Activist art: Building bridges against the climate crisis

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 10:36am

Joseph Trumpey's house of straw

Joseph Trumpey's house of straw Buy this photo
Courtesy of Joseph Trumpey

Climate change is real and it’s happening now. Fromfossil fuelemissions and greenhouse gases, to the growing ecological footprints of individuals all across the country, our earth is in a state of crisis. These are only a few layers to the broader crisis we are facing while simultaneously waiting for government officials to implement some form of policy to change this broken system. As the 2020 election moves closer each day, individuals and candidates are doing everything in their power to draw attention to this issue. Artists are no exception.

The climate crisis is abstract and intimidating. It can be confusing to understand exactly what it entails when the effects of climate change are sometimes hidden, or have been entrenched in our societal norms for so long, we forgot they were even there. As activists and community members alike are taking to the streets, urging for change, so are artists. Their work serves as an integral visual reminder of what is at stake, and in many cases, bridges the gap between different communities, identities and locations across the country. Artist and activist Ellen Rutt and activist Joseph Trumpey, a University of Michigan professor, are on the frontlines of this movement in Michigan, working alongside their communities in Detroit and Ann Arbor to raise awareness about this crisis, unifying individuals of all identities and reminding us that in this fight, we are all connected and must urge for policy change together. 

Detroit based artistEllen Ruttis often known first for her massive, abstractmurals. With murals located in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Detroit and beyond, Rutt explains how her role as a muralist came to be and how it has guided her path into other, more environmentally driven projects. 

“I definitely think that murals are how I branded myself. And now, I’m shifting away from that, or shifting into more political murals or saying no to murals that don’t align with the projects that I really think are important,” Rutt said in an interview with The Daily at her studio in Detroit. Rutt’s work consists of colorful, abstract paintings of all sizes — her murals being the largest — and are often for clients. Rutt mentions her murals as the more traditional side of her practice, a way to sustain herself and her studio. 

“Do I always want to do commercial murals? What are the conversations I want to have? Moving forward … it’s figuring out how to do (murals) with as much integrity as possible,” Rutt said. With murals as her tool for supporting her more contextual collections of paintings, Rutt has always been an advocate for the environment, a theme that has driven her most recent collection of paintings.

“(The environment) was definitely always part of my life … it was just after theIPCCreport came out at the end of 2018 that I think kicked every part of me into gear because it put a very tangible time frame (on) the number — we have 12 years. It felt like all of a sudden all of these things that were sort of ambiguously in the future had a timeline. It was at that moment that everything inside of me switched,” Rutt said.

This environmental influence shows through in Rutt’s most recentcollectionofpaintingstitled “This Must be the Place.”  Each painting includes found textures existing in conversation with Rutt’s well known, bright, abstract shapes. 

“I haven’t always done this, but I would go outside and do rubbings and gather textures and find various ways to use the landscape for the backdrop of my paintings. That shows up in a number of ways, from very linear to more abstract and loose,” Rutt said. She explained that bringing these textures into other spaces creates a very specific experience, one viewers can exist within. Rutt described how this process was formed from her experience with murals. As she created each part of the collection, she asked questions about the way that spaces create experiences and how our culture can interact with the spaces depicted in her paintings. It is these questions that build the visuals and theme of “This Must be the Place,” a collection created in direct response to the climate crisis.  

“These (paintings) were my way of gathering evidence and capturing aspects of places that may not always be around or that will inevitably change. I think there is also something deeply intimate about not just looking at something and drawing, but setting (the canvas) on the wall and really physically being on the ground or in a space. That also really reconnected me with my commitment to what it means to participate in a conversation about climate change,” Rutt said. She explained that this body of work pulls textures from all around the world, bringing textures of all environments to one gallery space for audiences to interpret. 

“I can't make work outside, in this way, and not say it exists within the context of climate change. We have to deal with that … now,” Rutt said. 

The textures present in “This Must be the Place” started at a residency Rutt completed in New York, and more textures were pulled from locations all across the United States during a road trip to Los Angeles. Rutt explained that while the message of this collection may not immediately emerge, it is the selection of these locations and the individuals she meets at each location that build their context and bring her closer to a fight against climate change. 

“In my current juncture, I’m not an energy expert, and I’m not a policy expert. What I do have access to are forms of culture. So what I’m most interested in at this moment, which will eventually evolve, is learning enough about these other (places) to funnel the information I learn to all the people who pay attention to my work, and also connect with people who are on the front lines, who are people of color, who are marginalized communities to also say, ‘Where are you needing the most support, how can we envision this just transition, how can I be an ally?’” With this notion, Rutt explained her personal and artistic ties to how this body of work especially impacts policy and climate reform.

“I don’t know that my particular work will inspire policymakers to act differently. I think it’s the way that (these paintings) are made and the reason for them being born. It’s all the auxiliary things outside of the paintings which is starting to ask, where should I do the place paintings, and why do them there? Who do I meet while I’m there? The more people talk about it, the more it just becomes known and will ultimately elevate the activism to a degree where I hope policy makers are like, ‘Wow, this is serious,’” Rutt said.  

Rutt’s work invites us to understand that we are all connected to the spaces we inhabit. Rutt argues that it is in these overlaps of our environments where viewers can see how integral it is to protect these spaces, as they are already changing.

