Ask the Expert: An Artist

Art has captured human’s interaction with nature for millennia and now as we (need to) rethink that interaction for sustainability, it’s more important than ever. Artists can help draw attention to serious issues and inspire us to stand up and do things differently. Jessy Gaumann is one of these artists making beautiful art and her mark, including a 2016 solo show in San Francisco. In the following interview, I asked Jessy some questions to explore her inspiration and approach.

How would you describe your 2016 solo show? 

My intention was to use my art practice to explore how the natural processes of our oceans are changing faster than ever before. In the last 50 years, human impact has greatly changed the state of our ocean, and my goal in addressing some of these impacts was to create a space for people to reflect.

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As a mixed media artist, an important part of my practice is to use as many found and reclaimed materials as possible. Many of the surfaces and items I utilized were found or bought at Building Resources which provides reusable, recycled and remanufactured building materials. I collected shells for over a year and used them to make eight mandala-like sculptures. For one of these, I bleached the shells for the intended effect of showing what ocean acidification is doing to our coral reefs. In the other seven sculptures, the shells were displayed in their natural state, to showcase their extreme beauty.

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Most of the pieces were about how our impact is depleting the ocean’s resources faster than natural systems can replenish them. In the picture above, the piece on the right is about how our oceans absorb most of the heat produced from greenhouse gas buildup. Increased water temperature can harm phytoplankton populations by messing with natural cycles of nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus. Phytoplankton comprise the base of the ocean’s food web and are responsible for half the world’s photosynthetic activity. The piece on the left has to do with overfishing. 52% of fish stocks are fully exploited, 20% are moderately exploited, 17% are overexploited, 7% are depleted and 1% is recovering from depletion.

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Everyone Parts With Everything Eventually

Inspiration: When temperatures rise and ice melts, more water flows to the seas from glaciers and ice caps, and ocean water warms and expands in volume. This combination of effects has played the major role in raising the average global sea level between four and eight inches (10 and 20 centimeters) in the past one hundred years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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We Are the Music Makers, We Are the Dreamer of Dreams

Inspiration: Seaweed has an important role in nature as a producer of organic agents in water. Studies show that they produce a quantity of organic carbon identical to the quantity produced by plants that grow on land. Directly or indirectly, all creatures that live in water are dependent on seaweed.

My hope in exploring some of the issues that our ocean is facing is to bring attention to how important it is that we address these now and move into a more sustainable future.

What first inspired you to take on the theme of sea-level rise?

The ocean has always fascinated me. I grew up on the Central Coast of California and got to spent a lot of time in and around the ocean, which helped foster the deep respect I feel for it. I got involved with the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, where I started to learn more about the environmental issues affecting our ocean. My professors in college encouraged me to continue to pursue exploring the concerns I felt through my artwork. When the opportunity to create my first solo exhibition presented itself, there was no question what subject matter I would be exploring.

More generally, can you describe the unique role that art and artists play in addressing the big environmental issues the world is facing?

Artists have the ability to present environmental issues that encompass a variety of purposes. The work can inform, engage, educate and be anywhere on the spectrum of extremely stunning to gloomy and dark. There may be political undertones or it could have an activist edge. Artists working in this realm use a wide variety of materials and their work is not confined to a traditional gallery setting, many times being displayed outdoors and can be very large scale. There is an interdisciplinary aspect to environmental art, for example, many artists utilize and interpret scientific data in their work. Visual artists have an unusual opportunity to disseminate information that is not confined to language, and the barriers language can present. For me, the most simple and important role artists who deal with environmental issues have is that they advocate for the environment, and the environment needs as many supporters it can get.

Are there any other artists that you look up to also taking on environmental issues?

Some of the artists that I look up to that take on environmental issues are Adrian Colburn, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Maya Lin and Josh Keyes. I also really look up to marine biologist Sylvia Earl and her organization, Mission Blue. I donate 10% of all of my art sales to this organization. I am also inspired by Paul Nicklen and the whole team at SeaLegacy and the incredible work they do. This small list represents only the very tip of the iceberg of so many amazing people advocating for our environment.

Interview by L. DeMates
For more info on Jessy see

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