The Heart that Fed: How Public Environmental Art Can Plant Seeds for Change

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Public works of environmental art like Utah’s Spiral Jetty attracts cultural tourists looking for a meaningful connection with nature. | Image Source: Flickr User Retis
Public works of environmental art like Utah’s Spiral Jetty attracts cultural tourists looking for a meaningful connection with nature.  Image Source: Flickr User Retis

I met a traveller from an antique land…I can distinctly remember the first time I read those iconic opening words from the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley. This nineteenth-century sonnet tells the story of a traveler in a distant land who comes upon the forgotten ruin of a giant monument to the king of a long-lost kingdom. In a twist of irony, the words Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! are inscribed on the ruins where they sit in a barren landscape of shifting sands.

For me as a young reader, the forgotten sculpture of Ozymandias sent a powerful message that, against the forces of nature, humanity is but a blip in the cosmological timeline. While the statue in Ozymandias may be fictional, for art history devotees and poetry lovers alike, it asks the question: What role can public art play in shaping societal perspectives about the environment?

Visualizing Social Issues and Why Public Art Matters

Public sculptures have long been used as a social educational tool. They bring historical and cultural values into the public space and make them accessible to everyone. By giving life and personality to our abstract values, art influences how people feel about global issues on a personal level.

The reality is that the public relates to issues that are manifested poetically and personally. Bickering pundits and the constant vitriolic partisanship of news radio can feel abstract and alienating. Shelley puts it perfectly: the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. Public authority has the ability to both repress and nurture the people, and for groups looking to influence environmental policy, it’s vital to emotionally connect with people. Public environmental art helps to communicate messages about the world in inspiring and eye-opening ways.

Public environmental art allows artists to relay big-picture problems, particularly for issues that can feel so removed from our current reality that they’re difficult to truly process. The most effective public art does not simply visualize abstractions, it makes them felt in the hearts of observers.

Eve Mosher’s HighWaterLine project uses scientific data to insightfully show coast-dwellers how climate change will cause ocean levels to rise. From Bristol to Miami to New York, Mosher demarcates the projected future coastline in a thick line of chalk. Often the chalky “water line” will slice right through a public square, busy sidewalks, or urban centers, among people walking, shopping, and playing. The simple presence of a chalked line in the midst of daily goings-on is a shocking materialization of what our future could be like if personal and public action is not taken to mitigate climate change.

People are genuinely interested to learn more about the world and how to affect it in a positive way. Statistics show that travelers are more engaged when traveling for culture and education than when traveling purely for leisure: cultural tourists spend more money than the average US traveler and travel for longer periods of time. Research like this shows that tourists are looking for something more meaningful than a week at a beach resort, and public art can provide the cultural connection that people crave.

Public artworks like the monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty in Utah attract visitors from around the globe to experience nature’s wonder. In the pilgrimage to Salt Lake to see this iconic environmental art installation, cultural tourists get an intimate look at the sheer scope of Nature’s power and the shocking fragility of human endeavor before it. Even monumental works like Spiral Jetty are in the flux of changing water levels and can succumb to environmental pressures over time. According to Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune, “Due to high water — at one point the Jetty was roughly 16 feet under and not visible….The formation has been visible for only a third of its life.” Visitors of Spiral Jetty come face-to-face with environmental change and hopefully to a better understanding of humans’ relationship with nature.

The Heart That Fed: Making Public Art to Connect

The lone and level sands stretch far… and nature ultimately has the dominant hand in all human affairs. Environmentally-conscious art can bring tourists from around the globe to understand for a moment our collective effect on the Earth. Like the fictional statue in Ozymandias, the most effective environmental art tackles big questions in a way that provide observers with a deeper insight about the world around them. When individuals connect with the wild beauty of the Earth and the fragility of our relationship with it, then the artist has planted the seeds for change and collective action.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Whether you’re interested in creating impactful environmental change or simply creating a beautiful public sculpture, the McLeods have years of experience with figurative and public sculpture that can help you realize your vision. For more information about commissioning a public sculpture, contact the McLeods today.

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