“We have to first see (climate change) as a huge problem and see the alternatives not as something to be overwhelmed by — or maybe to be overwhelmed by — but to commit to anyway, because it actually could benefit so many people in ways that we can’t even imagine yet. It’s not as much an act of sacrificing as it is an act of liberation, making it as joyous and empowering as possible to change our whole view on the value system that we currently have,” Rutt said. 

A parallel to Ellen Rutt’s environmentally driven abstract paintings and murals is ProfessorJoseph Trumpey. An educator at the University’s Stamps School of Art & Design and the School of Natural Resources & Environment, Trumpey said in an interview with The Daily that “making beautiful stuff to change the world,” is a gig for him. Similar to Rutt’s work, his emphasis and extensive knowledge of green building focuses on connection and inspiring broader communities to take action in the fight against climate change. 

“I think there’s a natural fit for creative work to be able to tell unique stories,” Trumpey said. “Personally I was an avid boy scout as a kid in the ’70s, so my time was spent learning about the Big Woods and how to camp and to do things, but it was also … how to clean up.” 

Trumpey said environmental issues impacted society early on, and now they have lasting effects on us today.

“For the last fifty years, the environment has been a pressing issue in the mindset of North Americans. Now we’re on the rebirth of the first Earth Day and we’re on the anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. All of that set into motion a lot of activism,” Trumpey said.  While these early forms of activism have shaped the action we are aiming to take today, Trumpey mentioned that the climate crisis is not so black and white. 

“I think it was easier to get people motivated back then because rivers were on fire; that’s a very dramatic thing that doesn’t take much paying attention to notice. People look at that and go, ‘Oh crap … bad news, we need to fix that right?’ And now it’s a lot more subtle. Look, it’s a beautiful day, but up there in the atmosphere, there are bad greenhouse gases,” Trumpey said. 

With this knowledge of the environment, Trumpey’s work is heavily centered around environmentally conscious building and reducing the sizes of footprints that exist within the built environment. A master ofstrawbale building, Trumpey has educated students in this strategy at the University’s botanical gardens and lives in astrawbale homethat he built with his wife and family.  

“We live off the grid and we do not purchase meat or eggs. We grow half of our food and we make all of our electricity. So once you’re paying attention in those sort of ways you understand that there’s such a thing as good pork versus bad pork, and there’s good electricity versus bad electricity.” 

Trumpey noted that while he pays attention to his footprint in this way, other larger groups of individuals (he offered the University population as an example) do not. 

“This works for me and it works for subsets of folks, hopefully we can get it to work for decision makers and policy makers because if you look at U-M, we can’t expect 90,000 people to pay attention to their electricity this way. If we got the decision makers to think about it like, ‘Oh crap. There really is bad electricity,’ and that’s called the grid,” Trumpey said.

Trumpey explained that the grid is heavily based on fossil fuels and large areas of development, like the University, are built with this type of environmentally harmful electrical system. Strawbale buildings combat this, while simultaneously building connections among those who are ready to make these changes in the built environment. 

“You’ve got to build those relationships and trust to be able to do something that’s technically against the rules. ‘Strawbale buildings are technically illegal in the state of Michigan.’ So how do you get somebody to be able to trust you enough to do something illegal, and you’re not doing it in the shadows like to rebel? You’re doing it in full daylight to get people to pay attention differently,” Trumpey said.  

It is this notion that makes Trumpey’s work such a strong parallel to Ellen Rutt’s environmentally themed paintings. Both individuals are using their knowledge and depictions of environmental consciousness to invite a broader audience to learn from their techniques and urging them to follow their lead. 

Trumpey also heads an effort to build a sustainable campus farmfor students at the University, made entirely out of straw.

“I think that’s what the strawbale at the farm is all about. It’s about building a community, but it’s also about pushing the edge out so that people could go, ‘Oh, look, yeah, that’s cool.’ I understand the mission of that, it’s tangible, it’s part of a bigger thing. (Strawbale campus farms) gets a lot of attention and people are there, they’re drawn to it, because it’s beautiful and has texture. It was built by humans that they know, and it came from the land,” Trumpey said. 

Trumpey explained that this is the type of thought we need to approach green buildings with. He argues that we need to focus on the bigger picture instead of aestheticized debates that are currently circulating the climate crisis. 

“Efficient building is cool, it’s needed, but it won’t fix everything. We get distracted by the scale of things, like the plastic straw debate. There’s stupid stuff we get lost on. My house and my practice doesn’t have a significant effect on the footprint of Southeastern Michigan or my township because it’s just me and my family right now, but I think you punch outside your weight class, because it draws a lot of attention and makes people think,” Trumpey said. 

The work of both Ellen Rutt and Joseph Trumpey is unifying members of Ann Arbor and Detroit communities. By starting a conversation through abstract art and green building, Rutt and Trumpey are making alternatives to our broken system accessible to the masses. As they open these conversations and engage with wider audiences through their work, a wider understanding of the need for environmental policy reform becomes even more present. While this work is not directly building new policy, through its inclusivity and ability to spark conversation, the informed viewers of Rutt’s art and Trumpey’s buildings can come away with the realization that in order to make environmentally conscious decisions, we must urge for policy reform to make them more feasible.

“How do we change the system so that it’s not about making smart or ‘right’ choices, it’s so that the options available are significantly better? How can we stand by our morals, work to get better, then just commit to understanding we’re interwoven? Let’s fight to break apart this system of reliance on fossil fuels,” Rutt said.