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Stanford artists promote green living at Vision eARTh showcase

By Christina Farr | 18 May 2011

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Stanford student Ethan Estess created a mechanical sculpture simulates the movement of birds in flight. (Photo: Christina Farr)

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The mechanical sculpture is all strength and light: engineered in gleaming bronze, white winged shapes create shadows on the pavement and simulate the movement of California brown pelicans in flight.

Ethan Estess, an undergraduate earth systems major at Stanford University was inspired to create the sculpture after reading Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s attack on the chemical industry published in 1962 that is often credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

Estess said he created the kinetic sculpture to spark dialogue about the hazardous effects of the pesticide DDT on the nation’s bird population, which faced near extinction until these chemicals were outlawed. “It is intended to provide hope that humans can exist in balance with the natural world,” he said.

His plan appeared to be working. Students passing the sculpture on their way to class stopped to examine the work. Estess explained that they were struck by the jarring contrast between the environmental subject matter, and the use of manmade materials.

The sculpture was exhibited alongside over two hundred original artworks at “Vision eARTh”, Stanford’s first arts and sustainability festival held on April 21-23, a three-day celebration of Earth Day. It included live music, art exhibits and a lecture from Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

Many of the organizers had previously been involved in local art festivals. But, this year they wanted the art to carry a political punch.

“Art is a way that we can culturally make shifts and changes,” explained Amber Hasselbring, a San Francisco-based artist. “We have to be out there as artists and convince people by showing them.”

In the Bay Area and beyond, a movement of sustainable art seems to be emerging. Stanford’s artists are part of a growing trend that would promote “green” living, and inspire social change through community activism.

In rural Pennsylvania, a local curator is working to promote one of the country’s first ‘Sustainable Art’ exhibits. To Mary Mooney, Arts in Education Coordinator at the Perry County Council of the Arts, said that means art that would “respond to social concerns in progressive or proactive manner.”

One of Mooney’s favorite pieces used a gnawed tree bark in the woods that resembled Venus de Milo as inspiration. Hermann Metz’s, “Venus by Beaver” is about “communication between man and nature,” Mooney said.

Mooney explained that it was a struggle for her to define just what she meant by “sustainable art.” But, she later concluded that it was part of a movement to promote responsible living. “[It is] a new emergence in the art world, sprouting up in conjunction with sustainable agriculture, energy, design…”

Ultimately, Mooney hopes that the exhibit will inspire people to buy local – whether they’re purchasing food, art or anything else. “Sustainable agriculture is a matter of survival for many people,” she said with a sigh.  That seems like a jump….sustainable ag and buying food locally aren’t the same thing.

If the concept of sustainable art seemed a little vague, and…arty, others see it as a starting point for more pragmatic action. As “Vision Earth” wound to a close, the young engineers at the festival used the opportunity to discuss how to create concrete solutions – including an initiative for a “green” dorm, and efforts to promote recycling on campus.

vision eARTh

Dozens of students created original work, like this painting, for the Vision eARTh festival at Stanford University. (Photo: Christina Farr)

Sartha Misra, a management science and engineering major, said he would find “new ways to solve problems of sustainability.” He anticipated that the festival would trigger a “behavioral shift,” among the student population.

“The change in the name and focus this year really encouraged artists to take a closer look at sustainability,” said co-organizer Ali McKeon. Meandering through a white tent that had earlier in the day been brimming with students admiring the photographs, paintings and kinetic sculptures on display, she explained that the festival had tapped into a need for activism through art.

McKeon, an English major, said that artists had been inspired by a variety of issues, including “environmental energy, water conversation and environmental justice.”

Like Estess, many of the activist groups present at the event hoped that inspiration would be contagious. Mia Newman, a Stanford junior and advocate for STAND, a student-led organization promoting international social justice, saw an opportunity to “get our voices heard.”

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