What does it take to make art green?

Their art is about saving the planet. But what are the challenges of doing that responsibly? See what sustainability looks like to these Canadian artists.

Their work is about saving the planet. But what are the challenges of doing that responsibly?

Artist Alex Stewart wants people to pay more attention to the natural world, so he hides paintings like this one in B.C. forests. Committed to using sustainable materials, he works with biodegradable paints. This work, like all of his outdoor paintings, is designed to disappear in a matter of weeks. (Alex Stewart)

Where there are people, there will be trash. So let's say you're walking some rainforest trail on Vancouver Island, and your boot crunches down on a beer can or protein-bar wrapper. Would Captain Planet's teachings kick in? Would you pocket that junk and bin it later? Or would you keep hiking, trusting nature will eventually absorb that trash into its mossy bosom. What's 500 years or so, give or take?

Alex Stewart, however, is a guy who squats for litter, and the B.C. artist says he doesn't hit the woods without a garbage bag. He makes art for people who might not be as Planeteer-ingly minded as he is, and since 2018, the Fort Langley resident's been hiding his paintings in popular hiking trails around the West Coast, stencilling portraits of mysterious sirens on dead stumps and logs.

Made with biodegradable paints, the images are designed to fade away in a matter of weeks. "A lot of people walk through the trail systems, at least here, and they'll walk by a piece of garbage and not pick it up," says Stewart. "This is a way to get people to engage more with the environment and maybe think a little bit more about it."

One of Alex Stewart's outdoor paintings. (Alex Stewart)

That said, there's an awful lot of thinking going on already. Art about the environment, about climate change — about however you'd care to phrase imminent global catastrophe: even in a strictly Canadian context, there's plenty.

Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky released not just an award-winning documentary but also a touring museum exhibition on the subject (Anthropocene). When it comes to environmental disaster, there is Canadian literature (Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy) and dance (Glaciology) and poetry (Alice Major, Welcome to the Anthropocene). Grimes has been teasing a concept album on the subject (Miss Anthropocene) for a year. And sure as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing, there will be more. Just last week, the Canada Council of the Arts' Director and CEO Simon Brault wrote that the Council will be "looking to take a solid and consistent position on the issue of climate change" as they finalize a new five-year plan.

Like just about everything, spreading awareness isn't without an environmental cost. Maybe the end occasionally justifies the carbon-spewing means. Few pieces have generated global attention like Olafur Eliasson's Ice Watch, for instance — a large-scale installation that he's staged in major cities since 2014. Using ice harvested from an arctic fjord, bergs are installed in public squares, left to melt as a real-time reminder of climate change.

At the launch of its last iteration in London, one reporter asked: "What is the carbon footprint?" And the answer was as monumental as you'd expect. Even working with an environmental non-profit in staging the piece, hauling 30 icebergs from Greenland to London required international flights, boats, cranes, transport trucks — all-in-all, 55 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Ice Watch, an art installation by Olafur Eliasson, on display outside the Pantheon in Paris, Dec. 3, 2015. The project was presented during the World Climate Change Conference 2015. (Getty Images)

On an individual level, the price of making art is usually a little less dramatic than Fed-Ex-ing icebergs to the U.K. — but is it possible to create with environmental themes if you're not striving to live and work sustainably yourself?

"I think it's better to live what you're trying to portray," says Stewart. "At least for me, it feels more true to my art and myself."

In his case, he had started taking a closer look at his materials before starting his forest project (it's called Preserve and Protect). Could he avoid using paints with toxic chemical ingredients? (In his studio work, he goes with a petroleum-free spraypaint made with sugarcane.) Instead of buying canvas, he reduces waste — and saves some cash — by painting on discarded wood. And now, for his outdoor pieces, he mixes his own paints using a special biodegradable blend of egg yolk, water and store-bought "all-natural pigments." A similar project, by international street artist Hula, got him started, and he's now creating one or two of his forest murals every month, documenting their gradual fade-out in photos.

"If I wasn't taking steps to be more environmental and sustainable, I don't know if I would have even stumbled into making the art that I am now if it wasn't already part of my life."

Embracing the 3R's requires a seemingly overwhelming list of questions. Are your materials toxic? (Apps like Giki, a sort of tricorder for household products, can help with the research.) What are the consequences involved in cleanup? (The Richmond Art Centre, for instance, banned glitter. Like all microplastics, the stuff's disastrous when it gets into the water.) How about the supplier's track record: does it have reputation for sustainable practices? Can you work from home instead of commuting? And is that studio of yours solar powered? Wind powered? Equipped with LED bulbs to save energy?

