Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Making Room in Regenerative Agriculture for the Arts

by Sheryl Karas M.A., CRARS staff

When it comes to the movement for Regenerative Agriculture, artists often seem to be left out of the conversation. A Google search for “Regenerative Agriculture + artists” and “Regenerative Agriculture + art” brought up only two related listings, both for the same Earth Canvas(opens in new window) program in Australia that pairs regenerative farms with artists for collaborative projects focused on increasing public awareness. Speaking as an artist, I find this exceedingly sad. To quote in new window) founder Bill McKibben from an article he wrote in 2005(opens in new window) about artists and climate change, “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” (Where is the art?) 

Arts and culture have been at the forefront of movements that have changed the world since human beings learned to survive the last Ice Age(opens in new window), another climate change catastrophe that may be dramatically coming to an end. Nomadic hunter-gatherers migrated to the rivers and oceans, learned to cultivate crops, and created civilization as we know it today, while their arts told the stories that needed to be told to help bind people together in larger communities and support this transformation in happening. Science and facts are important because evidence and critical thinking are essential for the right things to be done. But the arts call attention to issues and use evidence to tell stories that stir the emotions, thereby, serving as a conduit to move people to make change they wouldn’t, and couldn’t, otherwise take on.

As a case in point, we need go no further than the Dust Bowl, when the last great agriculturally-related disaster occurred in this country. Artists like painter Alexandre Hogue(opens in new window), photographer Dorothea Lange(opens in new window), author John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath)(opens in new window), songwriter and performer Woodie Guthrie(opens in new window), humorist Will Rogers(opens in new window), and documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz (The Plow That Broke the Plains(opens in new window)) created works of art that riveted America’s attention on the plight of American farm families, challenged the status quo, and changed the national conversation like nothing else. Some, like the Lorentz documentary and the photographs of Dorothea Lange, were funded by New Deal programs for that very purpose and worked quite successfully in garnering public support for future endeavors.

But all is not lost for the current situation. Artists may not know enough about regenerative agriculture yet, but a Google search for “artists + climate change” was much more fruitful. Times have changed since McKibben’s article. The arts and culture creatives of the world are very much in the fight for human survival in the face of climate change. In fact, there is even some research on what kinds of artistic expression are most effective in influencing public opinion and the likelihood of direct action.

The ArtCop21 Study 

ArtCop21(opens in new window) was a global climate festival that took place in Paris and in 54 countries in 2015, launched just ahead of the UN climate talks that took place in November and December of that year. Through 550 major art events consisting of art installations, plays, exhibitions, concerts, performances, talks, conferences, workshops, family events and screenings in addition to gatherings and demonstrations, ArtCop21 successfully connected hundreds of thousands of people to the need for strong climate action. The intention was to inspire citizen engagement in creating climate solutions and a cultural revolution to support the transitions that need to be made. Part of that included examination of what art had the greatest impact (and why) so effective choices could be made in the future.

Laura Kim Sommer and Christian A. Klöckner of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology collected data(opens in new window) from questionnaires filled out by 874 people in response to 37 artworks that were part of exhibits in multiple locations around Paris. Most of the participants reported that they did not know that these exhibits were part of a climate change art festival. 

Participants were asked to rate each artwork on a 1-7 scale. They were also asked what feelings the work evoked, how relevant it seemed to their daily lives, how much it made them think about the issues, and how much it inspired them to believe that they could make a difference. Based on the responses they separated out the pieces into four major categories: ones showing a utopian future, ones showing a dystopian future, ones attempting mythological themes, and those showing the beauty and interconnectiveness of nature in the context of “awesome solutions.” 

What they found was that viewers typically discounted depictions of utopian futures but shut down or reacted badly to the dystopian ones. The ones with mythological themes were perceived more neutrally but did not inspire reflection or inspire action. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most successful pieces in that regard were the ones that showed the beauty and wonder of nature in the context of solutions. The very few pieces that were able to highlight both the problem and the solution were most successful of all.

This is, of course, quite difficult to do in a single work of art so group exhibits including pieces showing the challenging context we’re grappling with as well as those highlighting solutions is more likely to serve a similar purpose. 

An Artist's Personal Reflection

When I was a young child, I spent a lot of my time in the New England woods, collecting plants, and pretending to be a Wampanoag medicine woman. I would grind my collection of leaves and twigs in a bowl naturally carved into a glacial erratic where arrowheads had once been found and pretend to make magic potions. Later, in an art class on botanical drawing, I learned that one of the plants in that area was called sassafras and actually did have medicinal effects.

Today I make part of my living making herbal products(opens in new window) for health and emotional well-being. I am also an artist(opens in new window) whose work has most often centered on the plants one might see in a walk through the woods or while sitting as a child in a patch of grass and weeds. But while most art teachers encourage their students to focus on concept more than aesthetics and to simplify their subject matter down to the one thing they want their audience to focus on, I do the opposite. I want to share the multiplicity of life experience, the complexity present in that patch of grass, even adding more in where a human gardener may have stripped it away. And I intend that people see this as inherently beautiful, if not awe-inspiring. Today in my job as a writer for the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems I have learned to call this multiplicity "biodiversity" and I have learned that it is essential for the health of our ecosystems and our survival as a species.

One of my influences, Georgia O'Keefe, was famously quoted as saying, "When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not."

I believe that the artist's job is to throw a spotlight on something in order to help people see its importance, whether that is a concept or a subject in our environment. It is often quite heartbreaking that in my current job my focus is more on "saving the world" than on celebrating it. So today when I do my art, the activity takes on the function of refocusing MY attention. It's less of a step on the way to a career with art galleries and shows in mind. Instead, at this point in time—fraught with worries about the pandemic, the economy, social unrest and climate change—it's more like a prayer. It is also an affirmation that what has always stirred my imagination and seemed important enough to celebrate as a creative person might actually help save the world.