Artists embrace the world’s big issues

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Pictured above: Marjan Van Aubel’s current window. Image by Wai Ming Ng.

Angela Neustatter explores some of the artists raising awareness of the issues impacting our planet through their art, or who are trying to address them by adapting the processes they use to produce their art. 


“In my work I strive to create tension by walking the line between beauty and destruction . Art hits you not just in the brain, but in the heart, guts, eyes, but it doesn’t come at you head on.  In creating my art I hope to bring people to a place of gentle discomfort.”

You have the sense that a good deal more than gentle discomfort animates the spry, smiley, but utterly serious Julie Sperling, to focus her ravishing mosaic art on ways to jerk us into understanding cause and effect of our behaviour on our planet.

Julie at City Hall Gallery, Ontario, with Baseline

She trained as an environmental policy analyst with Environment and Climate Change Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the US Environmental Protection Agency) and it was here as she read ever more about climate change and how the human race is seemingly mindlessly destroying the planet. She says: “Since that day six years ago, my art has focused exclusively on climate change and, more recently, the Anthropocene – the epoch defined by the human-altered environment.”

Julie lives in Kitchener, Ontario, in Canada and spends much of her free time stamping a wild landscape, beaches, woodland, lakeland, exploring and finding pieces of natural materials and distinctive stones beneath her feet. These she uses to create images in the original elemental colours of her finds, and the designs are intended to tell a story of how human activity is destroying our natural heritage. She describes it as “exploring the intersection of art, the environment, science and policy”.

Communion by Julie Sperling

Her work is seen in galleries, specialist exhibitions, books and articles, and there have been impressive awards. She also has a big showing on the internet. 

Julie began this approach with a series ‘Fiddling While Rome Burns’ and followed it with ‘Depicting A Fragmented World’. The topics addressed in her stone images are black carbon, oil spills, sea ice decline in the Arctic, where Julie wants us to understand how our behaviour is.

“Stone is my material of choice,” she continues. “But I will use almost any material that will help me tell my story, including bullet casings, bones, plastic bags, utensils, coal, shale, e-waste and so much more. I might use a ‘dirty’ material as proxy for the fossil fuel industry. I have used shells that I submitted to my own homemade ocean acidification simulation where I put them in vinegar to degrade them. Trees inspire me with a desire to protect them and draw inspiration from them with their lines and movements.”

Detail from Communion

She pauses to reflect on how it’s “super important” to look at the materials in our daily life and see how they connect to the bigger picture. And to this end she has short descriptive posts alongside her images online. 

Her message is one thing, but isn’t it important to also consider the impact, the quantity, the toxicity of materials used for arts and crafts creators?

“I am not entirely neutral in my work – I use a very small amount of cement for instance – but I try to be very conscientious about any aspect of my work that might be bad for sustainability,” Julie explains. “As I have described, most of my materials come from nature. It is very different to ordering materials online.”

She is boisterously pleased about her growing popularity, the increasing interest in her work from all over the world, and isn’t it great that she gets such positive reactions with people saying they have thought hard because of it. No small number say they have been motivated to change behaviour. 

She insists: “My dream for the arts world is that we increasingly be taken seriously as key players in building the future we want. Not just some diversion or nice-to-have, but there with a seat at the table.”

The delights of glass have inspired a dazzling array of stained glass work from David Mola. He is based in Scotland but was born in the family glazier shop in Southern Spain and you feel, looking at his inventive ways of working and the hugely varied designs and commissions, that glass design is in his DNA.

Phase III by David Mola. David is pictured at work (image by Daniel Dabrowski).

The challenge of making this specialised art form, which uses a variety of materials, is to be mindful of caring for the environment and, for David, it’s a priority: “Regarding sustainability, things have changed so much in such a short period of time. Being efficient with my use of resources is a very important part of my process, leading me to work in a more natural and sustainable way.”

David is aware of the need to look for ways to minimise the potential discarding of glass and lead in this craft art, as well as exploring ways that materials such as epoxy and cement can be less destructive. But as much as anything, he is hitting out at the idea that recycling materials is an adequate answer to left-over materials. 

Every day, David says, he’s more concerned about the damage that extensive recycling is doing, not least because the process of recycling has a carbon footprint. 

“I believe that the real challenge as consumers is to use less in order to reduce the production chain,” says David. “This can be easily achieved if we adopt a reuse policy on our consumer habits. We all are creative minds: re-invent, mend, fix or give away the stuff you don’t need anymore.” He now uses many of the off-cuts of glass he has for new pieces of work and restores panels that might otherwise be discarded. As happened with the beautiful panel dedicated to St. Columbus of Iona, which an erstwhile student of David’s found in a bin and then asked him to restore.

“Being efficient with my use of resources is a very important part of my process,” David explained to Craft Scotland magazine for part of a Make It Green series, for the Green Crafts Initiative (GCI) that champions and promotes environmentally sustainable craft practices.

“I began learning by looking to the past, keeping the human relation between the maker and the user. In my own practice, working with ancient techniques can be associated with the use of materials that are not so eco-friendly. For example, as a stained glass maker, I use a large amount of lead (as lead can be found in my paints and cements). Modern techniques such as glass lamination might also require the use of epoxy resins. Learning to work with these types of materials meant learning how to dispose of leftovers; trialling more efficient ways to use them and the possibilities of replacing them for more eco-friendly materials.”

These are just two examples of the increasing number of ways people working in traditional crafts are focusing on ways to reduce harmful impacts their passion for their art has on the planet. A most striking forerunner is Dutch artist Marjan van Aubel, who she has created a stained glass window made up from coloured solar cells that harvest energy from the sun and convert it into electricity to charge small electronic devices.

Marjan Van Aubel’s current window. Image by Wai Ming Ng.

At a display of these windows in London, people were able to charge their phones. Van Aubel and her team are working on ways to make solar power more accessible for everyone by incorporating it into everyday objects.