In mid-August of this year, the Artists and Climate Change core writing team was scheduled to spend a week on retreat at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. With the support of a grant from Invoking the Pause, a foundation devoted to “supporting climate change trailblazers,” the five of us were to meet together in a physical place for the first time rather than communicate as we usually did through email. Our task was to determine how the blog could grow over the coming year. As a group, the five of us are engaged in different arts disciplines (photography, theater, research/curating/project development and public art/painting) and live in three different countries (the US, Canada and the Netherlands). It was to be an opportunity for intense planning, bonding as a team and living in a beautiful environment that supported a natural lifestyle. Needless to say, we were all very, very excited. Alas, for me, the retreat didn’t happen.
Two days before the start of our project, I tripped over a concrete parking barrier and broke my kneecap, arm and nose. After having surgery on the knee and a cast put on the arm, I was totally immobilized and was to remain so for at least a month with partial mobility in the months that followed. I was devastated. The team tried to Skype me and then call me into their meetings but the reception at the Omega Institute was very spotty – it didn’t work. Ultimately, they had a very productive and inspiring week and came away with some exciting ideas that are already being implemented. After reading recent email communications from the group, I think what I missed the most from not being there with them was the team building and bonding that occurred among the four artist/ writers.
Meanwhile, at home, I was determined to do something productive during this convalescence. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t walk and my left arm didn’t bend, but I could sit in a wheelchair with my leg stretched out straight and use my right hand to make art. I spread my art supplies, already packed for down time at the retreat, on the dining room table and began to make an artist’s book on climate change that I ultimately titled, Genesis Redux: A Poem on Paradise Twice Lost in Pencil, Plastic, Paint and Glue. I didn’t just pull the idea out a hat – I love books in all forms and had been contemplating this format for a while. Although I usually work on large scale mixed media paintings and installations, I have also completed hundreds of intimate mixed media works on paper measuring from 6” x 6” to 8” x 12” that I call “Notes to Self” so I was familiar with the size restraints.
The book-making process was slow going because my tolerance for sitting at the table was limited, but I persisted. I began with the text which models biblical language and compares the original biblical flood, brought about by mankind’s evil, greed and lust, with the catastrophic floods that are coming as a result of our evil, greed and lust. Each page took me two or three days to complete. As all artists know, when you are fully engaged with your work, everything else around you fades away. I call this phenomenon “entering the zone.” For those few hours a day when I was working, I didn’t think about my knee or my arm or everyday tasks that were difficult to accomplish like bathing and dressing. I looked forward to that time “away.” Each page seemed like a victory and gave me a sense of accomplishment; it was fun showing my visitors the progress I was making and it gave them something to talk about during their time with me. I will not retell the whole story of the book here because it would spoil the surprise ending but it can be accessed on my website by clicking on this link.
How am I doing now, twelve weeks after the accident? I’m making steady progress, going to physical therapy three times a week. I’ve graduated from a walker/wheelchair to a cane. My limbs are free of constraint. It is wonderful not being dependent on others for simple tasks. I was told that I wouldn’t be back to normal for a full year after the surgery, but I’m getting around and even driving. I will soon be able to work on large scale paintings for limited periods of time. What have I learned? That in a split second, your life can change dramatically and that art, besides its ability to inspire, educate, challenge, motivate and bring joy, can also be therapeutic.
As for the book, the finished product measures 8.5” x 11.” The materials I used (graphite, oil stick, documentary photographs and small segments of old paintings glued onto the surface of the pages) were perfect for both the simplicity of the text and for my limited ability to move around. Whether or not it meets my usual artistic standards is not the point; for me it was a success. In the end, the project was a classic example of the adage, “if you are handed lemons, make lemonade.”
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.