Enriching lives through art and craft

A Look into Arrowmont’s National Juried Exhibition – Degrees of Commitment: Climate, Ecosystems, and Society

By Megan Adams

Degrees of Commitment: Climate, Ecosystems, and Society, a national juried exhibition at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, showcases the work of 52 artists who foster environmental awareness, advocate for climate action, seek climate justice, and inspire sustainability with their work and practice. The show will be on view in the Sandra J. Blain Galleries at Arrowmont from September 5, 2023, through December 16, 2023. The exhibition was organized by Arrowmont’s Galleries & Collections Manager Heather F. Wetzel and is juried by guest jurors Gina Siepel and Isabel Vargas. 


Installation view of Degrees of Commitment: Climate, Ecosystems, and Society in Sandra J. Blain Galleries at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, 2023. Photograph by Heather F. Wetzel.


The artworks included in Degrees of Commitment address human-environmental relationships in ways that underscore the importance of understanding that “why we make, what we make, and how we make work matters.” For the betterment of us all, the artists in the show grapple with heavy, complex topics like climate change and environmental disasters in ways that are both beautiful and provocative. Working in a wide variety of art and craft disciplines, the artists in the national juried exhibition adopt an array of approaches to addressing the exhibition theme and each artwork in the show tells an important story about environmental concerns. There are numerous connections to be made between the artworks on view, some of the many engaging topics addressed in the exhibition include illustrating a legacy of land commodification, visualizing climate data, celebrating natural materials and forms, cultivating meaningful relationships with nature, and issuing a call to action.

Illustrating a Legacy of Land Commodification

Artwork by artist Anthony Mead engages with commodification and destruction of land that has been pervasive in the US since European immigrants first colonized North America. While artists like McLean Fahnestock and Kari Varner address how the commodifying desire to possess beauty and destructive actions taken in the name of economic growth and societal progress continue to be pervasive today. These artists use their artwork to prompt us to consider what we value and how our actions can be detrimental to the environment whether motivated by desire to possess land we deem beautiful or to destroy land in the name of development and progress. 


Anthony Mead, What is appreciation anyway, 2021. Photo-transfer of Hudson River School paintings and graphite on handmade paper of kale, broccoli, corn husk, and US currency with interference pigment. Photograph by Heather F. Wetzel.


In What is appreciation anyway Anthony Mead adopts imagery from Hudson River School of painters, shrinking down the images of these historic artists to the size of US dollar bills. The Hudson River School of painters were active during a period of rapid westward expansion in the mid-19th century. These landscape painters were united by a shared aesthetic commitment to the tenants of Romanticism. The picturesque depictions of the American landscape rendered by this group in some respects exacerbated colonization efforts that commodified the previously undeveloped land. Mead’s artwork comments on the pervasiveness of this historically problematic view of the environment as a resource to extract from rather that a habitat to live within. Anthony Mead further engages with the topic of land commodification through his artistic process. Each image is photo transfer and graphite printed on paper made of kale, broccoli, corn husk, and US currency with interference pigment. The materiality of the paper substrate recalls the early agricultural pursuits of the European immigrants who settled in the US, and the promise of wealth and prosperity that spurred the widely held ideas of Manifest Destiny at the time. Although this artwork engages deeply with the historical, its message still resonates today, as the artist prompts us as viewers to reconsider our collective understanding of wealth, suggesting that what is most valuable is in fact maintaining the health of the ecosystems we inhabit. 


Left to right: McLean Fahnestock, A Long Season, 2021. Still from 4K Digital video with stop-motion animation, stereo sound. Image courtesy of the artist; McLean Fahnestock, Dominion Part 1, 2023. Still from stop-motion animation with gold leaf. Image courtesy of the artist.


Two video works in Degrees of Commitment by artist McLean Fahnestock investigate the inherent complexity of our relationship to land and place. Fahnestock engages directly with desire in landscape and its consequences, drawing on mythical legacies of idealized landscapes such as the Western concept of Paradise, to investigate the values that stem from the desire to possess the land. Values which have insidious morphed into colonialism, development, gentrification, ecological damage, and climate change. In A Long Season from Fahnestock’s “Beautifully Awful Series,” the artist uses biodegradable glitter in her stop motion video to depict a scene that is deceptively alluring. The glitter sparkling against the picturesque landscape represents “the beauty that accompanies the scenes of the destructive power of nature on the edge.” While in Dominion Part 1 the artist uses imagery of bombs being dropped in the landscape and a snapshot of a luxury real estate development to comment on the range of environmental destruction from overt acts of bombing to more subtle environmental destruction that is being exacerbated through property development and gentrification.


