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How kids see our changing planet

Here’s what happened when artist Sanjay Sundram asked kids across Ottawa and India to paint climate change for their parents.

Mother earth

​Sanjay Sundram’s home studio is bursting with hundreds of vividly coloured paintings about the impacts of climate change, from landscapes of crashing waves to portraits of a polluted Earth, illustrated by children. And despite exceeding the number of submissions he requested tenfold, he’s thrilled with it.

“I have more in the basement,” Sundram laughs. “This is beyond my wildest dreams.”

The 51-year-old artist first put out the call in November 2022, asking students between grades 5 and 9 to participate in an art project called “Teach Your Parents About Climate Change,” in hopes it would make the threat real for both generations.

Before moving to Canada, Sundram was head of a rural education initiative in India, so he offered the project to schools both across Ottawa and in India.

Instead of the 70 submissions he hoped for, he received 700 and counting.

Sundram and his daughter, Nandini created an animated comic to show students the impacts of climate change. The video was used in classrooms in rural cities in India and in Ottawa to teach children, and inspire them to make art about what they’ve learned. (Sanjay and Nandini Sundram)

Comics for climate change

Sundram says the overwhelming response is thanks in part to a comic describing the project drawn with his 11-year-old daughter Nandini, who was able to make the concept relatable for kids.

“I’m really scared of climate change, but I wanted to make the comic so that I can show other people why it’s such a dangerous thing,” said Nandini.

images expandStudents across the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan submitted their interpretations of climate change.

Sundram says he asked the kids to make art for their parents, because it’s more powerful coming from young people.

“This is a message to children: adults don’t know more than you, and if they did, we wouldn’t be in this situation. So, it’s up to you to make a change,” he said.

Art work submitted by students from Ottawa and India, as part of Sundram's art project. Many chose to draw before and after pictures of how pollution impacts the planet.
Nandini Sundram, 11, helped her father with a large art project on climate change.

Talking about climate change in classrooms

Grade 5 teacher Allison Bloom was quick to pick up Sundrum’s project and ask her students to participate.

“I think it’s amazing that the students want to develop these pieces about something that they care about,” said Bloom, who teaches at W. Erskine Johnston Public School in Kanata North.

Grade 5 student Jier Qiuqiu says she painted a before and after piece about what a healthy Earth could look like if there is less pollution, because she hopes to inspire adults do more to combat climate change.

Grade 5 students Lauren Smyth and Jier Qiuqiu say they wanted to participate in Sanjay Sundram’s Teach Your Parents art project because they want to inspire their parents to do more about climate change.

“I think it’s important for parents to reduce pollution. If we do that, our world can get a little better,” said Qiuqiu.

“My advice for them is to recycle plastic, and don’t just throw it everywhere.”

Alongside the art-making, Bloom encourages her social studies class to discuss tangible ways in which they can combat climate change, and take small actions in their communities.

“It’s important to talk about these things, but you must always end with hope,” she added.

Global connections

Over the past winter, Sundram made several trips to India, carrying empty suitcases he filled with the canvases from schools in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu that participated in the project.

A selection of the children’s works will be on display at Ottawa’s Shenkman and Trinity galleries until April 18. Sundram says he is also busy scanning and uploading the rest of the paintings online so more children can show off their work alongside those in the gallery.

images expand

Sundram reached out to students across rural India to participate in his art project.

Sundram says he went to such lengths on this project because as an artist, he felt a responsibility to do something about the environment.

“In 2019, I heard about this statistic that said that, in the last 25 years, global emissions have doubled,” said Sundram. “That was a really big wake up call for me, and it kind of made me question my art practice and what I want to do.”

Sundram plans to continue spreading awareness about climate through his art and through helping kids understand.

“Every kid who makes a painting or reads a comic is now thinking about climate change. He’s thinking about what they can do. And that’s the goal.”

Sundram and his 11-year-old daughter Nandini carefully lay out each canvas and marvel at the heavy imagery depicted in the art: dark waves, a calamitous planet Earth and hurricanes.

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