I think it's better to live what you're trying to portray. At least for me, it feels more true to my art and myself.- Alex Stewart, artist

For Montreal-based artist Kelly Jazvac, trying to maintain a sustainable art practice is challenging. "There's an emphasis on try," she laughs, but Jazvac is committed to avoiding new materials. She'll hit up Concordia University's Centre for Creative Reuse, for example — a local resource that collects and distributes all sorts of donated items, art supplies included.

Not every community has something like it, but Jazvac chooses second-hand over store-bought. Sticking to found materials can be a "slow and dirty" process, she says, and she's mindful of what's involved in showing her art, too. Jazvac says she's cutting down on work travel. When installing at a gallery, she insists on avoiding typical trimmings and requests that items be sourced locally where possible instead of shipped. A fresh coat of paint, for example, would be another no-go.

"To me, the really exciting part about being an artist is that I can make anything!" she says. "So why not put those additional parameters on my approach to see what happens?" And she's been operating within a few eco-friendly constraints for a little more than a decade.

In that time, she's built a reputation for working with discarded plastic, usually enormous swaths of vinyl — the same sticky industrial sheets used for billboards and even the posters and punched-out letters stuck on gallery walls. (A museum just gave her a fresh batch, she says. "Hey, we're done with this. Kelly might like it!" she laughs.) She's frequently employed the enticingly glossy stuff in sculptural pieces that poke at themes of conspicuous consumption.

Kelly Jazvac. Upgrade. 1998 Pontiac Sunfire, printed adhesive vinyl, plastic, Plexiglas, sealant, 2007. (Kelly Jazvac)

Jazvac stumbled on the medium while developing a project for the Toronto Sculpture Garden in 2007. She was out to transform a 1998 Pontiac Sunfire into a Porsche. The plan: wrap the Y2K era's favourite starter car in a supersized sticker.

"There's obviously some content about consumerism and planned obsolescence in that project," she says, "but at the same time that I was making it, I was looking at the waste I was generating myself in that process." She was working alongside her printers, and she was stunned by the garbage the shop would crank out. "The dumpster was full with what looked, to my artist eyes, like a rainbow of a painter's palette — all these different colours of, essentially, stickers."

As Jazvac kept returning to the material, she eventually started further research on plastics, and she's now part of a team of artists and scientists (The Synthetic Collective) that investigates the cultural and environmental impact of plastic waste. They're currently planning an exhibition for the Art Museum at the University of Toronto that's set to open this fall. ("We're trying to be as sustainable as possible in the making of that show," she says. At the moment, she says they're developing a plan for solar power.)

Kelly Jazvac. Pluck. Salvaged vinyl. 2015. (Kelly Jazvac)

It's the kind of problem-solving Judy Major-Girardin has been teaching for years at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Every art class at McMaster is green, she says. A little more than 10 years ago, the department began replacing toxic materials — chemical paint-thinners like Varsol, for instance — in an effort to green the classroom. At the time, they were looking for ways to improve student health and safety. Now, they offer a studio art course with a focus on "environmentally responsible" production, one of 60+ "sustainability-themed" courses offered across the school's various departments.

"For us, it means to question everything we're doing — whether it's buying products, the things that we use, how we dispose of things, and also the concepts that are being explored in classes," she says. The idea is that students will keep asking those questions beyond graduation. "We're setting habits," she says. "Those habits just automatically continue because students get used to thinking in that particular way. They don't get used to having turpentine readily available, or whatever it happens to be."

To me, the really exciting part about being an artist is that I can make anything! So why not put those additional parameters on my approach to see what happens?- Kelly Jazvac, artist

As McMaster started going green, Major-Girardin set new habits for herself. "I've always tried to connect my art with nature in some way," she says, and wetlands imagery regularly surfaces in her work. For her most recent printmaking project, she decided to eliminate paper, reusing fabric instead. She's appliqued the images together by hand.

"There's something about just the idea of sewing and mending that I think captures the concept of nature, caring for nature."

Limitations can be freeing. That's the philosophy in the classroom, she says. "We approach it as new materials, new processes we're going to teach you, new opportunities that are going to expand your practice."

It's a mindset that can apply beyond the studio, says Jazvac. "These are really urgent times," she says. "I think it's important that everyone is asking these questions right now."

"I don't think artists are the only group that should be looking really closely at what they do, but absolutely we're a model."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.