Bethany Bartran is an Oklahoma-born painter currently living in The Netherlands by way of Houston, San Diego, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Boston and Athens, Greece. She describes her work as “(r)evolving around global, cultural, scientific & political ~ communications, atmospheres, and pollutions… and not necessarily in that order.” Additionally, as an artist married to a climate scientist for more than a decade, the imagery and issues surrounding this topic have slowly worked their way into her work (see her website and Flickr page). I am especially fascinated with how she appropriates scientific imagery we have all become familiar with, and invites us to look at it in a different way.
How did you become interested in addressing climate change in your work?
When I was younger, I didn’t have any particular focus in my work. I was just showing what was around me, my idiosyncratic take on my surroundings. For example, I’d paint my dreams, or the way the light hit the wall in a corner of my room, and blow it out of recognition, take it totally out of its context, I guess to see what remained recognizable, what remained true. But naturally, as you get older you become more conscientious about what’s happening in the world, and you become wiser. When you travel or move around a bit, like I have, sometimes the things that are the furthest away take on a sense of immediacy. Your ‘surroundings’ start including things that are further and further away, or invisible even. Climate change is something that affects you no matter where you live. I really do feel like a citizen of the world, and this is our generations’ single biggest “elephant in the room”… I suppose I like the idea that I can bring this concept into people’s hearts and minds, on to their living room walls, where they will sit back with their feet up and think about things, allow themselves to be open to acknowledging our problems, and possibly even solutions. That’s the way inspiration works, you float the idea and someone catches it and runs with it. Its sort of an invisible teamwork that we do in society. We all have a role to play.
Several of your paintings are inspired by scientific imagery. In making this imagery your own, what do you hope to communicate?
I want to be accurate, in a way. I know that must sound absurd when you’re looking at my work with a huge spill here and a splash there.. there’s nothing ‘accurate’ about it. In fact, when I’m “in the moment” it’s all feeling and no reservations… just guts. But I’m conveying a force of nature that otherwise wouldn’t be identifiable, or relatable. Science is a very handy way to look at things, everything is extremely defined and logical. There’s no second-guessing about what it ‘means’ and no room for confusion or emotional interpretation. I guess that’s my job, to bridge that gap.
What are people’s reaction to your work? Do they immediately recognize that it is dealing with climate change issues?
Well, some do, some don’t. Everyone seems to have a different opinion! So far, it’s far from settled. I’ve gotten several comments that people disagree with their partner or spouse on which ones are their favorites. That means they’re talking about it and thinking about it, so I’d say, it’s a good reaction. We could use a similar discussion on a global scale, so I’d like to reach a lot more people. Naturally, art is always more powerful when seen in person, but I’d love to hear this group’s reactions.
What do you think is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?
Artists are very sensitive to things that many people wouldn’t account for or have time to consider in their daily lives. This sensitivity allows artists collectively to hold a mirror to society. To give something form, shape or voice is a reaction to a public need to examine our wishes and hopes, as well as our laments. I dare say, we are in changing times, not only with regard to our planet’s ability to sustain us, but we are also shaken politically, financially, technologically and morally to the core. Sometimes you just ‘know’ that something needs to be made, I often “see” a piece in my minds eye and then can’t let it go until its made, even if it takes years. Then, after it leaves the studio, art takes on a life of its own. Some pieces go very far, and see lots of attention and care, and others languish unseen and dusty in the back of a closet. The important thing for artists to do is to keep creating work that engages people, and hope that it fills a need in the society, wherever it finds itself.
What gives you hope?
That the ‘old guard’ will change. The era of industrial capitalists is on its way out, and it will usher in a new, respectful way of living and engaging with each other and our planet. I do sincerely hope it happens in my lifetime, for my kids’ sake.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.