When walking through Macky Gallery, sunlight filters in through opaque glass as the sound of jazz floats through the walls: the timbre of trumpet, solo by saxophone, the driving beat of drums. Macky Auditorium at the University of Colorado Boulder serves as a concert hall, a practice space and its lobby as a gallery space. But besides this ambient aural reminder of time and place, a visitor to this gallery is easily a world away – thousands of feet above the plains of eastern Colorado – courtesy of photographs by artist Evan Anderman.
Transported to a novel view of the landscape, captured from the window of Anderman’s airplane, viewers of his work gain a new perspective on the geometric, natural and man-made developments taking place across the state. On display through May 19, Once Removed is part of Month of Photography and held in partnership with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.
Born and raised in Denver, Anderman traveled out east to receive a degree in geology. And when he came back for the summers and drove around the mountains, he found his interaction with the natural world around him had changed drastically.
Simply put: “I could see things differently.”
Now as a pilot and photographer, that’s what Anderman, and many other environmental artists are trying to do: get people to see things differently.
Artists across the world today are changing audiences’ perspectives on the world around them through their work. By using everything from aerial landscape photography to melting blocks of ice, to carefully placed plantings of trees, they use the subject matter of the environment to instill wonder, cultivate care or create a call to action.
And Boulder, Colorado, is a home or a hub for many an environmental artist.
Last fall, BMOCA held a show in partnership with A History of the Visual Arts in Boulder at the museum that explored the Evolving Visions of Land and Landscape, including local artists and documentarians Robert Adams, James Balog, Jane McMahan, Rebecca DiDomenico and many others.
In October, Marda Kirn of EcoArts Connections and Lisa Gardiner of the National Center for Atmospheric Research co-hosted a panel and a show about the connections between climate science and art at NCAR. Artists and scientists, together on stage, discussed science and science-informed artmaking.
And Richard Saxton, Assistant Professor of sculpture and post-studio practice at the University of Colorado Boulder, teaches a course on land and environmental art. Saxton is also the founder of the M12 Collective, an interdisciplinary group that “creates and supports new modes of art making in often rural and remote areas, and focuses on experiential practices that explore community identity… and their surrounding landscapes,” according to the website.
But while environmental art may only be reaching larger audiences as of this century, its history can be traced back to the roots of other, older social movements.
In the 1960s, new publications that raised awareness of widespread environmental degradation in America, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, were catalysts for change in social and environmental policy. The art world was not immune to this shift in thought and action.
The Land Art movement, begun in the 1970s, believed the world was literally one’s gallery. This movement was based on the growing awareness of the earth as an interconnected part of human life, of its value and ability to reflect back on our actions; the land as a canvas. The movement began as Land Art, but later branched out to into Earth Art and Eco-Art, which are often all grouped together as Environmental Art. It was perhaps the first truly American art form, begun by artists such as Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, and Walter De Maria.
The more ecology-based side of the movement, concerned about humans’ detrimental impact on the environment, developed from artists who wanted to remedy damage to the earth rather than just use it as a medium. The growing environmental consciousness of artists led to a heavily scientific and activist emphasis on art related to the environment throughout the 1970s, and has continued to the present day.
This does not mean that all modern environmental artists are activists, however. Environmental art in the 21st century can mean a variety of things, from simply getting a viewer to look at and appreciate a specimen from the natural world or engage in an interactive installation piece. There are scientists who make art, artists who collaborate with scientists, and artists who climb 14,000 foot mountains to paint at the summit.
What ties it all together is that environmental art focuses on the environment as its subject matter. But why it’s made and its intended statement is up to the artist.
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Anderman does not consider himself an activist. But he does have a mission with his work.
“I want to bring these pictures back to people in the city and show them what’s happening out there, just so they know that there are consequences to the decisions we make,” he said. “That has an effect on the landscape and we have to be smart about what we do.”
Before anything else, Anderman was a photographer. However, his education in geological engineering from Princeton University and the Colorado School of Mines set him on a different career path – and changed his relationship to the land of his home state. So 10 years after receiving his PhD and becoming dissatisfied working in the consulting industry, he decided it was time to pursue his first love.
“I figured how hard could it be?” Anderman wondered, “To become an artist.”
In 2006, Anderman set out to take photographs around Colorado. And then in 2010, he renewed his pilot’s license and took to the skies. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the everything came together: geology, photography and flying. Anderman bought his own plane, and was able to install an autopilot function, which gave him the platform to be able to safely fly and take pictures at the same time.
“It’s a different perspective,” Anderman said. “I all of a sudden discovered I liked flying because I could look at the geology easily, and then the photography made it so that I could show people what I was seeing and looking at from the airplane.”
But not all of what Anderman captured on camera showed a pretty picture.
Focused on eastern Colorado, the non-mountainous half of the state, Anderman flew over the plains and started looking more critically at man’s interaction with the landscape. After driving up to Pawnee Butte, near the Wyoming border, he had an unsettling discovery.
