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Issues of the Environment: The intersection of environmental activism and art

Laura Earle
Laura Earle
Laura Earle


  • This June, "Human|Nature," an exhibition of environmentally focused art by four artists and environmental activists, will be free and open to the public beginning June 3rd. 
  • “Human|Nature,” features a collection of works reflecting on how we engage with the natural world, what we take from it and how our actions impact the future. “Given the critical nature of the climate crisis, it’s important to keep this issue front and center, building awareness and encouraging people to do what they can to help heal the environment," said Earle, Curator and Artist for the art exhibition.
  • For this exhibition, Earle is working on an installation that explores the objectification of natural resources and takes the form of a plywood forest. Another item of note is a wall-mounted sculpture made from vintage boxing equipment that challenges global leaders causing pollution. She’s fighting back against the use of plastics and packaging in two other new pieces. Earle previously collaborated with Detroit-based artist Jason Kimble on an environmental piece called “Battle for the Planet.” It allows guests to set up their own battles against climate change on a large domino table. The artists developed fantasy characters – nine Elementals and nine Destructors – and created a variety of kinetic sculptures that represent very real environmental influences.
  • “Human|Nature” features works by Earle and fellow artists Jason Kimble, Ann Smith, and Marc Snyder. It will be open June 3-24 at 22 North Gallery, 22 North Huron Street in Ypsilanti, Mich. An opening reception is set for 6-9 p.m. on Friday, June 3 and will coincide with First Fridays in Ypsilanti.
  • Laura Earle is an independent curator, artist and founder of Laura Earle Design. Based in Farmington Hills, her work is a catalyst for community building and creating positive social and environmental change. Learn more at lauraearle.com and connect with the artist on Instagram and LinkedIn.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And on today's edition of Issues of the Environment, we're going to explore the intersection of activism and art. I'm David Fair, and through June 24th, an exhibition is on display at 22 North Gallery at 22 North Huron Street in Ypsilanti. The exhibit features a collection of works reflecting how we engage with the natural world, what we take from it, and how our actions impact the future. It's called Human/Nature. Our guest today on Issues of the Environment is one of the featured artists, Laura Earle. Laura is a Michigan-based activist who uses her skill as a multimedia artist and curator to better protect the environment. And, Laura, thank you so much for making time today.

Laura Earle: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Which came first? Your interest in social justice issues, including the environment, or your passion for art?

Laura Earle: I think they emerged simultaneously. I remember, even as a small child, being concerned about the world around me, and it was also happening at the time that I took an interest in making and the magic that happens when, you know, materials can be transformed to convey a thought.

David Fair: And what about that process expresses yourself in ways that perhaps words don't?

Laura Earle: I think what's interesting about making is that it taps into aspects of being human that are not necessarily verbal. And so, in the process of making decisions about how to form a piece, I actually come to learn more about my deeper thoughts and to access latent ideas that haven't been manifest before. And so, it's as much an act of discovery as it is an act of authorship.

David Fair: It's really interesting. Now, prior to working on the installations in this Human/Nature exhibit, I imagine you did exactly as you said: reflect, assess, examine the issues important to you and then manifest concepts. But when does all of that thoughts and introspection turn into inspiration for the actual creation?

Laura Earle: I think that it's...again, I have to say simultaneous. I think it's a constant attribute of the creative process to be working both with your hands and with your mind and the two fuel each other. And I think that what's really magical about bringing several different artists together, especially like the ones here in this exhibit, is that we can all see how our reflections relate to each other. There's a conversation going on among people all across the country with regard to the environment, and it comes out in the various artworks. Even though we approach our making in very different ways, like we have Ann Smith's beautiful sculptures, and we have Mark Snyder's hand-cut lithographs and woodcuts, and we have computer-generated artwork from Jason Kimble in the illustration and comic world. And all of these things are very different avenues of exploring a very common interest.

David Fair: We're talking with artist and environmental activist Laura Earle on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. The Human/Nature exhibit opened last Friday, and she just gave you kind of a thumbnail sketch of what you'll see when you get the opportunity to go. Again, it's at the gallery at 22 North in Ypsilanti. It's open Saturdays 6 to 9 p.m., Sundays 3 to 6 p.m. And, Laura, what did you feel the need to express in this particular exhibit?

Laura Earle: For me, it's really important to engage with the audience who comes to the gallery. I have created a number of pieces that are interactive that you'll be able to hands-on explore different configurations and work through puzzles yourself. So, basically, we'll be joining forces together in thinking about particular aspects of the environmental crisis and opportunities for the future: you know, ways that we can thrive, ways that we can upgrade the way that we exist in the world. And so, what I think is really great is to be able to use artwork to pose the question, "Can we be the hero of our own story?" And I think we're posed at this moment, to answer that. We have a narrowing window of time to make positive change, to heal the environment. And so, my work really is meant to be interactive in that way, to get gallery goers to join in this question with me. And I think there's a place for everyone to take a step forward towards helping to heal the environment. And I wanted to make works that encourage people to consider what they personally can do to make their little corner of the world a little greener.

