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The Artsy Side of Wetlands

Written on: September 26th, 2022 in Outreach

By Olivia Allread, DNREC’s Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program (WMAP)

For many of us about to read this blog post, we may not be artists at heart. In fact, some of us may have not picked up a paint brush or sculpting clay since middle school. Everyone has their niche, right? Luckily a benefit of modern times is being able to participate in cross sections of expression. Our appreciation of the natural world, much like the work of an artist, can be influenced by the mediums we interact with. Some artists prefer photography to charcoal drawing, just like some scientists prefer outdoors field work to structured lab procedures. Let’s go past the policy making and not worry about grant deadlines to take a look at the world of wetlands through a different lens: art making. 

Mural “Secrets of the Wetlands” in Kingston, NY. Artist Annabelle Popa, 2019 (Photo Credit: Annabelle Popa webpage)

Nature and art both have an extremely long history of cultural attachment to our societies and livelihoods. Art itself is not only there to just make things pretty, but to make varying kinds of discoveries about subject matter. A great example are the prehistoric cave paintings at the early stages of human civilization. These pieces of art dating back anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 years ago provide context to communication, as well as human’s relationship with animals and the environment of that time period. Both art and science were needed to fully understand nature and its effects on people.

If you have read some of WMAP’s previous blog posts, you’ll see that threats to wetlands include unsustainable urban development, agriculture, pollution, and invasive species, to name a few. But the biggest threat is one of perception. Promoting the understanding of these critical habitats requires a form “je ne sais quoi”, utilizing multiple forms of interpretation and communications skills. As we all know, changing people’s minds is no easy task. New perspectives or meaning can be found through an acrylic painting of a marsh in a museum or Excel-based table in a wetland report. The end goal can often be the same: moving society towards ecological understanding and even sustainability.

Here is a deeper look at artists of all kinds that are using their creative skills in support of preserving, restoring, and interpreting wetlands.

“Inundacíon”, 1991 (Photo Credit: Tomas Sanchez Studio)

Heading south (far south) our first stop is in Costa Rica with landscape artist Tomas Sanchez. Originally from Cuba, this painter specializes in hyperreal art using a mix of memory and experiences to cultivate wetland images. Sanchez has been in the game for quite a long time having been around during the 1980’s when Cuban art was heavily censored. Since then, he has been painting to create remarkable images of wetland paradise to comment on humans interactions with nature and broader environmental issues. Not to mention, his recent set of works in 2022 are sustainably produced by Hahnemüle, a soon to be carbon neutral paper mill that uses reusable fresh spring water. 

WATERWASH Project on the Bronx River (Photo Credit: Joachim Cotten)

A true mix of public art and eco-conscious infrastructure is showcased with the art from Lillian Ball. As an art activist, Ball has an extensive background in providing commentary on environmental issues through solution-based approaches. Since 2007, her WATERWASH projects throughout New York state have incorporated artistic designs into stormwater remediation, wetland restoration, and outreach opportunities. From native plants to a water access park to green infrastructure for runoff pollution, her work can be applicable to wetland issues happening in communities worldwide. 

Acrylic Painting, “Red-bellied Woodpecker” (Photo Credit: Ron Plaizier webpage)

Birds and landscapes are what bring our next artist pure bliss. Hailing from Ontario, Canada, Ron Plaizier has specialized in works of the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional species while also incorporating landscapes throughout North America. Using acrylic paint on canvas or mason board, he captures the balance between human development and wildlife to showcase the results of conservation; up-close and personal images of wetlands species that reside in these ecosystems. Decorated for his efforts several times over the last few years, Plaizier is a signature member of Artists For Conservation and has even been featured Ducks Unlimited Canada’s National Art Portfolio donating artwork to help raise funds for wetland conservation.

Image from the Waterfields collection, 2021 (Photo Credit: Jessica Palmer webpage)

Across the pond in the UK, an illustrator and paper artist Jessica Palmer spends time using her art to support wetland habitats, particularly with marshes. A combination of collage and paint are what express her support of environmentalism around the cities of Bath and London. Most notably, the collage works in Waterfields are a celebration of marshes and wetlands showcasing flora and fauna of her local area. Palmer also uses her papercut creations to provide intricate depictions of wetland wildlife at its finest. Having worked with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Forest of Imagination there seems to be more to come from the layers and landscapes of this artist.

Ever heard of the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle? Well, self-taught naturalist and artist John Taylor has spent his entire life in the wetland system located in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Coastal Louisiana is made up of millions of acres of wetlands built over thousands of years by the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, Taylor has seen almost 400 acres of freshwater cypress-tupelo swamp become ghost swamp, and has witnessed catastrophic weather events in his community over the last 60 years. Photography, wood carving, and spoken word are John’s mediums of choice to create a platform to showcase the impacts of coastal Louisiana’s land loss. Though recently he has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation, Taylor is a lifelong advocate for wetland restoration plus a storyteller to visitors and locals alike. 

“Watershed Core”, 2021 (Photo Credit: Mary Mattingly webpage)

Our last artist not only deals in massive works, but combines environmental activism with education. Based in New York, Mary Mattingly is an interdisciplinary artist who creates submerged buildings, sculptural watershed ecosystems, and even edible barges (yes, free floating food). Many of her art installations are centered around water resources and span over the last 20 years of the climate crisis. A notable floating sculpture, WetLand, integrates nature and a hand-built environment with importance of an equitable and sustainable water system. No medium is left unused with Mattingly as she offers specific yet Avant-garde solutions to environmental problems. With some works taking years in the making, her large-scale projects represent issues in climate change, sustainability, and human impact.

Being able to interact with all spectrums of nature gives us the ability to increase our connection to it. Artists and scientists alike can help us notice things in nature that we previously had not understood or were never taught to see. Through this collaboration of the arts and sciences, more space is made to change people’s values of wetland resources. Start Googling, see what’s happening at your local art league; be a part of another pathway towards preservation or action. After all, not all wetland warriors have to wear hip waders and carry a clipboard.


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Written on: May 25th, 2022 in Beneficial UseWetland Restorations

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