Environmental advocacy lives on through art

| Publication: SF Gate | Author: Jessica Zack

Art has played an influential role in the modern environmental movement, dating all the way back to Albert Bierstadt’s 19th century landscape paintings and Carleton Watkins’ photographs of Yosemite Valley that moved President Abraham Lincoln to protect the area as parkland.

Then in the late 1930s, Berkeley native David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, was instrumental in getting a copy of Ansel Adams’ glorious large-format Sierra Nevada portfolio into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s hands, solidifying the president’s resolve to create King’s Canyon National Park.

Brower, considered the father of modern environmentalism, used limited-edition photography books throughout his activism career to convince people of the importance of protecting America’s unspoiled wild places. Given this history, it is fitting that Berkeley’s David Brower Center, an advocacy and education center, is showcasing Bay Area artists’ work inspired by the use and misuse of nature to commemorate the centennial of the National Park Service.

The juried exhibition “Common Ground: A Celebration of Our National Parks” explores “America’s best idea” as interpreted through the eyes of 20 local artists. Working in a diverse range of media and responding to such threats as climate change, overuse, the effects of industry and threatened biodiversity, “these artists are inspired by our parks to create so much more than pretty pictures,” says center Executive Director Laurie Rich.

“Dave (Brower)’s day images of our parks inspired awe in people who had never seen such places,” Rich says.

The disabled President Roosevelt, for example, like the majority of Americans in far-flung states, would never be able to visit King’s Canyon, yet Adams’ powerful images aroused a sense of responsible stewardship for the untouched wilderness.

“Today, with widespread documentary imagery available to everyone online, we’re seeing artistic work that is beautiful, but serves as more of a cautionary tale,” says Rich. “It’s a significant shift. The message often is: ‘Be careful.’”

Photographer Ansley West Rivers, who received her master’s degree from California College of the Arts in Oakland, has embarked on a photographic project to capture the fragile watersheds of seven U.S. rivers. Her “Hanford Reach, Columbia River” photo on view depicts “the jarring infringement of our modern world on many of our parks,” says Rich. “They are no longer just beautiful protected places.”

Sculptor Alexis Arnold and photographer Jeffrey Greenwald were both inspired by the hypnotic, otherworldly colors of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, caused by microbial activity. “One creates tiny sculptural geodes, the other grand-scale full-color photography,” Rich says of the works. “Two separate artists inspired in two very different ways by this one wild place.

“In that sense, part of Dave’s core message is still shining through: his belief that beautiful works of art were meant to inspire people to advocacy and action, and to protecting the wild places that are still left.”