Menu

Artists, scientists, educators collaborate on climate change exhibit

When the weather gets hot, humans aren”t the only species that just want to cool off. This piece of information, in the context of predicted trends in global warming, is attracting attention across diverse disciplines.

In early May, a group of 40 artists, scientists and educators convened to discuss climate change in the Lake Superior region, as well as the role of art in educating the public about this complex topic. During the past few months, the group has been putting together an art exhibition designed to help people understand the likely future impact of climate change on Wisconsin”s Northwoods.

The exhibition, which is scheduled to tour Wisconsin and Michigan throughout 2007, will include 20 pieces of fine art commissioned specifically to illustrate this issue, as well as educational materials on climate change and action steps for individuals interested in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

This innovative project has brought together individuals from a variety of backgrounds – people who would not normally cross paths in their professional lives – to work toward a common goal. At the May gathering, David Mladenoff, a professor of forest ecology and management in the University of Wisconsin-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, shared his research about trees with the group.

“Since the ice age, tree species have been chasing their place in the climate. They travel as fast as they can to the spot they belong,” says Mladenoff. “From pollen preserved in lake sediments, we know which tree species were here thousands of years ago, and how the species composition changed along with changes in climate. The forest is always changing.”

His research suggests that during the next century, due to rising temperatures, many native Wisconsin tree species will likely migrate northward – into the traditionally colder climes of Canada – to stay in their climactic comfort zone.

One example is paper birch, a species that prefers cool, moist conditions. Birch populations have already been dramatically affected during the last 20 years by more frequent and severe droughts. Climatologists predict hotter and drier summers in the years to come, conditions that would cause paper birch in northern Wisconsin to continue declining and potentially disappear from the region.

Melissa Cooke, a UW-Madison graduate student studying art, also attended the workshop. There, she showed a slide of an engraving she produced that dovetails Mladenoff”s work. The piece depicts trees being transported on hospital gurneys across a mountainous landscape. “This image is about how trees have to move north due to global warming,” says Cooke. “The gurneys are a symbol of this emergency and the need to heal this situation.” Cooke and Mladenoff met for the first time at the workshop.

The 20 artists included in the project were chosen from among more than 100 applicants who submitted examples of their work and statements of interest. The artists – who work in a variety of media, including ceramics, watercolors, music and batik on silk – have been developing their pieces this summer.

For their part, participating scientists may act as “muses” for some of the artists. In addition to Mladenoff, other UW-Madison collaborators include Terry Balser, professor of soil science; Tim Kratz, senior scientist in limnology; John Magnuson, professor emeritus of limnology; and Scott Spak, a graduate student studying climate modeling in the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. Marc Schwartz, a UW-Milwaukee professor of phenology, is also a partner in the project. The scientists ensure the group has access to up-to-date information about the expected effects of climate change on the forests, soils, lakes and bogs of the Lake Superior region.

An educational component of the project includes visits to regional schools by the group to talk about climate change. Student art produced during these visits will be included in the exhibition.

“We hope to inspire public involvement and offer options for further learning and individual action,” says Dolly Ledin, an outreach coordinator at UW-Madison”s Center for Biology Education, who directs the program. “We also hope that the public will relate to the artist”s work and will explore climate change from new perspectives.”

The project, titled “Paradise Lost? Artists on Climate Change in the Northwoods,” is funded by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment and the Wisconsin Arts Board. Other project partners include the UW-Trout Lake Research Station and the North Lakeland Discovery Center.

The exhibition is scheduled to tour throughout 2007, with stops scheduled for Madison, Rhinelander, Ashland, Manitowish Waters and Wausau in Wisconsin, as well as Calumet, Houghton, Hancock and Ironwood in Michigan.