He drew vividly colored salamanders as a child. The diverse species of fish, box turtles and toads didn’t escape his bio-art loving eye. It’s no wonder that later in life, Ballengee’s goal of applying his love of small insects turned into a love motel for insects as one of his installations.
Since 1996, as a research biologist and artist, he has focused on the global decline of frogs, toads and salamander species and the increased numbers of deformities he has found in these populations. He first saw a picture of deformed frogs in 1996 when a group of Minnesota kids made international news by discovering dozens of deformed frogs on a local farm. He saw the pictures and it disturbed him.
“Amphibians are a ‘sentinel’ species and are considered the ‘environmental canaries in the coal mine.'”
Brandon believes that by taking field trips, which he leads in the Hudson River region, to study altered eco-systems, we can improve our understanding of how we affect the world around us. Click here to see Pacific tree frog with extra limbs.
What I love about his goals and his enthusiasm, and what really feels motivating to me, is his understanding that adopting a leave-me-alone lax attitude to justify doing whatever we want carelessly is just another way to shove our head in the sand. Still, reading studies, observations, and any awareness campaign materials can help lead us toward taking an educated position, forming opinions and building our curiosity about nature. How do we stop ourselves from dismissing our increased awareness or just seeing nature for our own purposes? How do we develop a fondness of nature that isn’t simply aesthetic, but lets us appreciate the life coursing through it to help it thrive just as much as we yearn to thrive? I’ll be the first to admit, that at times, I just hike to space out and take it all in, but even in the emptying and the release of stress I’m feeling, I have a ton of questions rolling through my mind. Did this field look like this 50 years ago? Were there more insect sounds 10 years ago?
Brandon sees his work of bringing the public along on his exploration and documentation of degraded environments, as art, because he feels art can change the way people see the world. He describes how a group of inner city kids experience the melancholy of pulling out trash out of a polluted section of an urban river and the joy of seeing green crabs and fish darting around. Since he sees his practice as blurring numerous boundaries, given his mix of art and field trips, he sees his work as functioning as an intellectual exchange that allows for group ideas instead of a solitary artist’s hand. Taking participants to various locations and involving the collaboration is part of his creative process.
For example, he worked at a fish market for a year funded by the Queens Museum of Art. While collecting data and specimens for science, the artistic benefit to the museum was the interdisciplinary aspect of his work. Apparently, many specimens are declining, and some like orange roughy, swordfish and Chilean seabass are almost extinct because of the commercial over-fishing. His fish market work is raising awareness. He photographed specimens and they were later donated to scientific natural history museums. One fish market allowed him to do a permanent installation in Flushing, NY. The multilingual signs talk about the danger of species extinctions and the need for conservation. In this exhibit, he explains that over the past century, over-fishing, global climate change and the introduction of competitive non-native species has caused decreased biodiversity.
Overfishing, global warming and pollution are changing the planet’s waters, putting marine and human life at risk.
His piece Danse Macabre is seen to the left. He created to help save the fire salamander which is disappearing very rapidly in the South of Holland, where they once existed in a stable population. All sales go toward research and adoption of these endangered salamanders. They are disappearing due to a sudden disease from a new fungus that is probably due to environmental and climate changes.
When studying deformed frogs or endangered species, Brandon sees them as a source of scientific wonder and artistic vision. He composes his photos by using a biological enzyme to make the tissues transparent, and injects colored dyes into their bones and organs. Then he poses them. He scans them. Then he prints them using water-based inks on watercolor paper.
He finds that the most common deformities among frogs are shortened hind limbs. He believes that environmental degradation is increasing the number of predators and parasites which cause these deformities.
Always eager to engage the public in discussions of broader environmental issues, Brandon continues to conduct his hybrid environmental art/ecological research projects. He continues to work in different ecosystems and collects aquatic specimen while conducting participatory workshops charting biodiversity and pollutants.
Sources: ecologicalart.org, Youtube, Art in America, Science Friday, The Weather Channel, Metro NY, Village Voice, brandonballengee.com
When we experience a piece of art and tap into our experiences, an interesting things happens. We move beyond realization, thinking, planning, and our calendar. We open up our minds to explore how a piece makes us feel. If we feel nothing, that in itself is worth the moment, because we learn something about ourselves and our connection to that piece of art. When artists describe what moves them to spend hours of their lives creating something and then potentially sharing it, to me, I am often touched because they have provided us an insight into what captivates them and what nourishes their exploration of the world around them or the internal world that they are exploring by borrowing from the world that they see.
