Organizing Against Climate Change Through Sustainable Art

My studies in cultural anthropology, public policy, and human rights have shaped my curiosity in how art can be used to influence public discourse around issues of policy and social justice. This summer, I received the Leadership in Arts and Policy Internship Grant, administered by Duke Sanford’s Hart Leadership Program, and used it to explore how artists and communities use art as a form of organizing, communicating and inspiring action on issues important to them and their practices. One of the artists I worked with is John Felix Arnold III, a former artist-in-residence at the Rubenstein Arts Center.

“Time as a Sanctuary” by John Felix Arnold III.

Felix’s work engages social and environmental issues, which connect to questions around policy work I am familiar with from my studies at Duke. I worked with him on his latest solo exhibition, Time As A Sanctuary, which features the sculptural installation Reimagining Cerberus, a commentary on climate change and human action. The exhibition, which was on view at Anchorlight in Raleigh, opened June 24 and ran through August 15.

“It’s been so good having Lizzy assisting on the work and hearing about her thoughts and feedback.” —John Felix Arnold III

Working with Felix, I considered the importance of location in artistic commentaries on social action. I found the show’s location in Raleigh to be a tool for furthering its message. Felix’s work commented on time and space, so being close to his hometown of Durham gave the show more context and depth. The piece also became a physical representation of collaboration and unity; different components of the installation were donated and supported by local community members and organizations.

“Reimagining Cerberus” by John Felix Arnold III.

Constructing Reimagining Cerberus helped me see how a sculptural installation can contribute to social discourse around themes like the climate crisis.

With this installation, Felix intended to expose the audience to the raw impacts of global warming. He researched how the landscape of North Carolina would look after undergoing the effects of human generated climate change: The land would undergo alternating periods of extreme floods and severe droughts, causing the soil to erode. Reimagining Cerberus was constructed to reflect this landscape. In order to emphasize the human consumerism and waste that is pushing the Earth towards a climate apocalypse, Felix uses a car to transport life. The audience is faced with a familiar object repurposed for an unpleasant and unfamiliar reality. Using the car as a vessel for plant life also shows the audience how humanity will be humbled, having no choice but to acknowledge our coexistence with nature, letting go of notions of human superiority and control. This is specifically stressed by the choice of a small, gentle creature as the power for the car, showing the undeniable interdependence of humanity within nature. The calf is also two-headed, serving as a physical reminder of duality and opposing forces coming together, forcing the audience to confront the difficulty in drawing clear lines of binary. Understanding and researching the messages Reimagining Cerberus aims to convey about climate change helped me to see the power of a sculpture as a catalyst for conversation.

Details of “Reimagining Cerberus.”

Following Felix’s work also provided insight as to how artistic practice can also serve as a vehicle for making a statement about social change. In the construction of Reimagining Cerberus, we found materials which embodied the kind of sustainability the piece calls for: the car featured has an engine beyond repair; the wooden box that the plants are housed in is made from found, reclaimed wood; the material inside the car is used fabric from  The Scrap Exchange in Durham; and the rubble the calf stands upon was collected from a variety of construction sites and abandoned lots across Durham and Raleigh. All of this turns the piece into a physical example of what sustainability and reuse looks like, uniting the message of the piece and its process of creation.

Additionally, the sculpture itself is an interdependent system. It incorporates plants which are specifically selected for their hardiness and ability to thrive in new environments. The sculpture also embodies people and communities coming together: The calf was created by local taxidermist and activist Aaron Honeycutt, the plants are from the Durham Garden Center, and the car is from Becker Auto. These collaborators were excited by the theme of the project and eager to lend their own skills to the success of the installation. This collection of community members contributing to the work shows how a piece of art can be used as a tool to organize and bring people together, specifically around the issue of climate change.

Through working with Felix, I was able to gain a deeper understanding for how sculptural installations can be used to make statements, pose questions, and challenge perceptions about issues which loom over our contemporary world. As I move forward with my work and studies, I’m excited to connect this work with Felix to other examples of socially involved art processes.

Lizzy Kramer ’22 is pursuing an interdepartmental major in Public Policy and Cultural Anthropology with a Human Rights Certificate. In her studies, she uses anthropological lenses to investigate how human rights violations affect individuals and communities, and how those narratives can be used to shape policy for a more equitable world. Kramer was worked at the Nasher Museum of Art, and during the pandemic she took time off to work as an assistant for local muralists, documentary artists, and art gallery curators. Kramer is curious about the role arts can play in the process of advocating for more equitable policies in our society.

John Felix Arnold III was born in Durham, NC. He received a BFA from Pratt Institute in 2002. He has exhibited with SFMOMA, B.R.I.C. Arts, The Luggage Store Gallery, and Tokyo’s Spes-Lab Experimental Art Space. He is a Duke University Visiting Artist in Residence, Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant Awardee, Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Grant Awardee, two-time Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant Nominee, and represented in Takashi Murakami’s private collection. He was recently accepted into the Hunter University MFA program in Studio Art Practice. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Anchorlight is home to a 1,500 square foot, zero-commission gallery in Raleigh, NC, providing exhibition opportunities primarily to regional emerging artists among others. Exhibitions are curated by Creative Director Shelley Smith, in collaboration with the artists, and invited guests.