6 Tools to Make Climate Change Art

by Franke James

How do you make climate change art? And why should you?

These are the two questions I posed in my recent presentation to 150 high school students at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ontario. It was an action-packed agenda with emeritus scientist Dr. Roy Koerner from Natural Resources Canada talking about the science behind climate change. Interestingly he said one of the biggest obstacles we face is changing people’s attitudes — certainly an aspect that artists are well-equipped to address. Distinguished artist Linda Mackey, founder of Polar Artists Group (P.A.G.), showed her paintings and talked about her travels to the north and the many changes she has witnessed since 2002. (See McMichael backgrounder.)
icon green winter

I was invited to present my visual essay “A Green Winter: Will Global Warming Be Good for Canada?” with the idea that it would give the students an example of ‘new media’ climate change art.

Although I could have just structured my presentation as a show and tell about my own work, I tried to put myself in their shoes. And I thought, “These kids want to learn how to make their own climate change art — not just look at mine!” Using that as my guiding principle, I crafted a primer “Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art”. It is meant as a springboard into the creative process of making art about climate change — and the methodology I use to create my visual essays.

It was the end of an intense day for the students. They had learned about the science of global warming from Dr. Koerner, and they had viewed Linda Mackey’s striking photographs and paintings of the changing arctic. As the final speaker I knew I needed to jolt them to attention. So, I started off with my animated movie of “A Green Winter” which has upbeat, lively music composed by David Gray, of Big World Songs and Parachute Club fame. (You can see the movie clip here.)

With the kids minds now twirling, I asked them this question: Can climate change art make a difference?

I drew their attention to a post by Stephen Leahy, Environmental Journalist who wrote about the role artists could play in inspiring change. “Knowledge does not often inspire action. Feelings like compassion and anger do. Good art generates passion.” Stephen cites this quote, “The point is that the artists’ view is invaluable precisely because they are not experts and do not have the authority granted by science. They are only as persuasive as their images. As non-experts, though interested and knowledgeable, they stand in for the view of the everyman…” Seed Magazine

To make an idea spread give it ‘tangible form’

To me, Stephen’s post and the Seed quote ‘resonate’. Artists can make a difference in the world. Think of this: If any one of us stands up and tells a group an idea we have, it may spread — or it may disappear into the ether. A far more effective way to make an idea spread is to give it ‘tangible form’. By creating climate change art our influence can stretch far beyond the boundaries of our personal circle. If others find our work to be moving they will share it with others, until our voice is amplified and our message reaches millions around the world. Unlike the scientist, we artists have the freedom to weave facts, opinions, thoughts, emotion and color all together. We can instill passion and motivate change. That is our palette.

I gave a few personal examples of how my artwork has been carried by others around the web, into newspapers, and books and (to my surprise and delight) is touching people. I quoted one comment from my blog as an example of how different art forms can reach different people at different times. We’re not always in the mood to read books, no matter how wonderful and erudite they are!

“George Monbiot’s HEAT and Tim Flannery’s THE WEATHERMAKERS are sitting in my ‘To Read’ pile and I find myself reluctant to tackle what I know I must read. It was such a relief to see your essay and actually enjoy reading/seeing such a complex issue made close and personal.” Rosalind Ross, January 19th, 2007

An army of artists spreading the word

How many more people could we influence if we had an army of artists spreading the word about climate change?

6 Tools to Make Climate Change Art

To give the students the tools to make climate change art, I wrote down the six tools I rely on. I have developed my own language — a flexible vocabulary. When you see my list of tools you will probably nod your head in recognition. These are all familiar tools that every artist has in their paintbox. We just have to be creative — and judicious — in choosing the right tool to communicate the idea, so that our artwork can be memorable AND inspire action. Below are the six tools, with a few example images for each point.

1. SYMBOLS: How to show climate change when you can’t see it

dumbfounded and sewer grate

Symbols are so powerful. I explained to the students how I was initially stumped as to how to tell the story of Steven Levitt calling me a visionary for worrying about global warming. “Excuse me — I’m a visionary for worrying about global warming??” I wanted to convey that sense of dumbfoundedness, and I think the bloodshot eyeball/globe does that. (The eyeball is from A Green Winter and the sewer grate from Letter to My Future Grandkids in 2020.)

