When it comes to communicating the planet altering impacts of climate change, artist Mira Cantor stays true to the old adage, “a picture’s worth a thousand words.”
Cantor, professor of Art + Design at Northeastern University, says that looking at a painting or other piece of art may motivate people to act on issues like climate change.
“Art is the harbinger for change,” she said. “It’s a very different way of absorbing information.”
Scientists and journalists alike have historically been frustrated by the challenges involved in conveying the immense scale and diversity of impacts that humans are having on our planet. Threats such as sea level rise are often viewed as too abstract or far off in the future to be personally relevant.
Her most recent exhibit “Inundated,” is currently on display through October 30 at Boston’s Kingston Gallery. In her paintings, Cantor uses water imagery as a metaphor for climatic change.
“We’re living in a world that’s either wet or dry,” she said. “I started thinking about how to translate that emergency into works of art.”
The pieces communicate what Cantor refers to as a “sense of impending doom” while also capturing the beauty of nature. She says the water is also a metaphor for the overwhelming amount of information coming from the news media and other sources, especially during this election season.
“We’re being inundated from all sides” by both water and information, Cantor said.
The unfolding drama
Cantor has had a front-row seat to some of the shifts that have occurred in the natural environment over the past decade. She has served as artist in residence at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada, a town known for mountainous views and hot springs.
More recently she spent her sabbatical at the Burren Center of Arts in Ballyvaughan, Ireland, where she enjoyed views of the ocean while also contemplating global change.
“I’ve literally been watching the coastline disappear from year to year,” Cantor said.
The paintings are an attempt to call attention to some of the oft-overlooked issues that are becoming gradually more threatening.
“The tides keep coming in and out and the water is getting higher,” she said. “We’re not spending enough time thinking about [these problems] because they’re not in our face. It’s only a matter of time before they become serious issues.”
Cantor makes use of multimedia to convey the message of many of her pieces. Some of the paintings, like the evocative “Outside,”[see top] use curtain rods and fabric to imply that viewers are sitting by the window. Cantor says this is meant to demonstrate the immediacy of the problem.
“That curtain is not going to keep the water out of our houses,” she said of the piece.
Others, like the expansive and colorful “Wow,” include a piece of plastic glued to the canvas to represent the plastic floating in the ocean.
Cantor strives to create artwork that, while it shares a clear message, engages all of her viewers in a different way.
“Each person brings their own experience to what they’re looking at,” she said. “It’s a dialogue between the viewer and the artist, and each of those dialogues is different.”
Art as social action
When she’s not creating her own artwork, Cantor is inspiring the next generation of artists and activists to do so. She teaches painting and visual ideation courses at Northeastern, a university that prioritizes an interdisciplinary approach to both science and art.
Northeastern offers a Master of Design for Sustainable Urban Environments as well as an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts.
Cantor also leads an annual Dialogue of Civilizations, a six-week study abroad intensive, in Ballyvaughn, Ireland every summer. She hopes to motivate her students to take action to protect the planet – whether through art or any other medium.
“The more exposure you get, the more understanding you have of the way the world works and what you can do about it,” she said.
Cantor admits that when it comes to the wicked problem of climate change, it’s hard to make a difference as an individual. However, she’s confident that her artwork is conveying an important message.
“It brings awareness,” she said. “Maybe through osmosis of some kind it sinks in and people start to make changes.”
–Gwendolyn Schanker is a fourth-year journalism and biology major at Northeastern University. She is the assistant managing editor for the New England Climate Change Review, the current editor-in-chief of NU Sci, Northeastern’s student-run science magazine, and is also a freelance writer for Northeastern’s College of Science.