I am a corporate lawyer turned environmental artist. It might be difficult to imagine how this transition came about, but for me the progression from one to the other made perfect sense.
When I was seventeen, I gave up my full-tuition university art scholarship only two days after beginning classes. I had suddenly realized that committing myself to a career in art probably would mean either lifelong financial insecurity or having to compromise the pursuit of art that interested me in favor of projects that would be of interest to paying clients. Neither scenario was appealing and so, based on some advice I received from a trusted uncle, I turned from my dream of becoming an artist to preparing for a career in law, though I had no idea what that meant and had never even met a lawyer. But I also made myself a promise: When I did achieve some level of financial security I would return to focus on my art.
For some thirty-five years I handled the legal aspects of various kinds of business transactions, from small acquisitions to multi-billion dollar mergers. I counseled clients on public and private securities matters, domestic and foreign private equity investments, and an infinite variety of other legal matters, working both in private practice and as in-house counsel.
Oddly enough, my legal career had a direct impact on my chosen medium for creating art, becoming the path by which I moved from working with acrylics on canvas to digital art. This happened when, for a few years during the recession that began in 2008, my parallel universes of art and law collided. At this time I found my work had slowed to a trickle due to a significant reduction in the activities of my employer. Job security required that I continue to appear busy and engaged, despite having hours on end with nothing to do. I began to amuse myself by writing humorous essays designed to appeal to female baby boomers. Eventually the essays were published in dozens of obscure newspapers and magazines across the country and in parts of Canada. (Oddly enough, despite my target audience, one of my most loyal subscribers was the largest publisher of magazines for truckers.) When I realized that editors loved illustrated articles, I began experimenting with painting software to add simple, light-hearted sketches to go with the pieces. I became intrigued by the infinite possibilities and flexibility of digital art. It remains my primary medium today, though I have long since given up my brief career as a writer.
After I made the decision to retire from the practice of law I was ready to fulfill the promise I had made to myself decades before—to finally really devote myself to my art. But I was also very interested in incorporating some form of charitable work into my “second act,” something I had never found time to do while I was juggling career and family responsibilities. I challenged myself to figure out how to combine art with cause.
I began this journey by creating contemporary Braille greeting cards for the benefit of The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. For this project I used the actual Braille message (i.e., the patterns of dots) as the principal design element of the image for each card. After a year I had designed over a dozen cards for different occasions. It was time to consider my next focus. I directed my attention to climate change, an issue about which I have for some time felt a deep concern and believe to be the most pressing challenge of our time.
I am more than a little bewildered that the general public isn’t more alarmed about the compelling facts regarding climate change and how it is impacting our planet. A plethora of charts, graphs, and maps illustrating the science can be found with any Google search; the data tell an alarming story but, unaccountably, too many people are not paying attention.
I realized that many people might be put off, confused, or intimidated by graphic depictions of data and statistics. I conjectured, however, that those who would shun a presentation of charts and graphs might nonetheless be happy to look at bright, colorful art. It occurred to me that art could become the vehicle for “delivering” the facts about our changing world or, more accurately, a non-threatening device to entice people, making them more receptive to learning a bit about the science.
I set out to develop an approach to marry my art to this cause. This led me to found the non-profit venture Environmental Graphiti, which has as its mission the use of art to enhance public awareness about the facts of climate change. The actual blueprint for each of the digital paintings in my series, “The Art of Climate Change,” is a chart, graph, word, number, or symbol representing a key fact about climate change.
Decreasing meat eating could cut in half greenhouse gas emissions
attributable to food production.
As I began this project, one obvious obstacle immediately presented itself—not only am I a self-taught artist, I also lack any background or training in science or statistics. (Please don’t confuse this confession with the favorite disclaimer of climate science deniers, who often precede their denunciations about the validity of climate science with the statement: “I’m no scientist, but…”) As I reflected on this potential dilemma, I began to see my lack of scientific training more as a positive than a negative. Perhaps I was rationalizing, but it seemed to me that this shortcoming could be of benefit when making the point that the essential facts of climate change are completely available, and comprehensible, to anyone—no scientific background or expertise required. And that’s terribly important because this is a problem everyone is, and will be, affected by in different and significant ways.
With this in mind, I turned my attention to the challenge of creating art from data. I was immediately drawn to the design possibilities of the geometric lines and shapes of scientific charts, graphs, and maps, finding these graphic elements to be both dramatic and persuasive. The impressive trajectories pointed clearly in one direction or the other, e.g., upwards, to reflect the inevitable correlation between temperature rise, carbon emissions, and rising ocean levels, or downwards to reflect the Arctic sea or land-based ice melt. In addition, the many key indicators of climate change (including increased heat, intense storms, drought, famine, flooding, forest fires, risks to human health and marine and other forms of wildlife, and so many more), offer an endless variety of approaches to the presentation of the data. This gave me a broad, rich pool of source material to draw from. In fact, it was rather too much of a good thing.
