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Art of the Possible

Conservation success depends on many advocates—and contemporary artists want us all engaged.

  • Lynne Warren
  • Conservation
  • Dec 01, 2018

Spirits soar at a Los Angeles high school, where a mural by artist Jess X. Snow celebrates the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo and the Latina students who helped create the art.

LINDA LOZANO WAS A SOPHOMORE at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in downtown Los Angeles when she picked up a paintbrush and a spray can and joined an unusual project. Supported by a cadre of environmental and social organizations, two young art teachers led Lozano and 14 classmates in creating a large-scale mural next to the high school’s athletic courts to celebrate a threatened local bird—the yellow-billed cuckoo.

The painting also includes self-portraits of the student artists, all daughters of Latino immigrant families. “At first I thought it would just be cool to have my picture on the wall,” 16-year-old Lozano told reporters covering the completion of the mural in 2016. But as the girls learned about the cuckoos—and the long journeys the birds make from South and Central America each spring to raise their young in California—they began to relate the cuckoo’s lives to their own experiences. “Then it hit me,” Lozano said. “That’s our story up on that wall.”

Fostering that kind of visceral connection with the natural world makes the arts powerful partners for conservation. “Culture gives people a safe space to engage with important issues,” says Mustafa Santiago Ali. A 24-year veteran of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and longtime environmental justice advocate, Ali is now senior vice president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a national nonprofit working on a range of causes that includes clean air, clean water and climate change. The enormous global popularity of hip-hop makes it a natural meeting point for people of different ages and backgrounds, Ali says. “It’s a unifier, a genre that from its beginning has talked about our most vulnerable communities, about how to make things better.”

Award-winning performers like rapper Common or singer-songwriter Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas can draw huge crowds to rally for a cause. But artists offer more than celebrity: They infuse humanity into environmental issues that can feel abstract and impersonal. “I’ve worked with leading scientists from all over the world, and what they do is incredibly important,” says Ali, “but they’re often not the best at making the science accessible.” In contrast, when young people see themselves reflected in an artist’s experience, he says, “you’ve got a whole new generation who feel comfortable with an issue and want to learn more.”

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Mural of watercress darter in Birmingham, Alabama

In Birmingham, Alabama, Merrilee Challiss and Creighton Tynes help finish a mural of the endangered watercress darter.

Hoping to spark that sense of curiosity and connection, Oregon-based artist Roger Peet has been the driving force behind the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Mural Project, launched in 2015. So far, Peet has created more than 16 larger-than-life paintings of at-risk animals and plants indigenous to communities across the United States, often collaborating with local artists. Along with the cuckoos in Los Angeles, murals range from flying squirrels in Asheville, North Carolina, and a jaguar in Tucson, Arizona, to monarch butterflies in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and white fringeless orchids in Berea, Kentucky.

Given that the federal government now lists more than 2,400 animals and plants as threatened or endangered, “it’s easier to find an endangered species than it is to find a wall to paint a mural on,” Peet laments.

For the fourth mural in his series, Peet found his wall on the side of a small used-book shop in Birmingham, Alabama. The southeastern United States is a hotspot for freshwater biodiversity, and a few springs in and around Birmingham offer the last sanctuaries for the watercress darter, a tiny fish listed as endangered since 1970. Peet joined forces with the bookstore proprietor, local college faculty and two Alabama artists to create a 30-foot-long portrait of the brightly colored darter. To boost the species’ chances for survival, a team began restoration work at Roebuck Springs—a darter stronghold inside a city park near the mural site—in March 2018, removing asphalt and installing native plants to control runoff and improve water quality. “If a mural can get people to identify with where they live and with the creatures that share their space,” Peet says, “then the project is a success.”

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Airboat in Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge with musician Conner Youngblood

In Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, musician Conner Youngblood explored by bicycle and airboat (above) then wrote a song about the site, blending banjo (below) with vocals and field recordings of birds. “I want people to be aware of our public lands,” he says. “There’s somewhere out there for everyone.”

Hearing nature’s music

Sense of place rings through the compositions of Conner Youngblood, a musician based in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’ve always felt most at home in natural spaces,” he says, “and I wanted to connect this love of exploring and wildlife to my music.” Wild lands as different as South Dakota badlands and Finnish forests star in his music videos—not as mere backdrops, but as subjects themselves. “I imagine landscapes when creating songs,” he says, and the places “create the videos.”

Portrait of Conner Youngblood with a banjo

One such place is in northern Utah, where the Bear River nears Great Salt Lake, sprawling into a delta of open water and marshes surrounded by mudflats and upland knolls. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages nearly 80,000 acres here as the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a haven for millions of birds each year, including 67 species that rely on this unique habitat as their nesting grounds.

In 2017, the founders of Sustain Music and Nature, a Colorado nonprofit that uses popular music to promote engagement with public lands, invited Youngblood to explore the refuge and create a song and video as part of their Songscapes project. While there, he recorded bird calls and later mixed them into his music—“a very literal way of capturing the place inside a song,” he says. But Youngblood’s goals go beyond weaving nature into his creative practice. “You can get people into important issues using other things they enjoy, and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t enjoy music,” he says. “I would love to see more people of color getting out of their comfort zones and exploring natural spaces. For me, the most important issue in conservation is getting people involved in the first place.”

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Plastic sculpture of Chompers the shark

Chompers the 10-foot shark (above) is built of plastic trash—including toy shovels, hoses and flip-flops—found on beaches near Bandon, Oregon for a project called Washed Ashore. Volunteers help collect, sort (below), clean and assemble the trash with founder Angela Haseltine Pozzi. “We couldn’t make these sculptures without their contributions,” she says.

