As a painter and installation artist in the 1990s, I wanted to bring awareness to ecological issues, such as the extinction of species. Exhibiting the work, however, did not have a direct impact on the issues I cared about as an environmental activist. My work was influenced by artists, writers, and curators who were part of the ecofeminist movement. My individual expression through art shifted into a collaborative and interdisciplinary practice.
Today, my environmental art is built upon an expanded definition of ecology.
The word ecology is derived from the Greek word oikos, which means home. Ecology describes the relationship between organisms and their environment. Over time, my thinking has evolved to recognize that ecosystems go beyond that earlier definition to include complex layers: the geological, environmental, cultural, historical, political, metaphorical, spiritual, and aesthetic dimensions of place.
I became part of a group of neighbors in the mid-1990s who wanted to extend St. Paul’s Swede Hollow Park in what is now called Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and the site of Wakan Tipi cave. Originally, the intention of the Lower Phalen Creek Project was to restore a contaminated area, but through the process of working with Indigenous members of the community, our organization learned that the area is a sacred site to Dakota people.
Working on the Bruce Vento project taught me about all the layers a place can hold — historical, cultural, ecological, and spiritual. Mona Smith, Dakota artist and founder of the organization “Healing Place Collaborative” asked those of us doing place -based work, “What would our work look like if we put the Indigenous perspective first?”
Local ecosystems are intertwined with Minnesota’s brutal history of genocide and forced dispossession that exiled Dakota people from their home. I and others who are European settlers must recognize how we continue to benefit from stolen land and must take action towards dismantling systems of oppression and structural racism.
In 2014, I initiated a project at Plains Art Museum in North Dakota called the Pollinator Garden and Buzz Lab, a paid youth internship program that focuses on the intersection of science, art, and activism. The redesign of the museum’s campus included the removal of a parking lot, the planting of pollinator-friendly plants, and a rainwater capture system. Buzz Lab is now in its seventh year and currently has 30 interns ranging in age from 11 to 18.
Many interns have returned to the program year after year, and have become powerful advocates for the environment.
We are currently facing dramatic changes to ecosystems — an alarming decline of biodiversity due to shrinking habitat, climate change, as well as the degradation of air, soil, and water quality. People are drastically and unevenly impacted by environmental contamination and climate change.
The arts can have an enduring impact by shifting our consciousness, encouraging us to recognize that everything is connected, and helping us imagine how we can co-create a healthier home for all inhabitants.
Christine Baeumler (she/her) is an artist and a professor in Interdisciplinary Art and Social Practice in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.