Every Picture Tells a Story: will yours make a difference?

Image by Gwyn Michael

What story does this picture tell?

Last week I took on the controversial question “What is art?” Like anything subjective or  philosophical there is no definitive answer but that does not stop the conversation. This week, in honor of Earth day on Friday, I pose the question:

Art: what is it good for?

In the past month I made a serious decision to re-brand myself as an environmental artist. Like many of us creative folk I have been pondering how I can do something meaningful in the world while I continue to hone my artistic skills. It is why we blog and write eBooks, and offer workshops. We want to help, nurture, change. The tag line on my website is, “Because art can make a difference”.

Art can make a difference.

While I believe that to be true, I wasn’t exactly sure how that would happen, so I started exploring. I Googled environmental art, green art, activist art, and so on. Here are a few of my faves.

Cartoonist and illustrator Stephanie McMillan falls into the category of activist art, in my opinion. She holds no punches with her in-your-face “communication of thoughtful rage.”

In her article Artists: Raise Your Weapons she writes:

If we lived in a time of peace and harmony, then creating pretty, escapist, seratonin-boosting hits of mild amusement wouldn’t be a crime (except perhaps against one’s Muse). If all was well, such art might enhance our happy existence, like whipped cream on a chocolate latte. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, or decorative art.

But in times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.

Whoa. That is pretty extreme.

Is she saying there is no longer room for anything pretty just for the sake of pretty?

I agree that we all need to be a lot more responsible for addressing the elephant in the room, but maybe the elephant can still wear pink polka dots. Much of my work is pretty and I don’t intend to change that, but I do use the greenest materials I can and I give 3% percent of my earnings for the planet. Small things, more in line with a pistol than a bomb, but I believe if we all do something small while the Stephanies of the world tote the big guns, we are moving in the right direction.

Atist and “Climate Mama” Franke James‘s award winning visual essays address everything GREEN. Franke says this about her work:

I always knew I was an artist. I got my Bachelor’s Degree and Masters in Fine Arts, and worked for many years as an interactive designer, photographer and writer. But it wasn’t until I combined my ability to draw with my passion for the environment that I really found my main purpose in life (and art).

Oh Franke you speak to my heart. Art can make a difference!

I’ve been aware of Great Bowl O’ Fire artist John T. Unger for some time, but recently I looked at him in depth and he definitely fits into my rendition of environmental artist.

I see environmental art as reflective work that may employ a range of art forms to heal and celebrate our bonds with the earth. I am exploring the point of confluence where art merges with environmental restoration.

John says this about his work:

My creative mandate is “sustainable design with an edge.” Just because we’re good doesn’t mean we have to be boring, right? I think there’s a place for rock n’ roll to dance with environmental responsibility in a house shakin’ way. If green products are to compete in the market, they need to be sexy, sleek and chic— cooler than new.

YES! We can be responsible artists and make beautiful things! Art can make a difference in so many ways.

Tell me how do you see art making a difference?

Lastly I want to share with you the project that was born of my intention to attend Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit in June. Knowing I’d be in one of the Greenest spots in the country as well as a beautiful one, I wanted to explore what environmental art might be happening there. What I found was bigger and better than I could have imagined and it will be my first official Environmental Art project. Check it out: Journey to Confluence

Image by Gwyn Michael

I will be posting more of my findings all week on my own blog if you are interested. There are so many.

Happy Earth Day

P.S. Check out Tina Jett’s Friday post on Scoutie Girl for some great Earth Day inspiration.

17 thoughts on “Every Picture Tells a Story: will yours make a difference?

  1. Really great and thought provoking post Gwyn!

    This is something I have thought about and struggled with a lot. I wonder if I should be using my art and my creativity to make a difference in the world, instead of just making “pretty” jewelry. But then I remember that adornment and art have been essential to almost every culture, whether primitive or civilized, and that making things for adornment or beautification isn’t inherently wrong.

    So instead I focus on using sustainable materials and responsible manufacturing processes and hope that my jewelry makes a difference in the world by making women feel prettier, or more confident, or just better about the way they look today.

  2. First, I hope everyone clicks on your Journey to Confluence link, because it’s a way for us not just to talk, but to act!

    Second, I certainly have mixed feelings about a lot of things (including a lot of art), but I think it’s a mistake to say a hammer is the only tool. Are we only allowed to speak through one type of art? (Not pretty art, apparently. And what is “pretty,” anyway?) Does this mean we can also only speak with one type of words? Can we only yell or are we allowed to also ask questions, draw people in with friendliness, or even sometimes…laugh?

    To quote Derrick Jensen: “Do what you love, do what you can, do what best serves your landbase.” We need many, many kinds of people using many, many kinds of tools.

  3. Thanks Megan! I agree adornment of ourselves and homes is a natural human trait. It is awareness I am speaking of and I think Scouitie Girl is great at keeping us focused on conscious purchases and practices.

  4. Oh Gwyn, I love your posts. They poke my buttons. :) You are right. Art can make a difference.

    I realize this post is stemming from the advent of Earth Day, but issues with the environment are not the only ones we face in the world today. There are plenty of issues and problems that art can both address and impact.

    Here is how my art made a difference recently. I designed a bracelet for a local group called My Sister Song (mysistersong.com). Ladies from my church helped me reproduce the bracelet, we made 200. My sister song used the bracelets as gifts for women in the sex industry.

    They go into the dressing rooms of strip clubs and such, give gifts to the girls and offer to help them with needed resources to get out of that lifestyle. It works. They do help women find new lives.

    Would a nitty gritty painting about the degradation of women have been encouragement to those girls? Doubtful, they already know what that looks like. But pretty beaded bracelets with charms opened the door to make a difference in the lives of some young women. Sometimes your art will make a difference that you don’t even know about.