Kari Varner, Blueprints for Slaughter, 2021. Cyanotypes on Arches Aquarelle. Image courtesy of the artist.


In Blueprints for Slaughter artist Kari Varner renders ariel views of Kansas feedlots translated from satellite imagery into cyanotypes to illustrate the impact feedlots are having on our land and climate. Taking Kansas as a sort of illustrative case study, Varner notes that there are 130 feedlots in Kansas alone and although their layouts differ, the operations all share the common goal of maximizing profits and efficiency by housing the most amount of animals in as little a space as possible. In Blueprints for Slaughter the land is stripped of its context and what becomes prominent are the circles and grids incised into the land, creating intensive and unnatural homes of over 2 million cattle in Kansas. This work offers a visual commentary on the way landscapes are being altered detrimentally to fulfill our country’s current agricultural aims of maximum efficiency and profit. 

Visualizing Climate Data

The pervasiveness of technology and media in our daily lives has allowed for climate data to be collected, interpreted, and circulated to the public more rapidly than ever before. The numbers can be overwhelming. The data reflects the state of our planet that has become increasingly hard for many of us to digest and becomes increasingly difficult to sit with when we consider the human culpability communicated through the data. In artworks by Matthew Smith, Kim Mirus, and artist collaborators Claudia O’Steen and Aly Ogasian, the artists collect and grapple with environmental data for us, presenting climate data via new visual forms that contextualize the numbers within stories of human-environmental interconnection.


Matthew Smith, Learning to Count (West Fork Fire), 2021. Photo documentation of temporary site-specific installation, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.


In a photograph from Matthew Smith’s photo series Learning to Count, Smith presents one of the large-scale, site-specific installations that he created on public lands to draw attention to wildfires and climate change in Colorado. The artist visits Colorado’s largest burn zones and builds sculptural abacuses that visually communicate the acreage burned. There is a sublimity to the photograph from this series included in Degrees of Commitment. The monumental abacus couched within a landscape of burned trees attests to the severity of the wildfire, yet if you look to the ground, patches of lush green foliage have surfaced. The new growth is a testament to the resiliency of nature and the cycles of death and rebirth of which we are all a part. Smith’s photograph of this installation grants us the opportunity to bear witness to the magnitude of the devastation caused by this Colorado wildfire while also instilling a sense of hope in viewers. With this project Smith models the power of adopting a visionary mindset as an important first step to formulating proposed solutions to the pervasiveness of climate emergencies. 


Kim Mirus, Particulate Matter Emissions Exposure, 2021. Handwoven cotton, wool, and vintage rayon silk yarn. Image courtesy of the artist.


Artist Kim Mirus works at the intersection of science and craft. To create her weavings Mirus employs traditional weaving techniques to communicate environmental and scientific data. Mirus has substituted the mined metal she previously worked with for natural fiber that she weaves on a floor loom to create an eco-friendlier material for these data weavings. For Mirus the process of weaving offers a new avenue for careful contemplation of the data she is working with. Each decision to warp or weft, the miniscule intersections of stitches coming together in pixel-like forms echo the data being articulated in the piece. Thus, material, process, and subject achieve symbiosis in Particulate Matter Emissions Exposure, a diptych that illustrates data that reflects the inequitable impact of particulate matter pollution in the US, a problem disproportionately impacting people experiencing poverty. 


Left to right: Claudia O’Steen & Aly Ogasian, Keneenaw Observing Station, 2022. Giclee print. Image courtesy of the artists; Claudia O’Steen & Aly Ogasian, Keweenaw 7.18.21, 2022. Giclee print. Image courtesy of the artists.


Keneenaw Observing Station is collaborative multi-media art project by artists Claudia O’Steen and Aly Ogasian designed to examine the effect of climate change on Lake Superior and the Great Lakes System. The project is made up of a series of site-responsive, portable sculptures that are both observational stations/instrumentation as well as repositories of information. Inspired by NOAA monitoring stations, the sculptures contain instruments that are used to collect data measuring wind, waves, visibility, water level, and temperature. O’Steen and Ogasian use this data to explore the possibilities and limitations of perceptual observation. As a part of the artwork, the artists contextualize their findings within the ongoing collection of data through satellite imagery, scientific instrumentation, human memory, and citizen science to predict the future of the lake. The artwork challenges the disciplinary divide between environmental science and art, reimagining data collecting instruments as art objects and data as a poetic illustration of the memory of a site.

