Polluted canvases

Art from smog and lichens

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Sometimes we need the most literal of images to open our eyes. So it is with Kim Abeles’ art — she creates art with smog so viewers can see the dirty tracks of the way we live in clear outlines. She has enlarged often-overlooked lichen and given them eyes.

These tiny biomonitors know all, see all and store in their cells what we see in Abeles’ images: automobiles and exhaust.

Abeles collaborated with atmospheric scientists, emissions specialists, lichenologists, transportation professionals, and middle and high school students to create an exhibit for the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and its satellite exhibits at Envirotest-Air Care Colorado, Manhattan Middle School and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The exhibit, “the invisible connectedness of things” arose from Abeles’ explorations of lichens and Boulder’s transportation habits — two apparently disparate entities that connect via air pollution.

At Manhattan Middle School last fall, Abeles gave a lecture and conducted workshops to allow kids to create their own “smog collectors,” a signature piece from Abeles’ artwork.

Students laid stencils depicting the causes of smog and its effects onto white plates and put the plates on the school roof for months. The oily and rubbery particulate byproducts of car and truck emissions in the air bound to the plates.

Now, those plates bear smog-created images. Though she often does her work in Los Angeles, Boulder didn’t lack for material in the air to darken the plates.

Abeles herself created a series of plates of the presidents, from William McKinley to George H.W. Bush, with quotes about environment and industry. Those with a poor environmental record were left out longer, their images stained darker.

“There’s something about dark humor in my work.… It’s kind of funny but always kind of creepy funny,” Abeles says.

Smog collectors do in a visible way what lichen do invisibly — as Abeles discovered last year when she heard about lichen as biomonitors, a way to measure air pollution because they capture carbon and nitrogen. She stumbled onto that information and started looking for ways to express it in art.

“I love being so in the dark about what I’m doing. When you’re young, it’s easy to find something new, but when you’re older, you have to wander,” Abeles says. “I’m lichen-crazy now. … Everything to me reminds me of them.”

Abeles photographed lichen in Boulder and the images are now displayed so large as to be nearly unrecognizable. Their hollows are replaced in places with images, both still and video, of children’s eyes and cars.

“I think one of the really great things about the arts is it helps you to see anew, and in this case we get to see Boulder’s pollution — not in the sky, but on plates,” says Marda Kirn, executive director of EcoArts Connections, which commissioned Abeles’ piece as a way of showing climate change at a local level. “We get to see the lichen, which are biomonitors, in a brand new way. And she does it in such a simple, elegant, brilliant way and through different media.”

She wanted to bring an art piece to a non-art venue, Kirn says, and Patrick Kociolek, director of the museum, got on board. “It’s really trying to think about how, as human beings, how can we more deeply understand how our transportation choices affect the air that we breathe, and then by extension the greenhouse gases that are going into the atmosphere,” Kirn says. “What I love about Kim, too, is that it’s not this sort of horrible didactic way, or ‘You’re going to go to hell if you don’t recycle’ kind of way. It’s more of a very loving kind of way, a sometimes very funny, self-reflective way that makes you appreciate the world in which we live and notice nature and where you are.”

There will be a scavenger hunt for lichens, puzzles to put together at the museum and activity books for children — a wealth of ways to re-engage with the environment and start exploring its resources.

“As an individual it’s so frustrating because it’s like, what can you do?” Abeles says. “It’s about taking action, but it’s also about finding your voice. … Without your voice, you’re kind of directionless.”

An opening celebration and talk with Abeles will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 2 at the museum.

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