    Art can be used in so many ways. I think the question should not be what kind of art will make a difference, but in what new ways can we use art to make a difference?

    I probably went way off topic, but I think artists can use creative, out of the box thinking to make a difference with environmental art, too.

    Thanks Gywn!

  5. Another wonderful post. I really enjoy how this works in conjunction with your post on the question of what art is. It seems that once we ask what art is, the next step is to question what it can do.

    One of the beautiful things about art is we never know how it will necessarily be received. What makes a difference to one person may make no impression on another. I think that means we have to always give all of ourselves in our work and if it speaks to people, all the better. The important thing is to leave it all out there and produce what matters to you, whether it be something with a message, the use of sustainable materials, or just something pretty.

    If we have the opportunity to create art that makes a difference, we should certainly seize it, but that art can take so many forms and meanings.

    1. “One of the beautiful things about art is we never know how it will necessarily be received. What makes a difference to one person may make no impression on another.” So true, Lily!

      That’s what frustrates me about artists who think art has to be gritty or angsty to be powerful. Sure, there’s a lot of crap in this world – but calling out crap doesn’t work for a lot of people.

      Sometimes gentleness and softness are just as powerful!

  6. I aback up every thing Tara said!

    Kim the bracelet story is a perfect example of art making e difference. My focus is environmental but there are so many important issues art can address.

    Lily, I love your point of view. We don’t know how another will perceive what we do and there is room for all forms of expression!

  7. Thank you for this post, it truly made me think. As an artist, I often think about how my art can transform the world and make a difference.

    What really stood out to me from your post was the question of beauty. As if you can’t have beauty in a product that is meant to serve the environment. I could be wrong, but it seemed like you were saying that there is an argument that pretty is simply frivolous. But if your art is meant to protect the environment, shouldn’t it be full of beauty? Beauty is the very essence of the earth that you are desiring to save. I say why not find inspiration for your art in the beauty of the environment.

    I am not saying that all art should be beautiful. But I don’t think you should feel guilty either for creating a “pretty” product. I think you can have both beauty and purpose. And that preserving the environment is preserving beauty. When I walk in nature that is the one thing that stands out the most to me, the awe inspiring breath taking beauty of the earth we live on. It transforms you at the very core. And what if you can take that same transformational power and translate it into your art? I think that would truly make a difference.

    For me, the purpose of my art is not environmental. Rather it is to see people transformed and healed by the power of art. Long story short, I was in a car accident and art became a way for my brain to heal. So the purpose of my art is to bring healing to other people. And I do that through creating beauty. Beauty = Healing.

    I completely understand that one of the points you are trying to make is that art should have a purpose and not just be pretty for pretty sake. But I guess my whole point is that beauty transforms. And beauty is a very powerful tool that should not be overlooked or seen as frivolous. Why can’t beauty be seen as a prevailing weapon of change?

    I probably just went off on a rabbit trail. But those are just a few of my thoughts.

    1. Wendy I couldn’t agree more. I am not saying that there is no room for beauty I was merely offering points of view for discussion. I know art has the power to heal and it has done so for me. There are so many things to be concerned about in this world and I have just chosen the environment because nature along with art has been my greatest comfort in life.
      I also don’t think every artist needs to have a greater purpose but we need to be aware that it can. I love what you say here:

      “But I guess my whole point is that beauty transforms. And beauty is a very powerful tool that should not be overlooked or seen as frivolous. Why can’t beauty be seen as a prevailing weapon of change?”

      Can beauty be a prevailing weapon of change? Absolutely!

      Check out the link to my kickstarter project and watch the video. I think it is a good example of how varied beauty can actually be as well as how it can be used for change.

  8. As an eco-conscious person I have gone through several debates in my own mind about creating new work and pushing it into a world that is already so full of stuff. However, after a few debates and dialogs I came to the conclusion that it all matters. Please make beautiful art to remind people that life is about finding the beauty in everything. I cannot tell you how many times I have been having a hard day and then randomly run into an easy to digest “decorative” work of art that I happily swam in for several moments. And, please, make art that screams at people in an attempt to send them a message. All art is necessary. It helps the individual creating it and therefore helps the whole world.

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  10. What a great discussion! Thank you for quoting from my essay. Gwyn, I admire your efforts to sort out the meanings of creating art, and making that decision to offer your talents toward make a difference.

    I would like to clarify — I wasn’t trying to say that there isn’t value in beauty — certainly it’s one of the things we live for! The point I was trying to drive home (and I do admit that my style is often kind of hammer-to-the-head, maybe too much) is that creating art that is beautiful isn’t enough of a goal while we’re living in such an emergency situation.

    In this terrible crisis, our energies (artistic and otherwise) really need to be directed toward stopping the world from being killed. (That doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful *also*, secondarily). Unless we focus on that now, and are determined to put all our efforts, talents and resources into stopping the destruction of the planet, we might permanently lose the infinite beauty of our natural world. That would make a mockery of all our attempts to create beauty in other ways.

    If we save that natural world with all its beauty, then we preserve the ability of future generations to create art that is inspired by it. Otherwise, I can imagine future artists (if our species even survives) creating beautiful images based on what they’ve lost and what they mourn. I can’t bear that thought.

    In solidarity,

  11. Hi Stephanie!

    Thank You for reading and responding to my post. I apologize if I misrepresented you in any way. I agree wholeheartedly that all forms of communication “need to be directed toward stopping the world from being killed.” I have every intention of doing that but my approach is a little different. I only wanted to share a variety of styles here to generate discussion of how art can be used to speak for the planet.

    I only recently came to the notion of using my art in this way so it is not entirely clear how much of an activist I will be. Check this post on my personal blog where I am more candid.

    I have utmost respect for what you do and would love to have a real conversation!

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