Earth Art

Posted Oct. 21, 2008, at 5:35 p.m.

The subject is climate change. On the roster of speakers? Plenty of scientists. Who will be there? Students, researchers, members of the public.

There is no shortage of numbers, statistics and science that go along with a conference on climate change. But it seems Dr. Paul A. Mayewski also realized the importance of including art and culture in “Climate Change 21: Choices for the 21st Century,” the University of Maine-sponsored forum and environmental festival to be held Thursday and Friday at the Wells Conference Center and other sites around campus in Orono.

Mayewski, who runs the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, commissioned three works of art to go along with the conference, which gives the public, students, policymakers and the private sector an opportunity to experience perspectives on the scientific basis of climate change, hear projections of the future on local to global scales, and learn about Maine’s role in the issue.

There is also a student poster contest being run in conjunction with the conference.

“Climate change impacts all of us, in every single thing that we do,” Mayewski said. “We thought it would be a great opportunity for people to express what they felt was important about climate change.”

University of Maine faculty members Kerstin Engman and Beth Wiemann, and Belfast-based artist and designer Meredith Alex made contributions to “Climate Change 21.” All three works are extraordinarily different, yet all tie in to the climate change theme.

And all three recognize that art can be used to talk about science.

“It’s bringing awareness to people in a different format and getting people to be inspired and interested in global warming and the issues around it,” said Alex, the director of programs at Waterfall Arts in Belfast. “It’s wonderful the Climate Change Institute is interested in using art to communicate what’s happening scientifically.”

Assistant art professor Engman’s sculptural piece, “Nexus,” is currently on display in the faculty art show in the Lord Hall gallery, although it will be moved to the second floor of the conference center for the events Thursday and Friday. Wiemann, the chair of UMaine’s Division of Music, will debut her nine-minute composition “Adjusting the Sails” on Wednesday evening at the School of Performing Arts. The piece will make its conference debut at 3:30 p.m. Friday. Alex’s work, an installation called “Seven: A Fashion Disaster,” will be performed seven times over the course of the conference, including four times on UMaine’s outdoor mall.

Engman’s piece comes with an extensive artist statement describing the meaning of each of its parts. The statement is necessary to properly read the complex work — a large, woven, four-cornered piece in an earthy, yellow-brown color — that is hanging by a single point.

The flat, woven areas of the piece are meant to reference agricultural plains which supply food. The “fields” are interwoven with tufted, bushy areas of the piece, which represent forests and jungles, and other wild environments that are disappearing.

The spines — the bones of which are cast from molds — traverse the sculpture along two different trajectories, represent the fact that, Engman states, humans are at the center of the climate crisis. The vertebrae are connected to ribs that extend into the landscape. The opposing positions of the spines are meant to be the night and day of the work.

The piece is held together by 10,000 feet of agricultural bailing twine, another reference to the food supply, and beeswax, which Engman said is a tribute to the bee colonies that are mysteriously endangered. The beeswax also holds things in place, and its pale, milky color, and propensity to melt are meant to resemble ice in color and character.

Even the way in which the piece hangs has meaning. The work is suspended from a single point, which mimics Earth on its orbit. Its four-cornered shape is meant to echo the four corners of the globe as well as the four directions of wind currents, north, south, east and west.

“All of these choices, every aspect of the piece, was metaphoric, in a way,” she said. “I don’t think it could have had the kind of impact I wanted it to have without those kind of choices.”

Engman was so interested in the issues around climate change that she incorporated the conference into her curriculum. Last spring, about 40 students in her two design classes made posters for the conference, some of which were entered into a contest organized by Mark Anderson, the coordinator of the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program at UMaine. The winners of the contest will be announced Friday afternoon during a session run by Anderson and Scott Pelley, a CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent.

There are about 80 posters from students all over the University of Maine System and the state’s private colleges entered into the contest. There are six prizes of $500 each available in different categories.

Wiemann’s piece, which includes video clips and a performance by the Athena Chorus, UMaine’s women’s singing group under the direction of conductor Heidi Corliss, is an exploration of wind power throughout history and its potential uses for the future. It took some discussion between Wiemann and Mayewski to come up with the theme.

“I said, well, climate change, it’s a big topic,” said Wiemann. “He wanted the [Climate Change] conference to have a hopeful tone, and [wind power] might be a way to do it. Wind power has an ancient history, and we though it could be a powerful narrative.”

For her composition Wiemann — who plays clarinet, a member of the woodwind instrument family — researched wind power and used information from UMaine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center director Habib Dagher, who testified in front of Congress in July about the potential of wind power.

The first half of the composition explores wind in its most natural form, as a force of nature that sweeps and blows across ice and water. The second half consists of images of large sailboats, Dutch windmills and modern offshore windmills. There is also some text and statistics with the video images.

The singers’ lyrics consist of bits of poems, pieces from old sea chanteys, as well as some lyrics from Captain Beefheart, an experimental rock musician who performed in the 1960s and ’70s.

In Alex’s world, a fashion disaster is usually a poorly designed frock on a celebrity. For her contribution to the Climate Change conference, however, the word disaster points to something more serious.

The “Seven” in her work’s title refers to seven sculptural dresses based on extreme weather patterns of Tornado, Hurricane, Glacier, Wildfire, Drought, Ice Storm, and Heat Wave. One commemorative dress, in a 1920s silhouette, has handmade sequins which document the seven sculptural dresses. The commemorative dress is displayed on a mannequin painted like the planet Earth.

During the performance, live models wearing the seven dresses will stand on two-foot high platforms and “vogue” — that is, posing using hand gestures and body movements. A sound component from the podium will play with sounds of the different weather patterns, along with educational information and news clips concerning the weather.

Alex, who designs under the name MADgirl, will also bring a 32-foot, polka-dot-covered RV she’s calling MAD Ride to carry her entire entourage of models, dresses and equipment. She’s working with six interns who are performing a variety of tasks from public relations to makeup for the models.

“I think one of the things I’m bringing to the convention is a bridge between the ages,” she said. “I feel like with the installation being shown four times in the center of the mall, it’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with students while they’re changing classes and create a buzz for what the Climate Change Institute is trying to do.”

After the conference ends, Engman’s work will belong to the Climate Change Institute to display as it wishes. No matter where the sculpture goes, however, Engman said the course of her work has been changed by her experience designing the piece, and her realization that the climate change problem is one for individuals — even artists — to explore.

“It’s the responsibility of everyone,” she said. “This conference is embracing the contributions that everyone can make and bring into the forefront of everyone’s thinking.”

For more information on the Climate Change Institute and the conference, go to www.climatechange.umaine.edu

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