The Art of Change

There are times when artists’ roles in our community, and in our society, feels a bit insignificant. The curse of our sensitive personalities is that we tend to see things that need changing—coupled with the curse of the desire to want to improve, grow and share what we learn—means there is a constant tension in our lives between what is, and what we think could be. As I stand at the easel, I’m often thinking about why I’m painting. What good is another mountain scene when there is war in Ukraine? How can I make things that help shift ideas and perspectives? How can I make my art relevant to the climate crisis?

Fortunately, artists are also good at living with dualities: two truths that are seemingly contradictory but exist at the same time. A painting can be beautiful and tragic; for example, I’m currently working on a series of canvases that showcase the natural world engulfed in smoke from forest fires. The colours are inspirational and the scenes visually striking, but that beauty will always be coupled with a reminder that our planet is warming, and our forest-dwelling communities are vulnerable. 

There are times when seeing and showing are enough, but sometimes there is a more proactive role we can take to create change. Alberta artist Peter Von Tiesenhausen took a novel approach to environmental activism when an oil company wanted to put a pipeline across his property in the Peace region. As a large-scale installation artist, Peter creates large works on his land using natural materials like branches, leaves, and earth. After a call to his lawyer, Peter realized he could trademark the top six inches of earth on his property as a living, evolving piece of art. You might think if you own land that you’d have final say on what happens there, but that’s not the case: in most provinces the government still has the authority to grant resource licenses to companies to explore anything under your land. Normally a company exploring the land of a farmer would only have to compensate them for a loss of crops—maybe a few hundred dollars annually—but damaging a piece of art would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in trademark infringement as well as cause a PR nightmare. This simple solution: putting creative thinking into real action, successfully defending Peter’s values about the environment, and preserving his land in its natural state. 

The reality is that all artists have cultural clout. Not every artist has the same reach, or the same voice, but each voice speaking together for change can be loud enough to make it impossible for governments and industries to ignore. In a recent advertisement actor Mark Ruffalo, as well as author Margaret Atwood, make a stand against old growth logging, calling out BC’s forestry policy and giving a voice to the people on the ground blockading roads. A group of printmakers I know recently banded together to produce a series of prints supporting diversity. In September my friend Cassi-jo showed a series of beautiful photographs that highlight queer visibility in our small town. Last year street artist Banksy traveled to Kyiv to put up a mural to boost the morale of the Ukrainian people. 

All of these actions, by local to international artists, have an impact. Not all of us have Banksy’s voice, or Margaret Atwood’s clout, but all of us have a chance—and I would argue, a responsibility—to add our voice to the chorus of people shouting for change. Sometimes the beauty of a landscape is enough to remind us of what we could lose, and sometimes more direct action can be the difference-maker to get all of us moving towards change. Our work can be the lens through which our communities and our society can see and express our collective desire for change. There is nothing insignificant about that.