Over the past decade, we have witnessed a proliferation of climate-related disasters across the world. Storms have become stronger, wildfires more intense. Sea ice is melting at a higher rate as the earth grows hotter. Each of these problems alone endangers human welfare. Together, they represent an existential threat. Scientists often describe our position as nearing a “tipping point” at which we teeter at the precipice of an irreversible cascade of ecosystem collapse. My new collaboration with fellow artist Carin Walsh presents a different view of our role in this crisis. It serves as a reminder that we are not passive observers of this disaster, but active agents with the ability to change course and build a safer and healthier future. Our message is that while the climate is approaching a tipping point, our society is at a turning point. We have the power to choose whether we will continue on our current path, or whether we will turn to embrace the measures necessary to reverse climate change.
As a North Carolina artist, my visual arts practice has given me a unique perspective on our climate crisis through the course of several U.S. administrations. I have been alternately moved and discouraged by the fitful progress punctuated by the dramatic setbacks the country has endured in confronting climate change. As I have shared my projects amid the chaos, countless conversations with critics and allies have provided a lens into the concerns that guide our collective response to this crisis. This feedback has driven my creative approach. When I began my work as a climate artist in 2014, I saw momentum towards solutions. I was heartened when the Democratic administration relied on its executive authority to implement the Clean Power Plan to significantly cut planet-warming emissions. And progress continued as the U.S. committed to signing the Paris Climate Agreement. It was possible for mildly concerned onlookers to assume that our climate crisis would be addressed by these measures alone.
In those years, I contested this complacency with my Building Worlds series of acrylic and collage paintings. These time-lapse Anthropocene-Scapes represent humanity’s impact on the planet over the span of our existence and provide an important reminder that our efforts to solve the climate crisis are far from over. In the North Carolina visual arts ecosystem, these works occupied the small environmental section at impactful exhibitions such as the annual Pleiades Arts Truth to Power, while the bulk of the gallery was filled with art addressing issues of racial and economic justice, exploitative immigration policy, health care disparities, and many other pressing social justice concerns. I felt somewhat impractical and fantastical in my artistic focus on climate change when these issues seemed to have greater impact on the immediate health and wellbeing of people. Here and elsewhere, the climate crisis was framed as a distant and distinct issue, independent of the economy, health, and social justice – leaving climate policies to be attacked as unfeasible and even a threat to these “other” issues.
In 2016, those of us who had hoped that progressive policies would help solve our crisis were jerked from this naivety. A new president was elected, subsequently pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord in the name of “economic progress,” and began to dismantle many other climate-friendly policies and programs.
It was during this sobering time that Carin Walsh and I launched our collaborative environmental art practice, WALSH/BLAZING. Determined to better understand the framing that led our society so far astray, we consulted with climate communications experts and surveyed the literature to refine our goals. We discovered that although countless studies show that climate change is inextricably interwoven with jobs, health, immigration and social justice, people are often unaware of evidence supporting that fact. We also learned that personally relevant storytelling can be an effective means of conveying the essence of these findings. With this in mind, we developed Changing Worlds Now, a multimedia installation featuring Carin’s audio/video collage projected onto and interacting with my acrylic and collage mural. The piece highlights the personal impacts of climate change through a unique, storytelling art experience that weaves a past-present-future narrative with imagery from local neighborhoods and city landmarks, and invites viewers to reflect on what the climate crisis means to them and their families. We hoped that these personalized hypothetical scenarios would instill in our viewers a heightened awareness of the intimate and tenuous connection between climate stability and societal function.
It is a testament to the severity of climate change that in recent years, the impacts of this crisis have shifted from looming hypothetical to stark reality for many Americans. My current work draws inspiration from the effects that climate change has already had on my own family. My painting, California Dreamin’, is based on the experiences of my parents, whose house was destroyed by the Valley Fire wildfire in Cobb Mountain, California, and who are threatened by severe air pollution every fire season. I am also inspired by the multitude of social justice movements that recognize climate change as a major barrier to racial and economic equity in the U.S. and abroad. My painting, Trickle Down, speaks to climate justice issues laid bare by the pandemic and the need to address environmental hazards that disproportionately threaten Black and Brown communities. Much of my current work illustrates the harrowing impact of our climate crisis to reinforce the urgent need for action.
With this need for action in mind, Carin Walsh and I are presenting our September 2021 exhibit, Turning Point, at Meredith College’s Frankie G. Weems Gallery. This exhibit seeks to build awareness that humanity is at a turning point in the battle against our climate crisis. It presents the truth of where we stand, exposing the effects of climate change and the catastrophic consequences we face if we do nothing. However, it also offers an optimistic message. At this unique moment, political, economic, technological, and societal forces are converging in an encouraging direction to effectively address climate change. The ultimate objective of Turning Point is to impress upon viewers our collective responsibility for building a better world and that each of us can play a role in driving solutions that are focused on the lives and wellbeing of people.
The narrative within Changing Worlds Now and the vivid scenes depicted in paintings such as California Dreamin’ and Trickle Down should remind viewers of the harsh consequences of this disaster. Rather than simply accepting this reality, visitors will be prompted to act by expressing wishes for future generations, composing letters to their legislators, and exiting wearing an “I acted” sticker representing their support for climate measures. We hope that these actions will give visitors a sense of ownership and agency in solutions to our climate crisis. As they depart, they will view my painting, Hope Springs Eternal. It carries an encouraging message that our battle against climate change can be won, as we now have cost-effective technology to create a clean economy that can add millions of jobs and help stabilize our world.
It will take collective action to support solutions to this massive issue. Humanity’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we are capable of such action well beyond what we could have imagined. Many in the U.S. and around the globe have listened to science-based recommendations and have supported measures to restructure logistics in the working world, educational systems, and countless other vital activities. Sara Peach of Yale Climate Communications suggests that we can each marshal our unique skills and connections in our communities to magnify the impact of our actions. For me, this means focusing my visual arts efforts on exhibits like Turning Point that I hope will inspire others to act as we collectively work to move our climate away from the tipping point.
All photo courtesy of Jenny Blazing
Jenny Blazing is a full-time working painter, installation, and found object sculpture artist living in Durham, North Carolina. Her acrylic and collage paintings incorporate original hand-painted and monoprinted papers. In addition to ongoing representation in various exhibits, her work is regularly on view at 5 Points Gallery in downtown Durham, and she is a member of the curatorial committee of Horace Williams House in Chapel Hill. Blazing graduated from University of California, Davis with degrees in Environmental Design and Economics and subsequently earned a Ph.D. from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.