Can Public Art Save the Planet?

As NRDC's first-ever artist-in-residence, Jenny Kendler creates interactive sculptures that invite viewers to remember their place in the natural order.

Jenny Kendler with her Milkweed Dispersal Balloons at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2014

Credit: Image courtesy of the artist

It might seem odd for an environmental group to have an artist-in-residence, but NRDC often finds innovative ways to connect people with their planet. Elizabeth Corr, NRDC's manager of art partnerships, saw an alliance with artist Jenny Kendler as an opportunity to spark dialogue between environmental artists, policy experts, and the general public.

"Each of Jenny's exhibits have reached people in a way that our blog posts and press releases never will," says NRDC senior scientist Sylvia Fallon, who works to protect pollinators like bees and butterflies that are critical to our food supply. "The artist-in-residence projects have provided a forum for connecting people personally with the issue of pollinator loss while also providing them with something concrete they can do to help, such as planting habitat or sending in action postcards to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

We asked Jenny what it's like to be an artist stepping into the NRDC world.

A milkweed dispersal balloon
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Artist

Why do you make art about the environment?

When I was little, I would create paintings of beetles and tiny sculptures out of feathers and grass. There was never a separation for me between making art and being interested in the natural world. As I got older and moved to college and the city, I became more focused on technology and culture. Then in graduate school, I realized I knew everything I needed to know about creating work when I was eight. I came back to my original impetus for art-making: the environment.

What have you made during your time as artist-in-residence at NRDC?

The first project was a butterfly "food cart" at the Marfa Dialogues in St. Louis, Missouri, a symposium to foster a connection between the arts, environmental activism, and the politics of climate change. Monarch butterfly populations have declined by 90 percent in the United States in recent years because milkweed—the monarch caterpillars' only food source—has been decimated by the use of agricultural pesticides. When monarchs migrate through a city where they can’t find milkweed, it can be life or death for them. At our "food cart," we gave out translucent biodegradable balloons filled with fluffy milkweed seeds. We talked to people about how these butterflies are in peril and watched their faces fall. But we invited them to be part of the solution by taking the balloons home to their neighborhoods and popping them outside, releasing the seeds to float away and plant themselves in alleyways and yards.

It’s been such a popular piece that we’re going to develop an open-source model for it. A class of eighth graders and a Girl Scout troop have already re-created it.

What else have you worked on?

For a show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, we have crafted traveling "community seed stations" by repurposing old newspaper kiosks and covering them in a print that features native prairie wildflower species. Giving away about 11,000 packets of native prairie seeds all over western New York, the project, ReWilding New York, allowed people to cut away the back half of the packet, turning it into a postcard to Governor Andrew Cuomo, calling on him to protect endangered pollinators by supporting native plantings and better pesticide regulations. The kiosks also have tiny "green roofs" sprouting seeds so we can talk to people about water reclamation.

Another project is Tell it to the Birds, a 10-foot interactive sculptural dome we installed at EXPO Chicago in September 2014 and in Millennium Park in July 2015. While people waited in line, we gave them field guides featuring 11 threatened or endangered birds that NRDC works to protect, like the sage grouse, prairie chicken, and wood thrush. They picked the bird that most resonated with them, and when they entered the dome, they were prompted to make a "confession" to the natural world into a lichen-covered dish that concealed a microphone. Their words, which remained secret, were audio-processed to turn them into the song of the bird they selected, and the birdsong played back to them—and to everyone outside.

Camouflage bird sculptures and Natural Camouflage Lichen Wallpaper from Tell it to the Birds at EXPO Chicago, 2014
Credit: Image courtesy of the Artist

An older gentleman told us that when he was a little boy, he’d killed a robin and always felt so bad about it. This was a way for him to say he's sorry. A mother was standing outside the dome talking to me while her two young kids were inside chirping, and I said, "Hold on, this is your children speaking in the voices of birds." Her eyes filled with tears and she said, "This piece really makes me worried about what kind of a world I'm going to leave for my kids. When they’re my age, will there be birds left?"

What has it meant for you to be a part of the NRDC community?

It’s been tremendously satisfying to have been invited by NRDC to merge art and activism, because I want to do everything I can to preserve what I care about. NRDC not only helps me incorporate the best science into projects but has also taught me how to organize actions for the environment. It’s a balm for the soul to really feel like I’m working with the good guys. It makes me feel more hopeful.

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