The environment has always been a prominent subject in all forms of art. Landscape paintings and wildlife photography are forms of art which capture what we see, or even feel, in nature. Performance art such as music and dance can also be inspired by nature. While some environmental art is created simply for enjoyment, some artists use the medium to make a statement on environmental issues that need to be changed.
So what is sustainable art? To discuss this we must first understand the term sustainability. The definition of the word is the ability to maintain something at a certain level. In the context of the environment, this means balancing our need for resources with the needs of other living things, and the ability of the environment to continually provide those resources. Everything we take from the environment has a cost. Modern concern over sustainability has risen for many as a result of the industrial revolution, which created great advancement in manufacturing and production at the cost of natural resource depletion. If we use resources at a rate in which they cannot replenish (or use resources that can’t replenish at all), the environment will run out. In addition, manufacturing and production creates many forms of pollution – harmful waste generated during the process of production, and when we throw things away. Sustainability refers to the need to carefully consider what and how much we use, and what we leave behind.
Sustainable art can be one or both of two things; art that is itself sustainable, and art that is created to inspire sustainability in society. Art that is sustainable typically uses natural materials in its creation. While typically less permanent, natural materials are not harmful pollutants in the environment.
Why are sustainable materials important? Let’s consider one of the most common materials used in painting – acrylic paint. Acrylics are a great choice for beginners and experts alike, considering the quality and durability of the painting you can make. But what are acrylic paints made of? The binder in acrylic paint (the ingredient which holds the pigment together) is acrylic polymer emulsion, which is a synthetic resin – liquid plastic. Acrylic that gets washed down the drain, or otherwise improperly disposed of, can be a significant pollutant. The plastic within them does not biodegrade, and will remain in the water and soil for living things to ingest. Even if acrylic paints are labeled non-toxic, that only refers to people ingesting small quantities; not the cumulative effects of plastic pollution in the ecosystem.
Not all common paint ingredients are bad. Many watercolor paints use a binder known as gum arabic, which is hardened sap from an Acacia tree. Many pigments are made from natural minerals, and can even be made from organic sources like plant material. Ultimately, the more you know about what you use to make your art the better. It’s better to be cautious when disposing of paints.
Alternatively, some sustainable art intentionally uses unsustainable materials. One environmental issue of increasing concern is plastic pollution in the ocean. To address this, a number of artists have creatively designed art exhibits made entirely out of plastic debris recovered from the ocean. This type of sustainable art repurposes these unsustainable materials in a way that is not nearly as environmentally destructive. In addition, many of these exhibits are intended to send a message on plastic pollution; just how much plastic is in our oceans, and what kinds of life it impacts. If an artist can make an art exhibit entirely out of trash found washed up on the beach, how much is floating out in the ocean? What can we do about it?
Sustainable art is something you can do as well. There are many great resources online for creating or using sustainable materials.
The Environmental Volunteers has even done a nature painting program making paints out of natural materials! Watch our virtual Painting with Nature Program https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYZhuS7Y5Ps&t=1s
You can also reuse your unsustainable materials as art. Whenever you go to throw something away, consider whether it can be reused in a fun art project. It’s a great challenge for your own creativity, and can be an inspiration for others.
By Drew Thompson, Program Coordinator