It’s no accident that that word revolutionary is used to describe both boundary-pushing artists and political activists. Art and activism have gone hand-in-hand ever since humans have been able to sculpt, sing or put pen to paper.
One of art’s greatest assets is its ability to engage. Art makes us feel, and, therefore, it acts as a conduit, connecting our emotions to causes we might not otherwise think or care about. It was on these principals that I founded RuckusRoots, a Los Angeles-based sustainable arts nonprofit organization, in 2009.
First, a little backstory: I had spent much of 2008 volunteering for local environmental organizations. A typical day consisted of several lonely hours in a parking lot, clipboard in hand, trying to convince shoppers to talk with me for five seconds about environmental issues. I felt more like I was bothering people than creating change, and I realized that I could do better. I soon decided to unite my passions for art, music and sustainability into one project: RuckusRoots. The name came from my desire to blend grassroots action with progressive art. I believed that if I could channel the inspiration I (and most young people) felt for art and music into environmental causes, that emotional connection could translate into greater change.
Over the last seven years, RuckusRoots has designed and implemented several programs that provide both arts and sustainability education to underserved communities in Los Angles. Our goal is to use art as a tool for engaging young people in environmental causes, and to create art that improves communities.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how we can use art to fight for our planet.
1. Art Makes People Think
Call it creative activism or conscious art—art that makes people think can be a powerful tool for change. One of our favorite artivists in this category is Marina Debris, who creates fashion out of trash found on beaches and in the ocean. Debris showcased her outlandish, darkly satirical and sculptural pieces at RuckusRoots’ event TRASHion Show in 2012. The attention to detail in each exquisitely crafted dress, hat or coat she makes is fascinating. Marina has made wearable art out of plastic bags, old toothbrushes, stuffed animals, plastic bottles, car parts, lighters, Styrofoam cups, and more. One of the most effective aspects of her art is that it is simultaneously beautiful and, well, kind of gross. To wear it or be near it is to smell the aroma of the ocean mixed with garbage and to realize on a visceral level how deeply humanity’s waste issue is impacting the health of our oceans. If that doesn’t make you want to switch to a reusable coffee mug, I don’t know what will.
2. Art Celebrates the Beauty of Nature
Another way art can influence viewers to take better care of the planet is by highlighting the beauty of nature. Much like documentary photographers who expose us to the wonders of remote, exotic locations, nature-inspired artwork can encourage viewers to rethink their environmental habits. Artist James Peterson does this through his immersive environments. His work is often based on patterns found in nature, and usually carries with it a deeper environmental message. Cryochrome, for instance, commissioned by Coachella Music and Arts Festival 2014, was inspired by Russian ice caves, and the entire outer skin of the piece was created using recycled CDs.
3. Art as a Creative Reuse Practice
Photo by Erinn Bone
One of our country’s biggest environmental problems is overconsumption and waste. According to dosomething.org, Americans make more than 200 million tons of garbage each year, and the EPA estimates that 75 percent of the American waste stream is recyclable but we only recycle about 30 percent of it. Art provides an inherent solution to this problem because when making art you learn a) creative thinking and b) sustainable building skills that can be applied to fixing and reusing items in your own home, thereby interrupting the cycle of buying new and throwing away old items. RuckusRoots programs aim to illustrate the value of art as a vehicle for change, and as a sustainable lifestyle practice. Our TRASHformation program, for instance, aims to raise awareness about consumption and waste production and teaching participants fundamental art, construction and sustainable building skills. Our goal is to change the way participants think about their garbage, making it clear that trash can be transformed into treasure.
These are just some of the ways art can be used to fight for our planet. Art and activism go hand in hand so naturally – both search for new, creative ways to define ourselves and our surroundings, and most importantly, both ask us to connect with the world around us in a deep and meaningful way.
What are some of the ways you’ve used art for good?