‘It taps another sense’: Artists’ role in the fight against climate change

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This piece, titled Poux de sable à la Grande Île (Sand Lice on Grand Isle), was painted by Jonathan Mayers during his time in residency for A Studio in the Woods.

By Ava Borskey

BATON ROUGE, LA — Tucked away on the western bank of the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana, you’ll find an artistic and academic residency retreat known as A Studio in the Woods.

Ama Rogan, the current managing director of A Studio in the Woods, has been with the program since its founding in 2001.

“Our mission is really to support artists and scholars—and the general public that has access—to foster creative responses to the challenges of our time. Of course, a huge one is the climate crisis that we find ourselves in,” Rogan said.

A program of Tulane University’s Bywater Institute, A Studio in the Woods sits on nearly eight acres of bottomland hardwood forest near the edge of Orleans Parish. The forest has battled several disasters through the years, most recently Hurricane Zeta in October 2020.

A Studio in the Woods has hosted over 150 artists and scholars over 20 years. The property includes nearly eight acres of a 5,000-acre bottomland hardwood forest near New Orleans. Bottomland hardwood forests are found in lowland floodplains along large rivers and include cypress, oak, elm and gum trees. Photo by Neil Alexander.

“We’re not a Walden Pond where you come and get away from everything,” Rogan said. “There’s trauma in our forest, and we’re watching climate change happen. We’re getting a front row seat to it here.”

Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments  published a report in 2019 recognizing the state’s risk for coastal challenges caused by climate change, such as sea level rise, land loss, more severe hurricanes and more frequent flooding events.

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, all 64 Louisiana parishes have experienced a federal major disaster declaration because of a named tropical event, according to the LA SAFE report.

The LA SAFE adaptation strategy calls for a holistic approach, considering both the science and human dimensions behind climate consequences. Goal five of the plan emphasizes healthy communities and preserving and supporting Louisiana’s culture and heritage.

Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program, has been hosting workshops with the Bayou Culture Collaborative to engage and inform the arts community about the climate crisis.

“Arts can be part of the solution,” Owens said.

Artists can engage with communities to increase awareness and help the public understand the wide reach of the issue, Owens said.  

Art can help communities cope with disasters and smooth the transitions for those forced to migrate due to climate change. And both contemporary and traditional artists have an important role in preserving culture and tradition through changing environments, she said.

A Studio in the Woods has been exploring the multi-faceted role of the arts in climate change since 2006.

Rogan said the crisis of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused the studio to step back and look at what it could do. The forest’s natural recovery systems were inspirations for the artists who received Restoration Residencies in the years immediately following the aftermath.

The Restoration Residencies, which ran from 2006-2008, led to A Studio in the Woods’ signature, environmentally-themed residency programs.

Jonathan Mayers was an artist-in-residence at A Studio in the Woods in 2018, for the Adaptations: Living with Change Residency, which invited artists to explore how climate-driven adaptations are shaping the future.    

Mayers paints mythological creatures into landscape scenes, mostly centered in southern Louisiana.

This piece by Jonathan Mayers, titled Le Grand Cochon boisé contre Le Gardien palmiste (The Great Wooded Boar vs. The Palm Guardian), includes acrylic paint and sediment from a nearby waterway in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana.

Mayers grew up in Baton Rouge, fishing with his family and visiting their camp in Belle River. He always enjoyed the outdoors and believes it’s important to consider the environment and all the culture and tradition that is at risk if the environment is lost.

He incorporates mud, sediment and sand from the locations he is depicting onto the frames of his paintings.  

“When people view that, they can hopefully understand that that is a real place that may no longer exist soon,” Mayers said in a YouTube video reflection of his experience at A Studio in the Woods.

Many of his paintings focus on human-caused environmental changes, whether through the introduction of habitat-destroying non-native species or the impacts of the oil and gas industry. Some of his work is accompanied by what he deems micro-stories, short narratives written in both English and the endangered Louisiana Creole language Kouri-Vini.

Mayers said his work is not just the painting. The painting, the presentation and the story all tie together to connect the information and facts of the times to humans.

“That’s what art can do: Help humans absorb the information about things going on and putting it in context,” Mayers said. “It taps another sense.”

Rogan agrees that the climate crisis is a complicated issue that is intertwined with several other challenges of the time.

“It’s a large enough crisis that we need everybody’s thinking from all kinds of works,” Rogan said.

Rogan said throughout her time at A Studio in the Woods, she has seen growth in the interest in the program and the quality of work that’s produced. She said artists have shown a more nuanced understanding of the complexity behind climate issues.  

“We’re not just sort of taking pictures of nature and putting them on the wall,” Rogan said. “We’re trying to really understand our relationship to the natural environment.” 

She said that artists are well positioned to shepherd communities through the climate crisis, whether through raising new questions or creative visioning work to solve problems.  

“Any project of humans that is about being human or growing as humans or changing as humans, it kind of can’t happen without arts and culture,” Rogan said. “If we’re going to bring our humanity into the future, we’re going to need arts and culture.” 

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