If you are an art lover, a collector, an artist or just a regular gallery-goer, chances are you have heard people discussing “sustainable art.”
Thankfully, the idea of living green has become an increasingly popular trend, and the art world is no exception. As people around the world become more aware of global consciousness and our collective need to protect the Earth, we are seeing more and more artists embracing this concept and working in the realm of sustainable art.
But what is sustainable art, how is it defined, and who is making it?
Like many aspects of the art world, the concept of sustainable art can be defined in a myriad of ways. Some artists define it as artwork that deals with or critiques environmental issues, while other artists identify as Eco Artists because their materials and studio practices have a green footprint or are primarily made using recycled materials.
To learn more and expand the definition, I took a deeper dive into the topic of sustainability, and I reached out to a variety of experts in the field.
A Brief Art Historical Perspective
While it may seem to some that the idea of sustainable art is a relatively new term, the truth is artists have been working in this field for quite a while. However, they were often labeled conceptual artists or Eco Artists because they used the environment and sustainability as an ecological springboard for their ideas.
We reached out to Dr. Michael Bieze, an art history teacher, to see how he defines sustainable art and to ask which artists he’d point to as the historical pioneers of this field. Responding to my inquiry, Dr. Bieze wrote:
“Discussions on sustainability and art too often look to land/earth art and conceptual art as a starting point. However, if we imagine sustainability within a framework of ethical art connecting nature, math, science, politics, aesthetics, agriculture and audience participation, then the field widens to include everything from the Parthenon to Sande Society performances.”
Let’s break down what Dr. Bieze is talking about when he mentions earth and conceptual art.
Conceptual art is rooted in an idea and where the artist’s intention takes precedence over the finished product. The emphasis is on the meaning of the piece rather than the creation of an object one can own, like a painting, photo or sculpture.
Some core characteristics of conceptual art are often site-specific works of an ephemeral nature. Many conceptual artists use typically everyday materials and “found objects.”
Understanding this definition then makes it easy to see how conceptual artists who worked in environmental arts pioneered the sustainable movement.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, a number of artists began to challenge the traditional gallery model by presenting an avant-garde notion of sculpture where the work was site-specific and incorporated the environment as the medium.
In 1968 Robert Smithson famously defined the movement when he organized an exhibition titled Earthworks. Then, in the Spring of 1970, he made his most notable Earthwork, his Spiral Jetty, at the Rozel Point peninsula on the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was formed by using over six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth from the site to make a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that winds counterclockwise off the shore into the water.
In the mid-1980s Andy Goldsworthy, a now well-known British artist famous for his site-specific installations, began making art in Scotland that was inspired by Robert Smithson. Using rocks, ice, mud, pinecones, leaves or branches, Goldsworthy makes site-specific ephemeral sculptures that evolve and decay. Famous for his balancing rock sculptures, Goldsworthy embraces the ephemeral nature of his art and uses his skills as a photographer to capture his creations.
Another leading figure in the field is Agnes Denes. A retrospective of her 50-year career is currently on display right now in New York at The Shed.
“Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates“, opened on October 9th, 2019 and will be up until March 22, 2020. This comprehensive exhibition is a major retrospective of her work that displays over 150 of her pieces. Tickets for this exhibition are $10, and interested viewers can click here to learn more about the show.
Breaking the topic down further, Dr. Bieze then went on to point out a variety of well-known artists who have been working in the field. For those looking for a deeper historical understanding, I urge you to click on these names to see the work of:
- Xu Bing
- El Anatsui
- Mel Chin
- Thomas Cole
- Mark Dion
- Chris Jordan
- Pam Longobardi
- Eve Mosher
- Gabriel Orozco
- Cornelia Parker
Contemporary Sustainable Artists
As a Brooklyn-based artist myself, I have a very large network of friends in the arts community. So naturally I turned to my peers and contemporaries to ask who is making exciting sustainable art today and how they define their work. To my surprise, everyone I spoke with seemed to have a different point of view on sustainable art and what the concept of sustainability meant to them.
Jaynie Gillman Crimmins
One of the most fascinating artists I discovered working in this genre is Jaynie Gillman Crimmins. Crimmins, whose work is made by using shredded papers sourced from junk mail, began working with shredded papers in 2009 as a direct result of the financial crisis when she started shredding her own financial statements and sewing them together.
Talking to Crimmins about her work, she explained:
“I fabricate objects with meticulous handmade details that contrast with the banality of their materials. By repurposing solicitations, safety envelopes and catalogs that are difficult to recycle (because their inks have high concentrations of heavy metals), my work explores consumerism and waste through a repetitive practice mirroring domestic tasks.
