Filling the Climate Crisis’ Art-Shaped Hole

At a gathering of artists, our Environmentalist from Hell learned the role her art can play in protecting the planet.

A large group seated in an outdoor ampitheatre. A woman sits in a chair centre-stage. Trees grow in the distance.
Photo by Sophia Dagher / The Only Animal

Artists gather in UBC’s botanical gardens for September’s Greenhouse workshop.

Creating art in a climate crisis, while the world is on fire, sometimes feels frivolous. People are fleeing their homelands due to natural disasters, we’re living through a global pandemic, and I want to produce a comedy show? Aren’t there better things I can do with my time?

In September, I observed part of a workshop with 100 artists who were asking similarly vexing questions. Over two days, they explored how art can transform the environmental movement, and discussed what the organizers called “the art-shaped hole in the climate problem.”

The event, called Greenhouse, took place at the University of British Columbia’s botanical gardens near Vancouver, BC, and was hosted by the Only Animal, a local theatre company that mounts shows in natural, outdoor spaces. Greenhouse was part of the Only Animal’s larger project of engaging artists in climate action through a movement they call the Artist Brigade.

In the morning of the last day of workshops, several dozen of us gathered in a circle to hear Sherry Yano speak about the philosophical intersections of art and activism. Yano is an oil and gas engineer who’s now a climate activist. “Artists are change-makers, and activists are always about change,” she pointed out. But, Yano said, the human brain is resistant to change and craves familiarity. Getting people to change their daily habits to more sustainable ones is a hard sell because it’s in most people’s nature to resist change.

Climate feelings

Yano asked how we felt about the climate emergency. We — a group of actors, dancers, writers, puppeteers, painters and more — told her we felt anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, and that we wanted to cry all the time. Yes, we are feelers, and I have a lot of climate feelings. That’s why I was assigned to write about this workshop. Sara, you’re an artist who cares about the climate, my editor said. Go meet a bunch of other touchy-feely artist types and see what’s going on.

During the workshop, Yano shared her critiques of leafleting and petitioning. She’d seen activists use horrifying images of fire and brimstone to convince others to sign a petition, but saw how those who’d signed never actually got involved. She had also seen activists pour hours into making pamphlets without actually building relationships or sparking a movement.

Instead, Yano encouraged us artists to create experiential learning to build community, and then help raise voices from within those spaces. We cannot connect through guilt and anxiety, she said. For example, she told us that the UBC Climate Hub has a policy of putting on a dance party after its events, because there is no community without joy. And we need to connect with each other if we’re going to change the world.

It reminded me of the quote attributed to activist and writer Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

Artists are entrenched in social change

Historically, artists have been activists. A quick Google search of “activist artist” turns up names like Banksy the street artist, the Dada artists who opposed bourgeois culture, and Diego Rivera who created socialist murals in Mexico. More recent examples include Keith Harring (whose pop art advocated for safer sex and AIDS awareness), the Guerilla Girls (who create feminist protest art), and Ai Weiwei (who opposes Chinese authoritarianism) — and that’s just to name a few.

At the workshop, I was among activist artists addressing the climate crisis locally. Janey Chang makes art using discarded fish skins, to draw attention to the plight of our oceans. Alisha Lettman is an eco artist who teaches people about farming sustainability. Munish Sharma is a theatre artist who spent the second pandemic summer putting on impromptu dance parties in parks around Vancouver.

Apart from refusing to sell merchandise at my comedy shows, I hadn’t thought about how my art and activism intersect.

And then there was me, a performing artist of two decades. I’ve been an actor, a storyteller, and a comedy show producer. I also used to run a weekly dance party class, which offered women a judgement-free dance space that didn’t require them to dress up or worry that they were going to get hit on.

I’ve also been passionate about preserving the environment and reducing consumption since I was a kid. But apart from refusing to sell merchandise — also known as “stuff you don’t need” — at my comedy shows, I hadn’t really thought about how my art and activism intersect. I mean, I have a show, Teen Angst Night, where people read from their embarrassing teenage notebooks, and transforming adolescent angst into comedy gold is a form of recycling.

Effecting change locally

In another Greenhouse workshop, Coast Salish dancer and theatre artist Tasha Faye Evans sat under a cedar tree and asked the group, “Who has ever loved a tree?” Several people raised their hands and told stories of their relationships to specific trees. Evans told us how she had loved a forest in Kaxi:ks (the Pacheedaht name for the Walbran Valley on Vancouver Island) and protested for years to save it from destruction. But despite her and others’ efforts, it was razed to the ground, and it broke her heart.

After the forest was destroyed, a fellow Indigenous artist suggested she focus her efforts locally, advice that inspired her to become a leader in her community, the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody.

When artists engage with our communities, it has ripple effects on the greater world.

With the goal of sharing knowledge about Indigenous history, Evans coordinated a project that supported First Nations carvers to create house posts that would be publicly displayed in the area. House posts are tall, cedar carvings traditionally displayed in longhouses. As part of that project, Kwikwetlem First Nation artist Brandon Gabriel carved a 600-year-old cedar tree into a house post called The Spirit of Kwikwetlem, which tells the Kwikwetlem’s “Strong Fish” story.

Be in reverence

Evans said she was once told by Chief Arvol Looking Horse — a Lakota spiritual leader who opposes the Dakota Access Pipeline — that we are all born with our own unique gift. And, it’s our sacred responsibility to use that gift to ensure the health and wellbeing of all our relations. This made me think of how artists who are activists might not do or create what we traditionally think of as “art,” or “activism,” but their contributions are just as worthy.

At the end of my day at Greenhouse I felt inspired. The message I was receiving was that my artistic gifts and impulses were powerful, and part of my gift to the world. I learned that I should act locally to guide people into a more sustainable, compassionate, and joyful world. When artists engage with our communities, it has ripple effects on the greater world. And we are best positioned to inspire change within our own communities, where people know and trust us.

As the workshop was coming to a close, I could see the faces of the artists light up with inspiration and motivation.

“When in doubt, be in reverence,” Evans advised us, as we sat with her under the cedar tree. “Be in service to the things that mean the most to you, and you never know what might help change the world.”

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