Let the art do the talking

A CU exhibit presents climate change through color and creativity

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CUAM exhibit, 'Documenting Change' curated by Erin Espelie and Hope Saska Feb 7-July 20, 2019
Jeff Wells / CU Art Museum

Living at the base of the foothills, it’s impossible to notice all the changes that the mountainscape is undergoing. Such change simply occurs too slowly. But make no mistake, when shifts in climate are combined with the passage of time, the changes can be significant. Fortunately, scientists help us record the changes to our natural landscapes, but they aren’t the only ones. One of the University of Colorado’s Art Museum’s (CUAM) Spring/Summer 2019 exhibits, Documenting Change: Our Climate, The Rockies, takes a multifaceted look at the many ways that this changing terrain has been closely documented by academics, scientists, explorers and artists alike.

The other exihibit, Our Climate (Past, Present, and Future) takes a global approach to this theme, and in tandem, both explore the historical scope of documentation strategies implored by both artists and scientists in their study of climate and our natural surroundings. Our Climate, The Rockies takes a more localized approach by shining the spotlight on our own backyard. This exhibit combines historical materials on loan from the University’s libraries with artwork from CUAM’s own permanent collection as well as newer works.

Our Climate, The Rockies displays paintings, drawings, mining maps and photography within two galleries. Neither gallery is organized in chronological order or by medium. Instead, the viewer is invited to create their own experience by deciding how to explore the space. Regardless of how you choose to take it all in, the eclectic nature of the exhibit is immediately apparent.

Classic paintings of mountain landscapes, such as Charles Patridge Adams’ “Sunrise on the Mountains at the Head of Moraine Park, Near Estes Park,” are situated among black and white snapshots, sketches and old maps. While the wide-ranging collection can overwhelm at first, a closer look at each work quickly proves they have all been thoughtfully chosen to illustrate the various ways in which the Rockies have been explored, researched and catalogued throughout history.

While science-based research and records are undeniably an important component of understanding how climate change is impacting our landscape, arts-driven efforts in this area also offer a unique viewpoint to the subject. Those who don’t find themselves particularly moved by the science behind climate change may find that exploring this exhibit is just what they need to fully grasp the concept of climate change. By combining the scientific with the artistic, CUAM presents a comprehensive view of this important issue that is easily accessible.   

One of the first things to catch your eye in this exhibit is the presentation of two mining maps grouped together along a wall. One map in particular, formed almost entirely of red, green and blue rectangles, is reminiscent of a Piet Mondrian painting. This map displays mineral surveys of the Cripple Creek Mining district in the year 1900, giving the viewer a rare look at what lies beneath the surface that was covered in mining boom towns at the time.

Charting the region’s mineral deposits and showing the locations of resources, the map serves as a reminder that while natural beauty has always been a draw to our region, it was the potential for material wealth that was the earliest magnet for the area.

On the wall opposite the mining map is something both historic and entirely of our time. Small snapshots housed within albums in a display case show Peary V. Turner, a Boulderite who belonged to a local hiking club in the early 1900s. The photos show Turner along with other club members on their hiking adventures in the Boulder region. CUAM’s curator of collections and exhibitions Hope Saska is quick to point out the similarities between these photos taken by Bird and the photos all of us take today on our phones while hiking. A quick glance through the “#Boulder” section of Instagram on any given sunny weekend will turn up hundreds of photos of people enjoying the nearby trails.

While the work in this gallery is both informative and beautiful, it is the work in the adjoining gallery by Trine Bumiller that is at once visually alluring and particularly thought provoking. For this installation, Bumiller traveled to nine of the 14 named glaciers in Colorado and created small watercolors of each. Displayed neatly in two rows, the contrast between light and dark coupled with dramatic linework immediately reminds me of Hokusai’s iconic wave prints.

Bumiller also recreated each of these watercolors in large format using printed chiffon. Hung in two semi-circles in the middle of the gallery, viewers can walk among the glaciers, completely engulfed in their grandeur. Saska explains that Bumiller specifically wanted to visit these glaciers herself in order to document them for future generations, assuming they won’t be around forever.

This chilling thought leads me to ask Saska how she sees climate change affecting how artists here in Boulder and the surrounding areas work. “I think they might be seeing how important art is in the dialogue… and we’ll see artists and scientists teaming up to find a way to present that to the public.” In other words, artists and scientists will be working together to convey this sense of loss and warn viewers of what is to come.

And perhaps this collaboration between artists and scientists is just what the effort to combat climate change needs. Merging various disciplines allows information to reach more people while facilitating a more well-rounded understanding of the issue, especially for those who count themselves among the scientifically-challenged.

When asked what she hopes museum visitors will take away from this exhibit, Saska doesn’t hesitate. “I think really recognizing that we have a special place in time and point of view that we can share with the future. We can engage with the past, but also think: what do we want to communicate with future residents of Boulder?” 

Documenting Change: Our Climate, The Rockies will be on display at CUAM through June 8, but Bumiller’s installation will only be on display through April 13. The exhibition Documenting Change: Our Climate (Past, Present, Future) will be at CUAM until June 20. Be sure to visit CUAM’s website for a list of future programs offered at the museum, including guided meditations and a terrarium workshop.