David Fair: Do you sometimes reveal something within yourself as you complete a project that helps you grow towards a different perspective on environmental protection, but on the process of art as well?

Laura Earle: Yeah, definitely. So, one of the interesting things to me too is looking at materials and material uses. And you'll note when you go to the exhibit that there are some extremely creative ways of repurposing materials displayed in this particular collection. A lot of things that have been rescued from the waste stream and re-envisioned in interesting new ways. And I feel like that aspect of the art in the making process, you know, is continuing to evolve too. As, you know, I consider sustainability a new attribute as aesthetic, right? It's more beautiful if it's sustainable. It's more beautiful if I've used materials in a way that honor the Earth, and as Ann Smith says, help us to walk lightly upon the earth.

David Fair: Once again, you are putting forth this exhibit with three others: Ann Smith, Mark Snyder, and Jason Kimble. And each of you, in the creation of your projects and the manner in which you choose to present them, knew what you meant. But art is also a very personal and individualized medium. When you get feedback from the public or from other artists, did they get what you intended? Or do they have different interpretations of meaning that you find interesting?

Laura Earle: Oh, it's both. And I love that you raised this question because I feel that art has an a very important mirror role to play. Not only is it an avenue for me to share my experience as an artist, but an artwork has a unique and powerful way of being a mirror to whoever is viewing it. So, one person will come to it and see a completely different narrative than another person that comes to it, because it's reflecting their experiences in life, their viewpoints, their possibilities, their excitement, their inspirations. And so, to me, that's what's really wonderful. It's a touch point between the artist and the viewer that really creates a very full expression of human engagement with a particular topic.

David Fair: Once again, WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation on the intersection of art and environmental activism continues with artist Laura Earle. She is one of four artists being featured in an exhibit at 22 North Gallery in Ypsilanti through June 24th. I want to follow a little further down the line that we've taken. When someone sees the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, it's an experience unto itself. However, viewed through the context of the entire museum experience, it's possible to walk away with a different sense of the day. So, when people walk away from the Human/Nature exhibit, have you had conversations with your fellow artists being displayed as to what you want the collective takeaway to be?

Laura Earle: I do think that we're all concerned with this central question of, you know, "Can we be the hero of our own story?" I think all of the artworks consider that there are better ways of living, that we need to upgrade the way that we exist in the world in order for all of us to thrive. And I feel like, you know, many of the artworks are asking people to reconnect with nature and in a meaningful way and to sort of transcend our tendency toward convenience, you know, where we objectify and commodify the natural world and to engage in something that's a little bit more poetic, a little bit more playful, a little bit more optimistic, and, again, encourage this idea of the aesthetics of sustainability, to really look at sustainability in a protopian way, you know, and to spread that ethos of collaboration and cooperation.

David Fair: Sometimes, when we talk about the plight of the planet and the environment, it sounds somewhat alarmist. But you mention the word optimism. Are you optimistic? Do you think this is an optimistic exhibit?

Laura Earle: I do. I feel like, you know, humanity, when we get together and we decide we want to do something and we really put our minds and our hearts and our thoughts into some form of innovation, we have done incredible things. And I really am hoping that people will--by putting this exhibit out there and continuing this conversation--that people will be inspired to take a look at this moment of necessity, because we do have a rapidly closing window of opportunity and leverage that. And let's see some innovation. Let's be some real transcendent thinking.

David Fair: So, when we consider all that needs to be done, the health of our ecosystems, human health and the systemic manner in which poor practices more detrimentally impact low-income communities and people of color, what role do you see art playing and being a part of that solution?

Laura Earle: Again, it's about bringing the conversation in a thoughtful and creative way to the community and providing avenues of engagement for people to see their own role in the future. I think artists are amazing at visualizing the future or options that don't exist currently. And I think it's important for us to all be able to see ourselves in a sustainable, viable, thriving future. And I believe that art plays a significant role in that.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time and the conversation today, Laura. I really appreciate it.

Laura Earle: Thank you too.

David Fair: That is Laura Earle. She is a Michigan-based activist who uses her skill as a multimedia artist and curator in her effort to better protect the environment and tackle other social issues. She is one of four featured artists at the Human/Nature exhibit that runs through June 24th at the 22 North Gallery at 22 North Huron Street in Ypsilanti. For more information and links to everything you'll need, visit our web site at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU where FM and HD one Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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