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Environmental Expressionism

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By Karen A. Lefkowitz

Communicating about climate change and other environmental challenges isn't limited to scientific terminology and quantitative data. There are contemporary dance performances referencing pollution, large-scale installations that depict extreme weather events, and a symphony about sea-level rise. At a time when responsiveness to global warming needs to be encouraged more than ever, art that addresses environmental impact has the ability to connect with people on many levels.

Disciplines of art that draw attention to environmental concerns can inform, engage, and energize. They can increase awareness, stimulate dialogue, change behavior, and serve as a call to action. Global warming as interpreted by creative artists can examine environmental problems and prompt solutions.

Work produced through skill and imagination can also appeal to a broader audience. Climate change can be an overwhelming matter to digest and art can simplify the issue -- yet illustrate it in a powerful way.

As a center for interdisciplinary education, research and outreach, the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES) sponsors efforts that embrace linkages between environmental science and the arts. The institute hosts documentary screenings, photography exhibits, and live performances. By bridging the sciences and humanities and arts the Institute aims to inspire a heightened appreciation for nature and reevaluation of human activities that threaten our world.

Justice Fusion: Art and Creative Expression for Social & Environmental Equity -- presented by the institute in partnership with others at UCLA -- explored the intersection between race, class, gender and environmental issues using creative expression. Students and community artists shared videography, mixed media, and spoken word poetry designed to contribute to a greater understanding of the ways environmental burdens and benefits are differently experienced. These works seek to expand the vision of mutually constructed equitable solutions for a better world.

"Justice Fusion communicates to our human nature, and is able to reach new audience," said UCLA professor Paul Ong. "Environmental injustices are objective and subjective. Much of our academic work examines the nature, magnitude, causes and consequences of unequal burdens. This provides important but partial insights. Injustices are also experienced at a personal level, feelings that art and creative expression can bring to the fore through evocative images, performances and words, making us understand and care. "

"Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa" -- an exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum this summer -- examines the relationship between individuals and communities in Africa and the land upon which they live. The exhibition features paintings, photographs, videos, and sculpture that invite viewers to consider the earth as a sacred or medicinal material, a source of inspiration, and an environment in need of protection.

These projects show us that using art to communicate about key environmental challenges can contribute to greater understanding of the challenges Earth is facing, and play a meaningful role in mobilizing people to fight to save the future.

Image credit: Mural created by James Huey to represent the work of nonprofit organization East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. The artist solicited input from community members on what to incorporate into the work. The mural was featured at the Justice Fusion event held at UCLA on April 24, 2014.

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