Temporary nature

Artist uses drawings to start the conversation on climate change

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Tom Rice

The world as we know is changing. As temperatures soar, ice melts and water levels rise, artists like Tom Rice are striving to capture the final moments of these landscapes to preserve for the future.

“I wanted to make pieces about things that were vanishing,” Rice says. “I’m drawn to that temporary nature, so I wanted to make monuments to things that may not be there when my kids are older.”

Rice’s exhibit Monuments to the Ephemeral, now on display at Firehouse Art Center, features large-scale ink drawings of landscapes on thin, transparent plastic. The landscapes are all bodies of water from glaciers to waterfalls. They are drawn from photographs, including one from the early 1900s of a glacier near Wrangell, Ala., that has receded so much it now looks completely different.

In the past, Rice has dabbled in several art forms, but he says when he started doing performance art he began exploring political themes. For this show, he says he wanted to address the serious environmental crisis happening in the world. Calling himself a passive environmentalist, Rice says he was drawn to the plastic material — where it came from, how long it lasted, how it affects the environment. In using the plastic he is able to question and explore the longevity and temporality of these natural landscapes versus manmade materials.

The pieces are a definite environmental statement, Rice says, but he also wanted to make them more personal. To add that touch, the pictures include love letters that Rice has written to people in his life, including his partner and his children. The letters also contribute a sense of longing to the work, he says, making them feel almost like post cards.

“When I think of nostalgia, I think of loss — things that have happened in the past that are gone now or in memory,” Rice says. “That’s how I connected to nostalgia, and that’s the feeling I was trying to create.”

With a closer inspection, you’ll note that Rice’s drawings are far from perfect. You’ll see fingerprints, holes, tape, plastic patchwork and other flaws. And Rice says that’s the point. The drawings are also not attached to the wall. They hang from the ceiling and float around the space, responding to movements the viewer makes. These interactions with the work serve as a bigger metaphor for the impressions we have on our surroundings.

“One of the reasons I like that they hang loosely is that they move around. It shows the impact of our presence in the environment. So when I walk by them they move. You can’t be in the presence of these things without affecting them. If you touch them, these materials will come off on your hand… 

“Any time we touch the environment it changes,” Rice says. “Some pictures develop wounds, and I like the idea of having these places that are little holes and injuries. Then you try to fix it, and this manmade fix never looks right, just like in nature.”

Another striking feature of the drawings are their dimensions. With most at around 10 feet by 12 feet, they feel life-size. To contrast the bigger pieces, the exhibit also includes Rice’s series entitled Small Violences. The four pictures are 2-inch by 2-inch silverpoint drawings of the fracking industry in North Dakota. From far away, the pictures are hard to make out but with a closer view, the drawings are detailed depictions of scenes including explosions or flares. Rice says he used the size to symbolize these major events happening, yet the little attention they were getting. By using silverpoint, Rice was able to create very small marks that enhance the subject matter, while some of the larger drawings are more abstract with broader strokes of a paint brush.

Art can be a doorway to start the conversation around these hot button issues. While the drawings are aesthetically pleasing to look at, Rice says, they also shed light on problems and get people thinking.

“They’re pretty pictures, and in some ways that’s subversive,” Rice says. “But if you make something that’s pretty and it has a message, you have something going for you because you get a bigger audience and you draw people in. They’re about issues; they’re not just about images.”

With his work, Rice says he hopes to ignite people to start paying attention, especially since the clock is ticking to start slowing down climate change.

“I think [art] can’t do anything until there’s a certain amount of momentum, and I think there is momentum now,” Rice says. “I think if people are given the opportunity to be exposed to the idea of conservation or environmental issues on a regular basis, it stays in their consciousness and things start to change. Art can help with that.”