags in New York, and river revitalization in Los Angeles. Currently, Artichoke is developing work for “The River Project,” that “asks us to consider our personal and collective responsibility to rivers and, by extension, the earth, and our fellow inhabitants and engages communities around one of their most precious resources.”

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah is a Ghanaian and British artist and filmmaker whose work investigates memory, post-colonialism and the experiences of migrant diaspora. His film, “Purple,” was featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2019, and he was also a resident artist of the ICA/Boston Watershed. “Purple” received praise for piecing together footage of action-oriented climate movements across a wide variety of ecological landscapes. WBUR said about the project, “He draws compelling connections through time, and, beseeches us to take quick action against climate change, without sentimentality, but with conviction.”

Mel Chin

Chin is a widely known conceptual artist who provokes art into unlikely places. His projects are extensive, but two projects, Wake and Unmoored, captured attention in 2018 for the visceral nature of his public artwork about climate change. The 60-foot-tall sculpture Wake created a shipwreck right in the middle of Times Square, interrupting walkways and jolting imaginations towards a possible New York City that covered by the rising sea. Unmoored used virtual reality technology to plunge viewers deeper into that reality in which, if the polar ice caps melt, the city will transform into a new ecosystem with teeming with organisms in the water.

Bess Wohl

Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds was recently produced at SpeakEasy Stage Company, but another of her works puts climate change right into the laps of audience members. Continuity imagines the magnitude of the climate crisis through the frame of a Hollywood film set, making a movie about an issue that becomes too real for them too soon. As The Guardian put it, the clever and engaging piece brings home the idea that “the problems of our days are trivial and sophomoric, compared to the climate crisis at large.”

José Casas

Casas is an established playwright who teaches at the University of Michigan, where a play of his drew attention for its ability to bear witness to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The play, which bears the title of the city, is a documentary-style drama that incorporated interviews with over eighty residents, activists, scientists, and politicians who are in the middle of the action in Flint, calling for more conversations across the theatre world about environmental justice. Casas is also a member of the Dramatists Guild and the American Alliance of Theatre and Education.

Evelyn Rydz

Evelyn Rydz is a visual artist who focuses her work on contemporary coastlines and the ways our everyday are impacted by the changing oceans. In 2017, she worked with the ICA on an interactive art projected, “Salty >Sour Seas,” which got kids and families involved with sensory experiences that sparked one’s imagination about the environment and potential futures in a changed climate.  WBUR reported that the project was a, “a meditation on daily, seemingly small decisions with global impacts.”

Pictured Above: Rising Waters at the MBTA Maverick Stop / Photo: Susan Israel 

Elena Morris (she/her/hers) is ArtsBoston’s Patron Service Manager. She is a dramaturg and arts administrator passionate about forward thinking in the arts. Elena holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University, focusing her studies on dramatic literature and movement. twitter-4-512 @elena_pearl
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