2. METAPHORS MAKE THINGS STICK: Give old phrases new meaning
elephant and david suzuki as green man

Metaphors are a great way to make things stick in your brain. It is far more dramatic to think of global warming as the ‘elephant in the room’, than any facts or figures. (The elephant was in A Green Winter and the green man was in My SUV and Me Say Goodbye. )

3. WITNESS: How do you help the viewer see what you see?

idle ski lifts and snowmen in january

Witnessing is a great activity. But context makes all the difference. For example, the photos above do not look unusual unless the viewer knows that it was January, and there should have been a foot of snow! I suggested the students take their cameras out and witness for themselves the changes they are seeing. (Both the idle ski lifts and the snowmen were in A Green Winter.)

Students interested in the power of ‘witnessing’ should take a look at Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky’s work. You may recognize his riveting photo, “Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario 1996” which is featured on the cover of George Monbiot’s book ‘Heat’. Ed also has a film and book called Manufactured Landscapes, which document man’s impact on the natural world.

4. CULTURE CHANGE: What will we lose?
tim hortons cup and twoonie

Climate change is all about culture change. If polar bears become extinct will future generations quiz us as to why an image of a polar bear is on our two dollar coin? Will the marketing folks seem foolishly nostalgic if Canadians no longer play outdoor hockey. Of course that will never happen… right? (Both the twoonie and the discarded cup were in A Green Winter.)

5. HUMAN NATURE: Can you touch a nerve?

Human nature and our inherent selfishness is a favorite topic of mine in climate change art. These two images talk about the layoffs in January 2007 that resulted from the lack of snow — and the almost automatic reaction that many of us — including me — have, “I’m glad I didn’t buy a full season ski pass!” That attitude of “I’m all right, Jack.” is a thread that goes through much of society when climate change is discussed. Will Canada suffer the worst consequences of global warming? Unlikely. It will be the poorer countries below the equator that are the worst hit by droughts, floods and food shortages. (The grass footprints were in A Green Winter.)

6. ACTION: Do something green and record it
selling suv and interviewing family

But my favorite ‘tool’ of all is number six: Action.

As artists, we can turn our lives into works of art. We can do something green — even small green actions will do — and then weave a story about that act. Wonderful art has been created — and is being created by many artists using this method.

Documenting the mad consumerism of the world

Artist Chris Jordan is diligently documenting the mad consumerism of the world. And making persuasive art at the same time.

“Chris Jordan is a photographer/artist with a strong social message. His work is concerned with the depiction and comprehension of statistics and showing what they really mean… For example, the seemingly familiar painting of Cans Seurat is in fact, the depiction of 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the United States every thirty seconds.” Treehugger

The Art of ‘Selling our SUV’ and ‘Planting our Driveway’

In my case, I’m making art and stories about green actions we’re taking. We sold our car in February 2007, and I documented it in My SUV and Me Say Goodbye. And I also documented my family’s reaction to us selling our only car — which was hilarious and great fodder for my story. This past summer we built our green driveway which was again, great grist for the mill.

Call to Action:

Do something Green and document it! Make a story. Draw pictures. Take photos. Tell the world what you’ve done and why.

Very persuasive climate change art can be created by doing something green — and then documenting it in words and pictures. I suggested the students do something green and then interview their family and friends for reactions. As artists we can hold up a mirror that reflects back society’s values — even if that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. Certainly my dear brother-in-law regretted calling me a Granola-crunching-tree-hugging-whack-job, if only because I documented it for all time! What fun! Now doesn’t this make YOU want to take action and create your own climate change art?

6 Tools to Make Climate Change Art

1. SYMBOLS: How to show climate change when you can’t see it
Give old phrases new meaning
3. WITNESS: How do you help the viewer see what you see?
4. CULTURE CHANGE: What will we lose?
5. HUMAN NATURE: Can you touch a nerve?
6. ACTION: Do something green and record it

The Big Question: Did the students get my ‘Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art’ message?

We’ll have to wait and see. I was very pleased that after my presentation, two students from the Emily Carr School came up and thanked me, saying that my presentation was “Inspiring”. And the next day, Christa Gampp, a talented artist and Visual Arts Resource Teacher, sent me this email, “Your presentation must have lit quite a few “green” lights in the minds of our young audience! I am positive that the students went away with that “spark” to start on their own creative project. Today’s youth can very readily relate to your imagery and messages due to your use of media. Your artwork is very creative and relevant to our times. I loved your mentoring message to the students: to choose a topic that is related to their own surroundings and interests. I am looking forward to seeing the student art exhibition at the McMichael next year and I am sure I’ll be able to spot your positive “influence” in the artworks! Thanks again!”

I hope Christa is right and that I did switch on a few green lights. I did leave them with this one thought and the encouragement that — as Gandhi said –they need to be the change they want to see in the world.