Because of the overwhelming amount of data, it became necessary for me to bring discipline to the selection of each graphic. So I devised rules and criteria for myself: First, the data itself must be from a credible source (I prefer, when possible, U.S. government sources that have the added benefit of waiving copyright). Second, the information must represent an important fact that forms a part of the narrative of the series of artistic pieces, which collectively tell the story of climate change. Third, when I look at the basic design of the graphic, I must be able to visualize its artistic possibilities so that I can feel confident of creating an image that will stand on its own from an aesthetic perspective. (This is critical—people must find the art appealing, and be drawn into it, in order to be more receptive to the underlying message.) Finally, I favor simpler graphics that allow me more artistic freedom to develop. (Some graphics are so beautiful and artistically evolved that there is little for me to add. I prefer to use only the most elemental aspects of the graphics in providing the “canvas” for a piece.)
Once I select a graphic I scan or download it and, using a variety of design software (none of which I have any actual training with), I begin to paint and manipulate the image until it becomes a work of seemingly abstract art. This is very much an exercise in “happy accidents”—I can never reproduce a particular image and generally don’t know exactly how I created it. As an untrained artist, much of the pure joy of the process of creating digital art derives from stumbling upon effects, which I keep or discard as my intuition dictates. In this way the painting evolves. (Another of the great joys of digital art is the fact that you never have to clean up afterwards—no paints to put away or brushes to wash.) Still there is some method to my madness—the decisions I make as I create the art are designed to control how the art is ultimately experienced by the viewer.
Each painting is displayed with a plaque depicting the underlying climate data source and explaining its significance. Once the viewers realize they are not looking at mere abstract images, they are intrigued and a kind of “double take” will occur. Moving back and forth from art to graph, and from one piece to the next, they try to decipher how the data is reflected in the art. As a result of this process, the viewer becomes more engaged in both the art and the underlying message.
With this process in mind, I try to create each painting so that it is independent of the science it is derived from, making the ultimate reveal of the source data more unexpected and dramatic. What I mean by “independent” is actually two things: First, as I mentioned above, the art must meet my own aesthetic standards so that it will attract people to want to see and exhibit it on its own merits. Second, the image should not hint too obviously at the substance of the fact from which it is derived because I want the art to be more than just an artistic illustration of the science. So when I begin to work with a graph or chart, I try to reduce it to its basic design elements without regard to its meaning, and then I build from there. Sometimes, though, I allow something of the underlying science to seep through—for example, in my choice of the color orange for a painting about heat, or wild, wavy lines in a painting about the risk of future global conflict resulting from constrained environmental resources.
The art is intentionally designed to be bold, vividly colored, and striking. When exhibited, it is typically printed on a large piece of glossy metal to attract attention and draw people in. And to appeal to as many people as possible, I try to employ a wide range of styles while retaining for each the feeling of a contemporary abstract work.
As the series evolved, I began to add paintings based on sketches. Instead of drawn lines, these paintings use a word, number, or symbol of specific significance to climate science. For example, one sketch uses as its sole design the numbers 2 and 3.6 to represent the degrees in Celsius and Fahrenheit that climate scientists have warned us not to exceed (though it now appears clear this boundary will be exceeded). One painting is based on a sketch of the word “deforestation,” another of the word “drought.”
Word-image Deforestation Sketch
A fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions come from forest clearing.
Early on, one of my Environmental Graphiti colleagues, Julie Stark, showed the art to a friend who became inspired to turn the images into a video in which the paintings are shown to “morph” back into the original charts and graphs, and then into art again. (Later videos based on this technique can be viewed on the Environmental Graphiti website.)
There are now over fifty digital paintings in the series, loosely divided into three galleries: “Why is our climate changing?” “How is climate change affecting our world?” and “What can we do to address climate change?” The project has grown to include two very creative strategic advisors, Julie Stark (mentioned above) and Ellen Friedler—each of whom helps to guide the focus of the venture, acts as a critical “sounding board,” and seeks new opportunities for exhibition or use of the art—as well as others who assist and support the project in various ways.
In furtherance of its mission, Environmental Graphiti offers the art, at cost, to schools, universities, libraries, and other non-profits who mount temporary exhibitions or permanent displays or sell the art at fundraisers. We have exhibited the art in universities across the country, as well as in public venues such as libraries, and at various environmental events. And most unexpectedly, I was given the opportunity to adapt a painting to form the basis of the cover for the song “Love Song to the Earth,” featuring artists such as Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, and others, with all proceeds to benefit the United Nations Foundation and Friends of the Earth.
Our brief experience with Environmental Graphiti has already proven the original hypothesis: art, science, and cause are a dynamic trio with synergies that enhance the qualities and impact of each. Art can serve as an inviting point of entry to make scientific information more accessible and comprehensible. Art derived from science is inherently unique and meaningful, which makes it more engaging and satisfying. And art combined with science can effectively serve the cause of climate change awareness as a powerful tool to tell the story about how our world is being, and will be, impacted—a story that must be told by as many people and in as many ways as the imagination allows.
To learn more about Environmental Graphiti and to see more of the art, please visit environmentalgraphiti.org.