Shredding these marketing tools breaks down their physical and ascribed composition so I can roll, fold, sew and fabricate the shreds into intimate sculptural reliefs. Process, surface and texture reshape formulaic messages into forms based upon impressions from recollections and observations. Conventional, impersonal messages become personal, domestic and cultural narratives.”
Meticulous in the attention to detail, you can see in an instant that Crimmins’ work is a labor of love. She gives an extreme amount of time and patience to the fabrication of a piece.
Crimmins said she views the process of creation as a meditation.
“The domed pieces and ‘In Search of Beauty #5’ [which I consider larger works] take anywhere from 3-6 months,” she explained.
Crimmins’ work serves as a prime example of repurposing waste materials into elaborate and precious works of art. When asked how she defines the sustainability movement in art, Crimmins said, “Sustainable art considers certain principles — for me, it is the examination and contemplation of issues affecting the environment and the connection to cultural situations.”
Like what you see? You can view more of her work here.
Or, should you happen to be kicking around the UAE wondering what to do after you visited the Masdar City, then you can head over to the Islamic Arts Festival in Sharjah, where Crimmins will be exhibiting in December 2019 through January 2020. If that distance is too far for you to travel, Crimmins also shows domestically and is represented by K. Imperial Fine Art in San Francisco, CA and Mason Fine Art in Atlanta, GA.
When I first started looking around the New York art community for interesting people working with sustainability in mind, one of the most remarkable artists I discovered was Susan Beallor-Snyder. Fascinated with her large-scale raw rope sculptures, I was curious to know more about Beallor-Snyder’s process and how her work fit into the category.
Beallor-Snyder’s story immediately intrigued me. As it turns out, Beallor-Snyder came to working in rope by chance. She was in an emotional, confused and frustrated state. In 2011, she was quite literally tied up in knots when she first turned to Natural Manila Rope as a medium to express and evoke these feelings.
According to Beallor-Snyder, she wanted “to create a work that would represent the most extreme dark side of my life as it was in.”
Expanding on this idea, Beallor-Snyder said, “When I created my first piece, I was living the life of a corporate wife with two kids, 3 dogs, moving around the country for my husband’s work and entertaining and renovating constantly. I wasn’t able to get a grasp on my own studio practice and I allowed everything else take center stage while my work took a back seat. I was frustrated and starting to feel resentful. This was where this series began.”
In a search to find the right material to express her feelings, Beallor-Snyder went to Home Depot and saw Natural Manila rope.
“It was rough and smelled like some kind of musky oil,” she said. “The little shards were uncomfortable to touch. It was perfect!”
The Manila rope, which is made from natural Abaca fibers, gets its name from the Philippines where Abaca grows. Abaca fiber, unlike most other leaf fibers, is obtained from the plant leaf stalks.
The Abaca plant grows quite quickly. Because it is considered a useful plant for staving off erosion, Abaca is thought of as very environmentally-friendly.
Upon discovering this rope at Home Depot, Beallor-Snyder immediately bought all the store had in stock and returned to her studio where she began weaving and working out how to express her emotions with the rope.
Sitting on her studio floor, Beallor-Snyder imagined sound bites of all the people in her life contributing pressure and criticism. She said she envisioned “Mother-in-law, husband, mother criticizing me or judging; my kids complaining, or demanding, the dogs barking, the workers needing decisions, doors slamming, glass breaking. The voices all overlapping.”
From this place, she began to create a complex weave where she literally tangled herself up in the rope by standing over the piece and swaying her body back and forth.
Beallor-Snyder described this process as “somewhat difficult.” She stated that there was a real physical pain resulting from working so intensely with the material.
“Shards getting into my fingers is painful and I had to pull them out with tweezers,” she said. “The work is more and more difficult with the passing years. I’m 62 now and having to carry and move around the boxes of rope is a challenge, as well as the work, as I need to use long strands and then spend much of the time unraveling and pulling rope through and through getting splinters and sore and stiff all over. However, I do also love the outcome and each piece is so different from the last that it keeps me going wanting to see where it will go. I feel like a vessel for the work. It comes from beyond and sometimes I stand back or on a tall ladder and ask where it wants to go.”
Taking my lead from Beallor-Snyder, I will tie up my thoughts and conclude by saying stay tuned. The thread of this idea is one that many artists today are pulling on with fascinating results. I plan to continue to search out who is paving an interesting artistic and sustainable path and expand more on individual artists’ work and ideas soon.
For now, I leave you with the reminder that at its essence, Sustainable Art is one of innovation and environmental awareness. If you read this piece and feel inspired to create something, too, I suggest you start by asking yourself: How can I make work that brings the earth and the art into aesthetic harmony? What changes can I create to help protect, enlighten or renew my art and environment?
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