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Harnessing the power of art to inspire action on climate change


New ways of using art to tell the stories of biodiversity and climate change are being explored in an exhibition in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, and in a creative response to historic books in the University’s world-leading Special Collections.

Galleries Learning Coordinator, Staff Sustainability Architect and climate activist Claire Evans has taken a deep dive into the University’s Art Collection to curate a selection of well-loved and lesser-known works that remind us of the beauty and the importance of the natural world. Her exhibition, ‘Envisioning Tomorrow: Climate Stories from the Art Collection’, runs until 8 June 2024.

Art helps us look to the past, connect to the present and imagine possible futures for us and our planet. It can help to arouse the emotions that will spur us to take action in our own individual ways.

Claire Evans, Galleries Learning Coordinator, Staff Sustainability Architect and climate activist.

Among the highlights are a number of works from the University’s large collection of drawings, woodcuts and manuscripts by Dales historian Marie Hartley. Her 1953 drawing Fields of Askrigg reveals a pre-industrial approach to agriculture, with strips between farmed land left to grass, and fields bounded by thick, diverse hedgerows. These offered shelter and food to wildlife, as well as safe routes for animals to travel between wilder areas, Claire explains. “Looking back to traditional ways of working and living in the land reminds us that allowing space for nature – finding a way to work alongside it, rather than despite it – is essential if we’re to see our environment recover”, she says. “As well as being beautiful works of art in their own right, Hartley’s drawings give us access to the past, to help us ‘remember’ what came before in terms of biodiversity and our relationship with the land.

The Fields of Askrigg by Marie Hartley. Original drawing used in ‘Yorkshire Village’ (1953) © Marie Hartley Estate

“Through art we can also share in what others have found special about the natural world. We can enjoy the woven mass of wildflowers in Hartley’s Teesdale flowers and imagine the scent and the sound of the pollinating insects.

“We can pay attention to the layering of different shapes and shades of leaves in the contemporary ceramics of Sophie MacCarthy. And we don’t always need to venture into the countryside to enjoy nature: Washing Day, Hampstead by Margaret Hannay reminds us that there are many sanctuaries for wildlife (and ourselves) in our urban communities.” Less reassuringly, Cleckheaton-born Edward Wadsworth’s Ladle Slag, Old Hill (1919) transforms a scene of industrial desolation in the Black Country into a thrillingly brutal Vorticist landscape.

Ladle Slag, Old Hill by Edward Wadsworth. Ink and watercolour on paper, 1919. Image credit Leeds University Library Galleries

In the main gallery space, Claire’s new interpretation texts accompany a variety of works by artists ranging from Augustus John to Andy Goldsworthy, to some of the University’s most recent acquisitions. In watercolour and mixed media, Phoebe Boswell’s 2021 Sentinel (Green) portrays a fisherman whose community is being forced to explore deeper and more dangerous waters off the coast of Zanzibar due to climate change and overfishing.

Upstairs in the University’s Special Collections, the latest Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute / Special Collections Brotherton Research Fellow is also exploring art’s role in improving our awareness of the ecology that sustains us all. “My research investigates how to use art and art-making to teach people about biodiversity and environmental awareness in busy towns and cities”, explains Dr Benjamin Skinner. Taking inspiration from the historic botanical books in the University’s world-renowned Cookery Collection, he is designing and illustrating an urban foraging guidebook, “drawing attention to what is often overlooked, and cataloguing how to harvest bark, roots, seeds, flowers, and fruits”.

“Along with the book, I’ll be leading exploratory walks through green spaces adjacent to the University campus to encourage academics and students to take breaks from their busy schedules and appreciate their proximity to the wonders of our shared natural world”, says Ben.

Envisioning Tomorrow: Climate Stories from the Art Collection’ runs at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, until 8 June.

Admission is free, with no need to book, and the Gallery is open from 10am – 5pm, Tuesday – Saturday. For more information on the exhibition, visit the University of Leeds Libraries Galleries website.

You can follow Dr Benjamin Skinner’s progress on his project, ‘Encounters with Flora’, via his Instagram and the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute website.

Featured Photo: Marshland near Wetherby by Marie  Hartley. Ink and watercolour on paper, 1931 © Marie Hartley Estate

This article is republished from the Leeds University Libraries blog. Read the full article here.