Celebrating Natural Material and Forms

The artists included in Degrees of Commitment have a penchant for celebrating the beauty of natural forms in their work. Artists such as Katherine Caldwell, George Lorio, and Eric Stark draw inspiration from organic forms in nature and have studio practices that integrate natural materials into their artistic process, making their work intrinsically environmental but also by definition extremely sustainable. 


Katherine Caldwell, The Compass Rose, 2023. Wheat straws and wheat heads, bronzite, lapis lazuli, cobalt sea glass, and brass beads. Photograph by Heather F. Wetzel.


In The Compass Rose, artist Katherine Caldwell extolls wheat as a beautiful natural form and as an agricultural emblem. Caldwell reinvigorates wheat as a symbol of agriculture for the contemporary moment by utilizing ancient straw techniques and patterns in this wheat weaving. This work recalls the traditional function of artistically fashioned woven wheat designs to symbolize a “communities’ hopes for renewed harvest, safety, fertility, and blessings for prosperity.” The artist acknowledges the current disconnect many of us are experiencing between ourselves and the sources of our food. This artwork is a reminder of our interdependence with the natural world that sustains us while also being a timely presentation of a material that we may take for granted. This piece elevates wheat through the techniques of weaving, tying, and stitching as well as the supplementary materials integrated into the compass rose design. 


George Lorio, Peephole, 2023. Found bark and twigs on fabricated wood armature. Image courtesy of the artist.


George Lorio’s piece Peephole is created using found bark and twigs that the artist collected from neighboring gardens and parks that are arranged on a fabricated wood armature. The sculpture reinterprets a tree form. Lorio uses bits of waste from living trees to create what he terms “fictions” of trees, stumps, and logs. Peephole celebrates the multi-layered materiality of trees while also honoring trees and the crucial role that they play in our ecosystems from providing homes to animals and humans, to producing the oxygen that we breathe and being the most effective agent of carbon capture. Through the act of collecting relics of living trees and rearticulating them in an imaginative tree fiction, Lorio pays homage to both the form and function of trees. 


Left to right: Eric Stark, RG18-23 (hearts), 2023. Sweetgrass, waxed linen thread, found stone. Image courtesy of the artist.; Eric Stark, RG12-23 (ridge), 2023. Sweetgrass, waxed linen thread, found stone. Image courtesy of the artist.


Artist Eric Stark forages for stones along the coast of Maine to use in his sweetgrass and stone sculptures. Stark often takes time to consider the form of the stone in situ, employing a very meditative process of close looking to connect with the foraged stone form that inspires the complimentary basket. The artist finds that the sweetgrass-stone relationship is articulated through the act of making, the stone inspiring the way he weaves coiled sweetgrass around the stone. RG18-23 (hearts) and RG12-23 (ridge) exemplify a beautiful marriage of two organic materials and forms within a single artwork.

Cultivating Meaningful Relationships with Nature

The Degrees of Commitment exhibiting artists are deeply connected to the natural world through their artistic process and the chosen subject matter. Each artist employs their own method for cultivating meaningful relationships with nature that inform their practice. For artists like Arron L. Foster, Brooke and Justin Rothshank, and MaryBeth Boone, acts of observation and discovery in nature inspire the form and message of their artworks. 


Arron L. Foster, A Mere Breath, 2022. Cyanotype on handmade paper. Image courtesy of the artist.


In A Mere Breath artist Arron L. Foster models the cultivation of a meaningful relationship to place through his own engagement with local environs. Foster created this group of cyanotypes in situ as a response to what he describes as the timeless cycles of devastation and recovery that occur along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Through the act of close looking and the experience of capturing a piece of the landscape in perpetuity through this photographic process, Foster engages with the unique qualities of this Ohio riverbank while creating images that also illustrate the overarching phenomena of ecological balance that characterizes nature.


Brooke and Justin Rothshank, 1. Roots Study, 2020. Porcelain, celadon glaze, ceramic decals. Photograph by Heather F. Wetzel.


At the beginning of 2020 Brooke and Justin Rothshank committed to learning more about the land surrounding their home by identifying one plant species every week during their weekly walks with their children around their property. Together the Rothshanks created this series of ceramic works, with Brooke Rothshank producing the botanical illustrations and Justin Rothshank transforming the drawings into decals for the ceramic vessels. The fifty-two vessels in 1. Roots Study represent a repository of environmental knowledge acquired through intentional, experiential acts of discovery in the artists’ locale. The Rothshanks work suggests that developing a relationship with the environments we inhabit can be as simple as going out for a walk and being open to learning something new.