“The sun went down and it got dark, and I realized there were all these lights on. There’s a big wind farm there, with several hundred wind turbines. And each one has a little red light on it that flashes to keep airplanes from running into it. So that was like one section of the horizon was covered by that. And then another section of the horizon was covered with the light from the flares. They produce mostly oil out of these wells, but they also produce some natural gas. And they don’t, it’s hard to store, so they just burn it off. So the flame from burning it creates a lot of light, so there’s light pollution from that.
“And that was kind of a pivotal moment for me, because I thought that there were still some remote parts of eastern Colorado to get to. But it sort of was a wake up call to me that no, we were affecting everything that’s out there.
“So I started looking more closely at what happens out there, and you realize that the agricultural industry has touched everything out there, in one way or another. For better or for worse. That has driven my photography since then. Sometimes the photos are… more apparent that there’s something bad happening. And sometimes it’s a more beautiful shot of farming activity. But of course that farming activity has an effect on the landscape.”
In the course of his work, Anderman has also travelled across the globe to Iceland several times, documenting aerial scenery in a fantastic and quickly changing landscape. Capturing images of both the glaciers of Iceland and the plains of Colorado serve an important purpose, freezing in time views that many never look the same from one day to the next.
The next best thing to Anderman’s work in Colorado is data visualization, like maps of all oil and gas wells in the state, that deliver important information to the public in a visual manner. But the aesthetics are not quite comparable. Getting people to realize what’s going on outside of their daily lives sometimes requires beauty over data points.
“People are happy that I’m taking these kinds of images,” he said.
“It used to be when I first started doing it, nobody was doing it. And now, it’s like everybody wants to melt ice somewhere.”
Jane McMahan is speaking of course, about environmental art. A vivacious and experienced artist, McMahan has been in the business for a while now. She’s lived and travelled all over the world, but calls Boulder her home base. In that time, she’s done a lot of work and has seen the theme evolve.
“And I don’t know, it’s part of my personality, that once other people are doing it, I’m not interested!” says McMahan, laughing. “It’s just the artist in me, I guess. But it’s important, it’s really important stuff. But it is discouraging, you know!”
The melancholy aspect of environment art is an element within the subject matter that is hard to escape. But McMahan takes these darker subjects and reinvents them, stripping them of their desperation and engaging curiosity, aesthetics, and interaction in her work. It’s interesting, she notes, how people tend to take action on something if they feel moved by it, or believe they can have a real impact.
“I try to always do my work, rather than lecture to people, and point a finger – I try to, as an artist, approach environmental artwork as something aesthetic to try to somehow kind of move you right in here, and not turn you away,” she says, motioning to her chest. “And that’s kind of a challenge.”
Yet McMahan attributes her most successful piece to a block of ice.
For “Glacier Project: What Goes Around Comes Around” in 2007, McMahan carved out a piece of Arapahoe Glacier west of Boulder – which provides drinking water for the city. To raise awareness about the fact the glacier has receded at least 100 feet since 1960, according to glaciologist W. Tad Pfeffer, she put this block on life support in a special enclosure near the library. Solar panels and other equipment cooled the enclosure, and residents could come inside to view the cube’s current state.
This ice cube lasted just over two months, from the first part of September to the middle of November. And McMahan was blown away by its positive reception.
“People really got to care about this block of ice,” she said. “It’s exactly what you want to have happen! But, that was so bizarre, the way people took ownership in that.”
Last fall, McMahan was part of the Evolving Visions of Land and Landscape show at BMOCA, where she displayed her work on the fate of bees.
She once had her own bee hives, which she photographed with a GoPro within the hives. And if they collapsed, she wanted to capture that in photographs. But in the middle of the winter, when she was out of the country and the GoPro had been turned off, all the bees disappeared. But that didn’t discourage her from making art about it.
“A lot of my work also has to do with… construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction again, as in the environmental process, in societies, so that’s the premise of all my work,” she said. “So I kept the hives... and I made something out of them.”
The result were the series Hive and Collapse, featuring actual bees, pieces of the hives, and video footage of her hives before the bees disappeared. She realizes she’s in the middle of a wave of interest about bees and pollinators, and the environmental factors threatening them – a movement which she heartily supports. But she’s not doing the work to fit in, or reach a particular audience. McMahan sees sharing her work as an extension of the fact that we are all connected when it comes to environmental issues.
“I welcome anybody,” she says, to see and engage with her art.
McMahan does admit, however, that what will change our attitudes and choices about the environment more directly is when there is more money to be made from sustainable options. Whether that is in energy or agricultural industries, or in reducing pollution, she is optimistic that the environmentally-friendly progress happening in the country will only continue.
So while McMahan herself acknowledges that environmental artwork is a less direct route to understanding our impact on the planet, she says:
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep doing it.”