Save the planet — adopt one of these clouds

Not real clouds, mind you — these are art pieces by Toronto's Julie Gladstone, and half of their "adoption fees" support the fight against climate change.

Created by Toronto artist Julie Gladstone, half the "adoption fees" support the fight against climate change

Julie Gladstone. "Extreme Cloud Gazing at Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island 2016." (Courtesy of the artist)

With a little imagination, clouds can be anything. Squint, and that tuft of cumulus overhead could look like a horse, a house, Ryan Gosling's butt — whatever. But the next time you're watching the sky, Toronto artist Julie Gladstone wants you to play another game of make believe. Imagine that the clouds are staring right back at us. If they could do that, maybe they'd be terrified of people. We keep blasting them with pollution, after all, and all they can do is helplessly take the abuse — growing fatter and angrier with every shot of CO2.

That's Gladstone's take, a bit of whimsy that's right out of a kid's book (or maybe an episode of Care Bears) — and it's an idea she's worked into her latest art project, "Adopt an Extreme Cloud."

Not real clouds, mind you — these are clouds you can take home. They're sculptures, part of an ongoing installation project called "Extreme Cloud Gazing" that Gladstone started last summer. It's the evolution of a series of paintings she began in 2013 — abstract landscapes of storms and rain and floods that were a reaction to record-breaking Toronto thunderstorms that summer. Since then, she's moved toward building giant clouds, four-foot puffs of neon paint and wire and plaster, that are usually grouped in hanging clusters — as if they're about to burst with gumdrops instead of raindrops. Eventually, she plans to include them in an entire ecosystem of pop-art structures.

Julie Gladstone. "Extreme Cloud Gazing at Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island 2016." (Courtesy of the artist)
Julie Gladstone. "Extreme Cloud Gazing at Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island 2016." (Courtesy of the artist)
Julie Gladstone. "Extreme Cloud Gazing at Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island 2016." (Courtesy of the artist)

Ten of her clouds are currently floating above the reception desk at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel (no relation to the artist). The installation is part of Grow Op, the hotel's annual art exhibition about the intersection of culture and nature. It runs to April 23, and while preparing for the show, Gladstone launched "Adopt an Extreme Cloud," a fundraiser project that seeks to place every sculpture in a forever home.

The clouds range between $600-800, and they're available through Gallery 555, where Gladstone is the director. Half of every cloud's "adoption" fee, she explains, will be donated to David Suzuki Foundation. The artist says that the environmental organization has no official involvement in the project, but she personally supports their approach towards combating climate change, particularly their focus on the economic benefits of renewable energy.

"Extreme Cloud Gazing," an installation by Julie Gladstone, will welcome visitors to Toronto's Gladstone Hotel during their Grow Op 2017 exhibition. The artist (pictured) does some "extreme cloud gazing" of her own while setting it up. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I just want to create an experience for people, but I was also trying to find a way that the project could have impact as well," she tells CBC Arts.

The whole "adoption" angle is meant to be funny, cute, light-hearted. "It's an act of charity to bring them in and soothe them," she laughs."I kind of like the idea of personifying the clouds. It's a reversal of the tradition of the sublime" — the idea that nature's power is so overwhelming that it's both beautiful and terrifying.

"The image of the cloud is such a potent image," Gladstone explains. "It contains this paradox. It has the life-giving properties of renewal and it's this age-old symbol for meditation and magic. It's got that dual quality to it."

"Climate change and the environment — it's not light and fun. But for me it's very important, and I think for all of us, it should be important," she says. "I was interested in figuring out, 'How can we look at something that's not the most fun thing to consider?'"

Cloud gazing was the solution. "It's this kind of meditative act that we associate with being a child — carefree days lying in the grass. And in the case of this installation, the clouds are a real weird bunch of clouds," she laughs. Splashed with abstract patterns, each one is painted in the electric-rainbow palette of a Lisa Frank sticker book. That kind of eye-candy is definitely fun, but Gladstone also notes that there's a deliberately "over-the-top man-made quality about them." It's all meant to be a reminder of our actual impact on the environment.

Julie Gladstone. Crystal Rainbow Cloud, 2016. (www.gallery555.ca)
Julie Gladstone. Stormy Rainbow Cloud, 2016. (www.gallery555.ca)

The adoption program will continue after Grow Op wraps later this month, Gladstone says, and her dream is to find an eco-conscious Daddy Warbucks — someone (or some organization) with the means to adopt the whole lot, as if they're a family who should never be separated. Until then, she has plans to create a photo series involving the sculptures, similar to the images captured during last summer's installation at Gibraltar Point beach on the Toronto Islands.

"[The project] is suggesting we live in this world where there's great beauty and magic," she says — but the clouds also give the audience a "chance to contemplate and feel and think about our emotional response to the changes that are happening to the environment."

Grow Op 2017. April 19 to 23 at the Gladstone Hotel, Toronto. www.gladstonehotel.com

Learn how to Adopt an Extreme Cloud through Gallery 555.