Trash transformed

When sculptor Angela Haseltine Pozzi talks about getting people involved, she conjures big numbers: thousands of volunteers, millions of viewers and tons of plastic trash. That trash, collected from beaches near her Pacific Coast home in Bandon, Oregon, is both nemesis and raw material for what has become her life’s work.

People dump nearly 9 million tons of plastic refuse into the world’s oceans every year, causing catastrophic damage to marine life. To make the magnitude of the problem visible, in 2010 Pozzi founded Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea. Since then, she has guided volunteer teams in transforming some 20 tons of beach trash—from toys and shoes to commercial fishing gear and industrial cast-offs—into creatures that struggle against the plastic flood. Dozens of life-size and super-size figures include a sea turtle and a shark along with a tufted puffin, parrotfish, seahorse, river otter, sea lion and many more.

Volunteer sorting through plastic trash

Pozzi designs these creatures after consulting scientific research and studying wildlife photography. “The faces of the animals have to feel alive,” she says, “with eyes that look right at you.” But making the art is communal, accomplished largely by volunteers—some 10,000 in the past eight years—who pitch in for a day or more. “People come to Bandon for the beauty of the Oregon coast, and many choose to spend some of their time with us,” Pozzi says. “We get Buddhists and Baptists and rednecks and hippies around the table all working together. Everyone loves the ocean.”

You won’t find the products of these inclusive collaborations in exclusive galleries. “I come from the art world, where success for many is all about getting the stamp of approval from curators and collectors,” Pozzi says. “But to me, using the power of the arts to carry a message to the general public is more important.” That means reaching as many people as possible, so Washed Ashore’s traveling exhibits have criss-crossed the country, appearing at aquariums, zoos, museums, botanical gardens, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, a U.S. State Department conference, United Nations Headquarters in New York City and even at a shopping center in Chicago.

Washed Ashore sculptures have now been seen by some 25 million people. “I have watched a person standing in front of one of our figures start to cry, saying they had no idea the plastic problem was so bad,” Pozzi recalls. That kind of response makes her believe that art really can influence what we buy and throw away. “Great art can change the way you think,” she says. “And every piece of plastic you keep out of the ocean can save an animal’s life.”

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Elk painting by Arturo Garcia

At the Denver Art Museum, painter Arturo Garcia (below) describes how he combines realistic forms with intense, surprising colors to create works that focus attention on the iconic wildlife of the Rocky Mountain West, including bison and elk (above). “Art holds a power almost no other thing possesses,” Garcia says. “It speaks to the viewer, and there is a certain awe and magic when that happens.”

Honor the wild

Painter Arturo Garcia likewise believes art can reframe our understanding—of animals, peoples and the history of a landscape. Born in Mexico, Garcia moved to Colorado more than a decade ago and began making pictures of local creatures such as moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes and wild horses. When he encountered bison, he became obsessed. He traveled to Wyoming to sketch and photograph the mighty beasts of Yellowstone. He learned from Native Americans about the crucial role of bison in their traditional culture and subsistence, and studied the white conquest of the Great Plains, where wholesale slaughter of the vast herds drove bison toward extinction.

In late 2016, the National Wildlife Federation invited Garcia to witness the release of wild bison onto the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, a homecoming after an absence of more than 130 years. He painted the moment live, though the day was freezing. That canvas is one of more than 100 bison paintings Garcia has made over several years in a series he calls Tatanka: The Spirit of the Land. “I paint my buffaloes, as the Indians like to call them, running, grazing, in constant motion, like life itself,” Garcia says. “That animal holds a fierce truth. It shaped this land, and its annihilation erased a vital piece of our history.”

Artist Arturo Garcia

For Garcia, it’s not enough to hang his canvases and walk away. He has demonstrated color techniques at the Denver Art Museum and given talks on the history behind his paintings to accompany an exhibition at the city’s Mexican Cultural Center. While in Wyoming, he taught an art workshop for Native American children, empowering his young students to paint their own stories of the wild things that occupy their homeland.

Garcia also encourages viewers of his animal portraits to connect with organizations dedicated to protecting animals and their habitats. That he was able to see his inspiration for “Elk at Dawn” shows what conservation makes possible. Little more than a century ago, elk were nearly wiped out in Colorado, with fewer than a thousand estimated to survive. After decades of advocacy and careful management, Colorado is now home to more than a quarter-million elk, the largest population in North America. “We are lucky to have healthy wildlife in our beautiful state,” Garcia says.

Supporting wildlife populations and thriving human communities should be an integrated effort, Ali believes. Along with his role at the Hip Hop Caucus, he also serves on the NWF board of directors. “It just makes sense,” he says. “The things wildlife need to survive—clean air, clean water, safe places to raise their young—are the same things people need to survive. It’s not us or them. It’s us and them.” The arts possess a unique capacity to engage the most inclusive audience possible with that idea and with the work it calls for, Ali adds. “Artists have always been the truth-speakers, opening people’s minds to the possibility of a different future, a brighter future—for all of us.”


Lynne Warren wrote about young outdoor leaders and surprisingly helpful snakes in the August–September 2018 issue.


More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Art Inspired By Nature: Beautiful Vectorfunk Wildlife »
Nature's Witnesses: Powerful images can inspire conservation »
The Art of Sustainability »
Our Work: Wildlife Conservation »

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