As a young man becoming an activist in the ‘80s, David Solnit was interested in art, but didn’t really connect it to the causes he was fighting for.
David took art classes in school and worked as a carpenter, but he “didn’t understand what good having paintings in a gallery or sculptures in a gallery was going to do to stop wars and all the injustice and ecological destruction,” he told the audience at our July Livable Future LIVE event.
But then, years later, he began looking for new strategies and tactics for organizing. He started working with artists and performers, and that was the start of his journey as an artist-organizer.
When we’re surrounded by disaster and grim forecasts on all sides, art may seem trivial. But at this event, our guest artists David Solnit and Emily Robinson spoke to the importance of art at this moment. Art is a source of strength, a connector, a way to build community, and a powerful driver of on-the-ground change.
The World Is On Fire — Why Make Art?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, photographer and journalist Emily Robinson began taking long walks on the beach near her home. She started picking up all kinds of plastic trash from the sand, creating colorful collages with what she found.
Emily soon realized that the collages were powerful conversation starters. They created gentle paths toward deeper discussions about plastic pollution and other environmental problems.
Moreover, Emily herself found comfort in the projects. Collecting the plastic and assembling the collages was a meditative act that alleviated her feelings of climate anxiety. She began pursuing different kinds of art that she could share with her community.
In an uncertain and scary future, we can turn to art to find strength and hope — not just in the art itself, but in the togetherness it brings.
“The anxiety part of [the climate crisis] is so large and so overwhelming,” Emily said, “that I think shrinking down and just doing something basic — like sitting together and painting, or making a little thing on the sand with some plastic scraps, and then throwing it away, really small things like that — making art, and being together, and doing something that feels less scary or overwhelming can help with those anxiety issues a lot.
“Sometimes it feels a little frivolous to go and make art when the whole world is literally on fire. But then it’s sort of like, Well, shouldn’t we make art that makes us feel a little better so that we can recenter ourselves and keep going?”
Learn more about easing climate anxiety and mobilizing for a livable future at “Against All Odds,” our annual benefit to protect the planet!
Art Is a Powerful Medium for Making Change
As an artist-organizer, David has helped movements around the country to make and perform art. “I actually believe that we need the arts to win,” he said, “And I’ve been involved in a lot of struggles that have shown that.”
For example, David has worked for decades with farmworkers in the small community of Immokalee, Florida. Years ago, folks there were forced to work without pay and held against their will. Workers reached out to the then-governor, asking him to speak out on their behalf, but he wouldn’t return their calls.
So workers put together a silent theater (a tradition with Haitian and Brazilian roots called mística) reflecting their experiences. With props David made, they took their performance to the steps of the state capitol building in Tallahassee. There, they enacted their play in silence, over and over again, during a three-hour rally.
It got picked up on local TV news, the newspaper — and the next morning, while they drove home from Tallahassee to Immokalee, the farmworkers got a call from the Governor’s office. He asked them to arrange a meeting.
“People said all the messages in a press conference and in speeches, but it was that simple art form that really got the results they wanted,” David said.
Art and Activism Are for All of Us
For some, making art can be intimidating. We get stuck in this idea that it’s only for the capital-A Artists; those who can sing on stage or display their work in a museum.
But David and Emily emphasized that art is so much more than that.
“Art is in everything, all around us,” Emily said during the event. “Planting flowers in your garden is art, singing a song while you’re doing the dishes is art … We all make art, and we are all artists, and we all have creative instincts. So, having that compassion, and relaxing a little bit, and embracing those things that bring us joy — that’s part of art.”
“I also think it’s a little bit like activism,” David added. “I suspect most of us would say, if somebody said ‘Oh, my opinion’s not important. I don’t know how to participate in politics,’ you would say, ‘Actually, you should participate. It affects you, you’re intelligent, you can figure it out,’ you know? And similarly, with art, it’s like, sure, there’s a role for some professionals who get highly skilled and figure out how to make a living.
“But just like music and singing, it’s something that everybody should do. And in a lot of cultures around the world, everybody sings, everybody plays music, everybody makes art. And I think we need to build movements and communities that also do that.”
You can watch the full event, “Creative Activism: Using Art to Protect Our Planet” below.
Resources Shared at the Event
- Follow Emily Robinson on Instagram @plasticpresents and read our 2022 interview with Emily
- Follow David Solnit on Instagram @davidsolnit and on Twitter @dsolnit, and check out his resources on incorporating art into action
- Contribute to our grassroots movement and make a gift
- Sign up to attend our upcoming Livable Future LIVE events
- Join us at “Against All Odds,” our annual benefit to protect our planet
- Vote on the People’s Choice session for the Against All Odds conference program