May 11, 2023

Art and climate science converge in new exhibit at the Colorado Capitol

Glowing gem slabs evoke dry wells. A beaded orange river represents the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. Wildfire-scarred tree rings are imprinted on a mirror.

These are just some of the pieces of art that debuted in the Capitol rotunda on May 19. It's part of a collaboration between artists and scientists to display art at the Colorado Capitol that reflects how climate change is affecting Colorado and the Mountain West region.

The exhibit, called "Coloradans and Our Shared Environment in Times of Challenge and Change," was presented by fellows from the Colorado Art Science Environment program housed at the University of Colorado Boulder. The program drew artists from across Colorado to collaborate with scientists on the project.

"It provide[s] a very motivating, potentially impactful way for scientists to get their science work, and environmental science, to the community in ways that they are not always able to," said Lisa Schwartz, the CU Boulder program manager. "They [are] going to support these community-based artists who [took] the work and put it into that narrative, the visual narrative that the community could understand."

One of the artists is Jocelyn Catterson, an environmental educator from the San Luis Valley. Her colorful wood painting features tall line graphs depicting groundwater pumping and aquifer storage data over time. Her work focuses on how climate change is depleting the aquifer, which is "the most pressing environmental issue in the valley," according to Catterson.

"Even though we have decreased our pumping of groundwater over time, the aquifer levels are still going down because of all these other environmental factors and these changes in the climate," she said. "This painting sort of depicts that big picture."

Catterson was paired with Holly Barnard, an associate professor of geography at CU Boulder, to work together on developing Catterson's climate-focused piece of art. Barnard said climate change is often talked about in a generalized manner, but it has very local impacts.

"Having the art in the Capitol rotunda brings the humanity to the issue and also shows that it's not just a large-scale, abstract thing that we talk about in the news, but it's on the ground and it's affecting real people's lives," she said. "I think the art demonstrates some of the ways that those impacts are happening in real time."

Catterson said she hopes this exhibit is a conversation starter that highlights rural, local climate issues that deeply affect communities.

"It brings attention to the issue in a way that's different than just looking at a graph or hearing about the story, because art is ultimately emotional," she said. "It's much more than just a data point to the people that are living these everyday experiences. It's their livelihood, and it is their culture, and it is their history."

T.J. Smith is another artist involved in the program, who hails from Grand Junction. His piece focuses on how threes types of meteorological drought are all connected by using triangles – a common shape for warning signs – and morse code that says "S.O.S. Climate Change."

"If one's failing, there's potential that the other one's failing," he said. "If all three of them are failing, essentially there's this massive amount of drought."

Smith said his piece was designed with the intention of the viewer taking a step back, making a triangle with their hands, and closing one eye in order to convey the idea of personal agency and solutions within their grasp.

"It's this thought that you as an individual are blocking out the flames behind these specific pieces of water or snow or things like that, and it is within your hands," he said. "So it's this thought that every individual can take action."

Smith said the exhibit expresses the challenges posed by drought, wildfire, diminished snowpack and extreme heat across the region.

"All these states that are really dependent on this water are really dependent on the fact that we get enough snow," Smith said. "Even though you might not live in Colorado and directly see the snow and everything like that, you know, you're affected downstream, quite literally."

Judy Amabile, a Colorado state representative from Boulder, said these pieces of art speak to the greater need for people to work together in confronting the climate crisis.

"We're not going to solve climate change here all by ourselves," she said, "but we can be a leader, we can be innovative. We can show the rest of the country and the rest of the world the way, if we do a good job of it here."

Amabile added that the beauty of the artwork represents a future where those climate solutions are achieved.

"Some of this artwork is really beautiful, and that's a good way to think about: what is it we're trying to accomplish?" she said. "If we succeed, it's beautiful, and if we fail, then we really missed an opportunity to seize that."

The exhibit will be on display at the Capitol through October 15. After that, it will rotate through other locations across the state.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.