How a “non-artist” found her niche in the art world

Posted by Cherie Northon, Jan 11, 2016 1 comment

A foray into the Monterey History and Art Association’s December 2012 exhibit, “Flows to Bay,” totally altered my outlook on how to communicate action on environmental issues. A small exhibit, it featured a variety of art using discarded plastics from the marine environment to demonstrate how they detrimentally affect our planet. I do not consider myself an artist, so the lenses I view the world through are primarily those of an environmental scientist. But what I saw hooked me, and its strong yet captivating message gave me new insight into a way to frame environmental degradation through art. 

For the last 6 years I have been the executive director of the Anchorage Waterways Council, an organization dedicated to the health of Anchorage’s urban creeks, most of which are anadromous. Part of our mission is to convince people that many of their actions, however minor, can have great and far-reaching consequences on local and global waters. Putting forth this message is not easy. Many of us have become numb (or blind) to “Do not litter” and “Please clean up after your pet” signs. Seeing plastic bottles or Styrofoam discarded in creeks or stepping in dog poop may grab our immediate attention, but few envision how significant these impacts are globally and especially once they are out of sight.

Fish Creek, Anchorage, Alaska, drains to Cook Inlet and ultimately the Pacific Ocean (C. Northon, Sept. 2014)

Unfortunately, a demanding job and time constraints limited my ability to pursue this newfound marriage of art, environment, and communication for a bit, yet I did correspond with one of the Monterey artists, Pam Longobardi. As it turns out, she told me that an expedition was being planned to take artists and scientists into southwest Alaska in June 2013 to collect marine debris which would culminate in an art and education exhibit at the Anchorage Museum the following February. “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” was going to be right in my own city. How exciting! 

The ocean garbage patches are a cancer that humans are creating. This was incredibly evident to me when I had the rare opportunity to visit Midway Atoll in 2012. Located about 1,500 miles northwest of the Hawaiian Islands, its major inhabitants now are albatross, boobies, and other sea birds. Unfortunately, this area and its bird populations are one of the primary recipients of the plastic trash that originates in the watersheds of cities like Anchorage or San Francisco or Seattle or other coastal areas.  Federal agencies estimate that the source of 80% of the ocean’s plastic garbage is land-based, that is, it washes down our watersheds into local creeks and rivers and eventually into the ocean where currents carry it into several large amorphous trash gyres. These areas attract birds and wildlife that become entangled in it, eat it, or carry it back as food to their young—most often resulting in death. 

Perhaps you have seen some of the sad photos that show a pile of colorful plastic surrounded by feathers and bones. Many of these are Midway’s birds who ate plastic at sea or were fed plastic bits by their parents because they mistook them for food. Shocking to view, yes. As a photo, it is art that can be seen around the world, and it can carry a powerful message. But, people need to make the connection to the trash’s origin—our own backyard.

Deceased albatross on Midway Island, (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, June 2014)

Also on Midway, there is a mosaic in an old building that few will probably ever see. It is an albatross in flight that was made from Bic lighters found on the beach—a repurposing of the world’s most common disposable plastic lighter. The ocean and sky are other plastic pieces collected from Midway’s beaches. 

Albatross mosaic made from plastics collected on Midway Island, (C. Northon, June 4, 2012)

Maybe the connection of these plastic objects and the ravage that their careless disposal have on nature will come to strike a chord with people about putting garbage in its place at “home.” So, now I had questions on how to proceed.  Did I need to find an artist to help me create the message?  Could I do it myself? What mechanism existed for this pairing?

And then, in November 2015, I was invited to attend a Community Vision Forum by Americans for the Arts.  I felt especially honored because I was not an artist, but spent the day in a room full of people with a variety of art backgrounds who were interested in using their expertise to make the world a better place. This particular forum focused on art to benefit prisoners and their rehabilitation, transportation and infrastructure, and health – all with the goal of bettering communities as a whole. The list goes on. These contexts for art were new to me, but I came away with the notion that art can find its way into any area that needs “fixing.” From the day’s onset I was immersed in a group of diverse artists who eagerly accepted what I had to contribute and vice versa.  After I returned to Anchorage and began reading more about this cross-pollination of disciplines, my questions started to have answers. According to the forum’s facilitator Michael Rohd and author of “Translations: the Distinction between Social & Civic Practice and Why I Find it Useful,” I am a “non-arts partner.” No longer looking at a field that was somewhat foreign to my nature, I felt like a legitimate entity whose comingling with artists has purpose. The most exciting part was that through collaboration we could have a positive influence and the potential to improve the quality of life in many arenas.

1 responses for How a “non-artist” found her niche in the art world


Mrs. Amanda Gorsegner says
March 04, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Cherie, thank you for your article.  I'm an environmental artist, arts administrator and environmental activist.  I have degrees in both fine arts and ecology.  I'm always trying to figure out how to effectively integrate art, environment and activism in my art practice and volunteer projects.  I've actually just finished my graduate thesis entitled, "The Role of Art in the Global Climate Change Movement."  I'd be happy to share my paper with you if you're interested in reading more about the intersection of art and science from a climate change perspective.  I interviewed both artists and scientists in the process and found out MANY new things; things that opened up my mind in fields that I'd already been working in for the past 15 years!
On the East Coast, in New Jersey, I have been volunteering with the environmental organization Clean Ocean Action for over a decade.  Thousands of volunteers pick up non-point source pollution during our biannual statewide beach sweeps each year.  The group collects data from these volunteers and does amazing work activitating the public through hands-on sweeps and also through calls to action on local environmental legislation.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, and I hope you continue to see the value of the arts as a means to create richer discourse and hopefully action from people regarding pressing environmental issues.
Manda Gorsegner

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