Fifty Years of Creating Climate Conscious Art

“Behold my works, how beautiful they are, but do not destroy them, as there is no one to repair them after me.” 

Midrash (teaching of enlightenment)

The transition from being a trendy, hard-edged Minimalist artist in New York City in the 1960s to a climate activist artist in the Caribbean was both dramatic and irreversible when I moved from Manhattan to Jamaica in 1969. I had been caught up with the New York art scene, fortunate to have some of the great artists of that time as my friends – notably sculptor David Smith, Andy Warhol, and surrealist painter Mati Klarwein, who each shaped my work in diverse yet powerful ways.

My works vary and often combine diverse approaches: classical painting, multimedia installations, and collaborative projects with like-minded colleagues. These seemingly diverse styles and media keep reappearing in unexpected ways, as I approach each work as unique, applying those techniques most evocative to bringing the work of art to life and engaging the audience. Bridging the gap between the viewer and the artwork has long been one of my greatest ambitions, and I incorporate any and all means that further that communication.

Struck by the exotic tropical vegetation and verdant landscape of Jamaica, my work changed from welded steel sculpture to a personal hyper-aware form of realism both celebrating nature and the land, while raising awareness of ecological degradation. The earliest Jamaican works were quite literal celebrations of nature: intricate pen and ink drawings of the convoluted, slyly erotic tropical vegetation; airbrush watercolors of floral and foliate forms loaded with subliminal meaning; large-scale landscapes both celebrating the land while alluding to its painful history of agricultural and human exploitation; and symbolic portrayals of existential issues such as the rapid degradation of the sea, the wounding of the land through reckless agricultural practice, and the beauty and power of womanhood – women being the bearers and protectors of life. Yet some works were sheer celebrations of the beauty and power of nature itself, transcending our parasitic human intervention on the planet.

The Deep, oil and casein on canvas and driftwood, 7’6″ X 10′, 2019

For nearly twenty years, these themes were interwoven in my paintings, combining and overlapping to evoke “…life, hope and the spirit of all living things,” one of my favorite quotes about my work by art writer and curator Eleanor Hartney.

My husband, architect and urban planner Eran Spiro, who originally drew me to move to Jamaica, was a constant source of new ideas. He introduced me to the concepts of land use and human settlements interacting with nature, which completely altered the way I now viewed the environment around me. Along with Barbara Marx Hubbard and Bucky Fuller, Eran was a founding member the Committee for the Future in Washington, DC, which later became the World Future Society. We often discussed the future of the planet, and what was openly known for decades: that climate change was inevitable if no urgent measures were taken.

DEEP SEE, shipping containers and artworks, 48′ X 20′, Art Miami 2017

In 1988, my family and I barely survived Hurricane Gilbert. The most powerful and largest hurricane on record, Gilbert chewed its way across the backbone of Jamaica, causing apocalyptic damage. Our home was devastated as we were hit by the tornadoes in the eye of the storm. Eran, myself, and our two children, Benji and Yasmin, were nearly sucked away by the force of the wind. This was a wake-up call of biblical proportions, warning that climate change had begun and that every effort had to be made to change direction and chart a new course for the future.

DEEP SEE, The Living Room, Art Miami 2017

In the ensuing decades, I focused on a series of specific themes that addressed the interlocking issues of destruction of the planet and its life forms; spiritual renewal, necessary to repair ourselves and the damage to the planet; examination of our humanity as custodians; preservation of the life-giving sea, and, most recently; specific climate solutions, both immediate and futuristic.

One of my key works, Yamima was completed in 1996. Originally named Yemeya for the Yoruba goddess of the sea, she began as a maternal figure to protect the sea and travelers on her surface, particularly the Cuban balseros who were going to sea in droves on little more than toilet seats to reach the golden shores of Florida. Three-quarters through the painting, while struggling to bring her to life, I renamed her Yamima (in Hebrew “yam” means “sea” and “ima” means “mother”). All of a sudden she looked back at me, and the rest of the painting painted itself.

Yamima, oil and casein on canvas, 54′ X 36′

While painting these poems to the planet, my own climate awareness was evolving as a result of living with the work, encountering new scientific evidence about climate change, and moving to Miami for ten years from 1999-2009, which put me in the center of ground zero for climate change. In 2003, I founded the MiART Foundation in Miami to address environmental and humanitarian issues, advancing transformation through the power and beauty of art.

Searching for an aesthetically beautiful metaphor for reconnecting with the source, I began the Aurora Series of large canvases in 2009, embracing climate sensitive issues such as the extinction of species, eco-migration, hubris and the grandiose ambitions of man, the crossroads where fossil fuel encounters nature, and a personal narrative of my years in Miami.

More recently, I have embarked on a series of portraits exploring the qualities of human nature that give us hope for the future and indeed make us human, not greed machines. This series is ongoing, along with climate related projects and collaborations with other like-minded artists.

Will the world survive the current wave of greed, ignorance, and malice infecting humanity, which is destroying our planet? Hopefully, if all aware humans exert their will and their skill to turn us away from this nihilistic course. For my part, I will continue to communicate these issues through beauty and the universal language of art. We are the solution.

(Top image: Detail from Yamima, oil and casein on canvas, 54′ X 36)

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Tina Spiro is a New York-born artist residing in Jamaica and Miami. Her career in art spans five decades exhibiting in museums, galleries and biennials internationally. Her art is dedicated to environmental and humanitarian issues, embracing a combination of technical and conceptual practices: classical painting, minimalist sculpture inspired by her mentor David Smith, and pop elements derived from her friend Andy Warhol. She has also had a distinguished career as an art historian in the field of Caribbean Art, curator of large-scale exhibitions (Omniart I, II and II for the City of Miami) and educator in art history and studio art.

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