MaryBeth Boone, PAY ATTENTION, 2023. Relief and pressure prints, Garamond type, French cover weight paper. Image courtesy of the artist.


In MaryBeth Boone’s bold, graphic print PAY ATTENTION, the artist voices her concern for the natural world. The insects rendered in green ground the piece in the environmental while the yellow swatch of color in the center of the print emphasizes the message “pay attention,” and the Mary Oliver quote “attention is the beginning of devotion” couched between the two words.  In addition to being an artist, Boone is an avid gardener and committed proponent of sustainable living and her time spent communing with nature inspires her continued dedication to being a good steward of nature, an aspiration she hopes to perpetuate in her work. PAY ATTENTION underscores the importance of paying attention to the ecosystems around us. 

Issuing a Call to Action

Artworks in Degrees of Commitment by artists such as Ann Coddington, Elise Kendrot, and Katie Peck are both beautiful and thought-provoking. The artists employ their disciplinary expertise to create pieces that draw audiences into important dialog about plastic consumption, waste, pollution, and ecologically damaging industrial practices. These artists are just a few of the many included in the national juried exhibition that offer us the opportunity to consider how we may contribute to being the change we hope to see in the world by living more eco-consciously.


Ann Coddington, Albatross 1, 2021. Twined linen and discarded plastic, x-ray. Photograph by Heather F. Wetzel.


Albatross 1 by artist Ann Coddington features a hand-woven basket form accompanied by an x-ray photograph. Coddington’s piece was inspired by a series of unsettling photographs by photographer Christopher Jordan, that capture Midway Atoll albatross birds decomposing on the beach, their state of decay reveals the amount of plastic they inadvertently consumed while skimming the water for food. In the spirit of these photographs Coddington’s Albatross 1, the x-ray photograph reveals that the beautiful, unassuming basket form is filled with plastic. The artwork is a commentary on our inordinate consumption of plastic products that will out-survive us and the other beings like the albatross that we share our planet with. This work asks us to consciously consider our own plastic consumption because none of us really want to live on a plastic-filled planet.


Elise Kendrot, Fracking Necklace #1, 2019. Copper, sterling and fine silver, cubic zirconia, precious opal. Image by Laurie Mefford, courtesy of the artist.


With Fracking Necklace #1, artist Elise Kendrot subverts the contemporary associations of the “statement necklace” fashion trend, reinvigorating her one-of-a-kind statement necklaces with a more traditional symbolic and talismanic function. Kendrot describes the quiet activism of this piece as being a “visual catalyst of curiosity.” The artist hopes that this piece incites dialogue regarding a topic that is often difficult to broach.


Katie Peck, From the Kitchen Window that No Longer Exists, 2021. Shaved carpet remnant. I Photograph by Heather F. Wetzel.


From the Kitchen Window that No Longer Exists by artist Katie Peck takes the form of a shaved carpet that aims to bring attention to carpet recycling opportunities in the US, while also educating audiences about the environmental impact of microfiber pollution resulting from everyday household waste. The central image shaved into the carpet consists of a pair of hands caressing a deceased bird, bordered by a window frame. The image fades in distinction from top to bottom. The imagery Peck shaved into the carpet was inspired by her memory of birds that had passed on as well as birds that imprinted themselves on the large windows in her family home. In this piece the artist grapples with confused childhood memories of loss, revealing the way feelings like loss associated with memory make an impression on us, but change and evolve over time. 

Each artwork in Degrees of Commitment: Climate, Ecosystems, and Society tells an important story about how we relate to the planet. Ultimately, the artworks on view demonstrate the power of art to move us, to inspire us, to make us think more deeply about who we are and how we relate to each other and the ecosystems we inhabit. As human beings our actions have the power to heal or destroy. The choice is ours in how we choose to heed the call to action that this exhibition delivers. 


Megan Adams is an art historian, curator, and community-engaged scholar from Denver, CO. She holds a BA in English from Oklahoma State University and an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from the Univrsity of Denver. Adams adopts interdisciplinary approaches to art scholarship and is passionate about studying the relationships between humans and the environment articulated in art throughout time, with a special emphasis on contemporary ecological and environmental art. She has over four years of experience doing curatorial and collections work at art museums and non-profit organizations including Hampden Art Study Center, Madden Museum of Art, Denver Botanic Gardens, Colby College Museum of Art, and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Adams is the 2023-2024 Kenneth R Trapp Craft Assistant/ Curatorial Fellow at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.


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