Quick backgrounder:
The McMichael Gallery holds a special place in Canadian art history as it boasts one of the largest Group of Seven collections in the world. You can read about its founders, Robert and Signe McMichael. The event was organized by Scott McDonald, Director Education and Programmes and Rosa Calabrese, Educator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection to inspire the students to make art about climate change. The student’s work will be featured in a juried exhibition in 2008.

Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art copyright 2007 Franke James;
Concept, photography, illustration and writing by Franke James, MFA

19 Responses: 19 Comments

  • Julie says:

    Quite often, Franke, the Universe sends me just what I need in order to take a positive next step . . . the morning after I’ve had a good cry about how hopeless it all is.

    Peter and I will be hosting a spiritual sort of workshop on Creation Care and Climate Change here on Pender Island November 3 — and including letter writing just didn’t seem “spiritual” enough, or “positive” enough.

    Your Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art will be a great way to add some joy, creativity and fun into our day.

    Thank you for all this sharing that you do!

  • Janet says:

    You are doing great work, Franke — congratulations!!

  • Jack Goering says:


    Have passed it on to Trinity College School.
    (Graduated from TCS in 1943, taught there from 1961-1985 – Environmental Studies, and other sciences.)

    Trying to have them catch up to UCC!

    Keep up the good work!

  • Rarely do the talents of a professional artist and educator come together in equal measure as they do in the work of Franke James. Her Six Tools for Climate Change presentation at the McMichael was the ideal vehicle for presenting complex material in a compelling and accessible format for everyone in attendance.

    Franke has the rare skill of presenting important abstract concepts with immediacy and relevance through her art. Simply outstanding.

    Scott McDonald, Director Education and Programmes, McMichael Canadian Art Collection

  • Martin Edic says:

    Great presentation… It will be very interesting to see what comes out of it. These kids probably don’t realize it but climate change is going to be the central issue of their lives – we cannot imagine the world they will inherit.

  • Carole says:

    Thank you for the delightful presentation at the McMichael last week.

    My daughter does not consider herself artistic… or did not until you showed your Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art presentation… like you, she has a quirky sense of humour and sees the world a bit differently. You showed her how one can use WORDS and humour to make art and influence people!

    Many thanks for your energy and inspiration… we will stay tuned to your web site.

  • Franke, it is my turn to congratulate you. You speak so eloquently of art and what it can do, and of your work as an environmentalist and an artist. I agree with you. We need the power of the imagination to come to our rescue here . . .

    On another note, I would love to invite you, to participate in the BlogActs inititiative on my blog. BlogActs stand for blogging + activism, and I would be honored to host you for one post describing one of your BlogActs!

  • […] music composed by David Gray, Big World Songs. It was recently featured in her presentation ‘Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art‘ to 150 high school students at The McMichael Gallery. ‘A Green Winter’ will also […]

  • […] Toronto artist Franke? James is doing great work both in expressing her concern and understanding in her colourful and insightful visual essays about climate change but also as a teacher of others in workshops for young artists — Six Tools to Make Climate Change Art. […]

  • Danny Bloom says:

    This is great work that you are doing, loved reading about you on Stephen Leahy’s website and then here. Have you ever considered making art about “polar cities” that might be needed in future years to house remnants, survivors, of global warming?

  • […] Awesome opening art ganked from […]

  • Graham Willis says:

    Great work Franke!

    I am a final year illustration student and its liberating to see that I am not the only person out there trying to make people not just realize what we are doing to our selves but act upon it and do something about it. I am not the only one who feels obliged to use their art to help ease the situation.

  • Deb Carey says:

    wow, I’m going to use the six tools for Amesbury’s Carbon Project. What an inspiration! Thanks Franke.

  • Anna Palmqvist says:

    Fantastic website!

    I’m doing my exams about art and climate change… Your tools make me happy!

    keep on saving pachamama!


  • […] contacted me about a paper she was writing on climate change art. Louise Ridley had seen my Six Tools for Climate Change presentation from October 2007 and was wondering if I’d done any more work in that […]

  • Eric van der Zalm says:

    … i think the tools gives me a lot of strength!..

    Eric van der Zalm,
    Academie Minerva,
    Groningen, Netherlands.

  • […] with you my Six Tools for Climate Change Art. I developed them in 2007. I was invited to speak at The McMichael Art Gallery because they wanted students to make their own climate change art. I figured they wouldn’t […]

  • Pennie Maggs says:

    Congratulations! This is a wonderful blessing for our youth!