I’ve read that for some art is a means to record what we find is beautiful, but that art really happens when the artist departs exactly from recording what they see and infusing the world on their canvas with their interpretation of their subject. Maybe an artist only sees the pain and agony of people and explores this in their depictions. Maybe another artist is inspired by nature and loves the dialogue imparted by trying to capture a moment and a place to add their contribution. In exaltation and waiting to exhale they create. The world may provide so many illustrations that do not take us far away from our harms and inner fears, our concerns, but art can invoke those things that possess an artist’s soul and reach us. Maybe something confounds us and we turn to art to work it out in front of us. What is this and how can I handle this and let the stroke be the way I move it?
If we consider our current times as material that feeds our souls as artists and those who appreciate art, there is so much to consider as potential fodder as we embrace our inner reflection sometimes in the very grueling work of learning who we are separate from the world around us, yet influenced by the times in the divining contradictions that make us human.
Does one dare to bare that in one’s soul the inner conflicts that drive us sometimes contain a rapture, in the one sense, of the very beauty of nature and how we appreciate it and how it feeds us and, on the other, a damaging opus? In the opus, it is damaging, because we filter nature not only through utopic bliss, but with the understanding that there are those among us who gamble with it, as if everything leads to cashing out or just another spin of the wheel. It’s that cynicism that may all too often pose itself as brawny, but is often more of an attempt at bracing oneself for appearances.
Dare we allow science to instill in us its voice and then do we explore our feelings about it? Teresa Posyniak explores her feelings about the tough subject of climate change.
Do we know how we feel right now? We know how hunger hits us, but do we feel the moods that we experience or are they passing through us unrecognized and unacknowledged until we see a piece of art that helps us explore a feeling.
An artist has a platform and Teresa Posyniak’s platform gives us a chance to explore our feelings about climate change.
I recently stumbled on her series Beautiful Losers: My Carbon Sink Muses.
She describes what she is doing in the series:
I explore the beauty and function of plankton, the smallest photo-synthesizer and supplier of half the earth’s oxygen, and trees, the largest, through paintings, sculpture and installations
Art gives us the opportunity to feel and explore our inhibitions and face our inner thoughts and feelings on a certain subject and artists provide us a safe place for that exploration. We can suddenly remember that we do have early memories of studying plankton and have forgotten about those little creatures for all these years, caught up in our own lives, thoughts and life’s work. Until we are faced with the topic, we might actually be adept at pushing all these matters aside, meanwhile we rob ourselves of an open invitation to learn more about the art, the interpretation and own feelings and questions that have come up and were potentially untapped.
Expression sometimes is suppressed in us because we feel a topic is too sensitive, or too hyped in the media, or worse, decidedly remote from us.
Teresa Posyniak as an artist is dealing with climate change in the heart of Canada’s oil country. She lives in Calgary, Alberta – a city that boast over 100 energy companies, mostly in the oil and gas industry.
Maybe, in our daily lives there are more reasons to separate ourselves from the natural world rather than connect to it. For the artist, even her exploration of the topic caused some introspection:
I can’t help but approach the issue of climate change with some trepidation because many of my friends, family, neighbours, acquaintances, collectors and clients work in the oil industry or business related to oil.
She describes that reactions vary wildly to her work. While some demonstrate curiosity and fascination and appreciation, others get defensive or even hostile towards the perceived attack on oil, even though she herself explains that questioning and lobbying for alternatives is not necessarily only an attack on oil, but a reaction to understanding science and a need to diversify.
Questioning an industry is not necessarily so black and white and as people appreciate art, and the topics that it explores, we can recognize that from silence comes despair and lack of progress, not life affirming potential for advances and idea creation. Through art and discussion, politics and moving beyond protocol, we explore ways that curtail an abuse of the environment by still appreciating that multi-disciplinary approaches can open possibilities of engagement and improvements that are environmentally responsible in striking a balance.
When the air of London in the seventeenth century was polluted by clouds of sea-coal smoke or during the killer fog of ’52, pollution was an acceptable way of life. Until people asked why. It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the UK’s Clean Air Act 1956. When ordinary people question and think, then it is possible to protect human, environmental and business interests.
Like the artist says,
Without hope, we lack the motivation to discover solutions to this crisis that we face.
She describes her installation Beautiful Losers as an expression of her awe of the beauty of her subjects, their roles as precious lifelines to our inhalations and exhalations, and the poignancy of theirs and consequentially, our uncertain futures.
Sources: artistsandclimatechange.com, www.teresaposyniak.com, The Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts, Fractured Atlas