Environmental activism can be picket signs, large-scale international climate marches, anti-fracking petitions or even recycling education programs in elementary schools.
But it can also be sticking your face in a duckweed-covered pond for as long as you can hold your breath, only to come up for air with the green, lentil-like plants stuck to your face.
At least, that’s Jenny Kendler’s type of activism — and art.
Kendler, the first artist-in-residence with environmental law and policy nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, will be the first to tell you she’s an artist and an activist — and the marriage of those two identities is essential to the work that she does.
“I kind of deploy these strategies of beauty that are found in nature and use that as an activist tool,” she tells Mashable. “It’s operating in a very different way than I think people traditionally see activism.”
The art piece “Water Lens” involved Kendler sticking her face into a pond of duckweed for as long as she could hold her breath, an artistic metaphor for joining together with nature.
After getting her MFA degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago 10 years ago, Kendler says she rediscovered her passion for activism, and started the process of figuring out how it could coexist with her art. She says it’s an “infinite and ongoing journey” to figure out how “deeply poetic” art and world-shifting activism can exist simultaneously.
“I’m trying to do something that looks like art, but functions like activism.”
“It’s a work in progress to walk this line where the activism component isn’t erasing the art component, and the art component isn’t erasing the activism component,” Kendler says.
The challenge in making engaging and well-balanced political art is probably why the intersection remains unexplored, she says. There’s an often uncomfortable power struggle between the expectations of the art world and the realm of activism.
“You either have work that’s too ambiguous — but that lends itself really well to the art world because it leaves it open to interpretation, which is really popular,” she says. “Or the work is too didactic, then the art world isn’t necessarily interested in it.”
Though Kendler admits other forms of activism would be hard to translate into a similar artistic gesture, she says the intrinsic beauty of nature makes it the perfect subject matter for impactful art. That “marriage,” in other words, just makes sense.
“I’m trying to do something that looks like art, but functions like activism,” Kendler puts it simply.
Her artistic work spans mediums, from Grecian sculptures embedded with seeds, which will crumble to form a self-sustaining garden, to more standard studio-based paintings.
One of her most noted works is an ongoing performance-like piece, in which Kendler fills opaque balloons with milkweed and hands them out to communities, asking those who receive one to pop it in their neighborhoods to help spread the seeds and support vulnerable monarch butterfly populations.
“When you really open yourself to nature, you’re spooked by it. You’re bewildered by it,” she says. “And I think, when art is at its best, that’s how it operates, too.”
Kendler has been NRDC’s artist-in-residence since April 2014. But the seemingly unexpected partnership between artist and nonprofit started in September 2013, when Kendler attended an art fair expo in Chicago.
“When you really open yourself to nature, you’re spooked by it. You’re bewildered by it.”
She quickly became disillusioned by the event — her eyes started to glaze over while staring at $60,000 paintings that didn’t particularly move her. More than anything, she remembers, the art deeply upset her about how “the contemporary art world has been so co-opted by capitalism.”
But then, in a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other moment, she saw a table decorated with an NRDC logo across the expo hall.
Her first thought was, “Wait, what?” Her second: “Oh my god, they’re working with artists.”
Sitting at the table was Elizabeth Corr, manager of art partnerships at NRDC — the woman spearheading the idea of bringing art to the organization. Kendler says the two immediately hit it off, going for drinks the following week.
At their second meeting, Kendler worked up the courage to ask, “Have you guys ever considered having an artist-in-residence?”
Corr immediately responded yes. It took Corr another eight months of fundraising and convincing to make the position a reality. Now, Kendler has been a fixture in the NRDC’s Chicago office for two years — and she’s an essential part of the council’s team.
“As a science-based organization, NRDC’s work can be technical and dense,” Corr tells Mashable. “Jenny’s artwork allows viewers to initiate the conversation with us, using wonder and awe to re-enchant people with the natural world.”
Kendler says her work as artist-in-residence is a sort of “natural, mutually fruitful partnership” — the NRDC gives her time and resources to enhance her art, and she gives the NRDC a creative way to express and think about the conservation work it does.
“The amazing thing about it is they just let me be an artist,” Kendler says. “You would think that they would want to give me an assignment or put me on a particular topic or harness me around a particular issue that they are working on — and they haven’t done that.
“That’s the really extraordinary thing. They’ve never tried to instrumentalize the work at all — and I think that’s why it’s been so successful.”
“The amazing thing about [working with the NRDC] is they just let me be an artist.”
Kendler calls herself the “institutional coyote” — a somewhat reckless-by-nature artist in a sea of careful NRDC lawyers. But Corr says that dynamic is what makes Kendler such an instrumental part of the team.
“Jenny’s presence as part of the NRDC team has underscored the necessity of infusing creative thinking in work,” Corr says. “She has challenged us to think about our issues — and talk about our issues — in new and innovative ways.”
Activist sensibility is key to Kendler’s life and art, along with any partnership she may take up. She says she’s one of those people who is always thinking about her ethical position in things, calling herself the “bring-my-own-tupperware-to-the-restaurant-that-I-bike-to” type of person. With that critical eye, Kendler especially values that the NRDC is not affiliated with the state, meaning the work they do doesn’t get clouded by governmental politics.
“The NRDC doesn’t take money from the state because, most of the time, they’re suing them,” she says.
In conjunction with her art-activism work and her residency with the NRDC, Kendler also created the The OPPfund, which gives grants to arts, environmental and social justice organizations. She also co-created The Endangered Species Print Project, which creates limited-edition art prints to raise funds for critically endangered species. The effort has raised more than $14,000 toward the conservation of more than 20 species.
Kendler says a lot of her work is focused around “re-evoking our connection to our particular ecosystem.” But, she says, the natural world is always in flux, making that connection ever-changing. In recognizing that she can’t put things back to how they were, she tries to have a positive impact on how they are in the moment.
In December 2015, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, commissioned Kendler to create a butterfly garden downtown. The goal was to draw people back to the river, and back to nature. But, true to her art and philosophy, Kendler designed the garden first for pollinators — creating the art, in a sense, for an untapped, non-human audience. The garden attracted monarch butterflies to a space where they could feed and lay eggs, instead of just passing by on their journey down the river.
All the elements were meticulously intentional — milkweed, to attract butterflies; blacklight to replicate the far-superior sight butterflies have compared to humans; eco-friendly printed postcards to mail to the EPA, asking for stricter pesticide regulations and more wildflower planting.
As for the future, Kendler says she has a sketchbook of endless ideas yet to be created. But one project she’s particularly invested in is a piece calling attention to elephant poaching.
In conjunction with the NRDC, Kendler is working to get access to poaching data, hoping to create a predictive model that estimates how many elephants are killed in a particular day to estimate, day by day, when no elephants will be left.
“What I’m doing with this data is turning it into a musical score that will be played on a player piano that actually has ivory keys,” she says. “The idea is that each note represents the death of an elephant, and the score plays until it reaches silence.”
That sense of losing a connection to the natural world — losing, for example, the last elephant — is something Kendler is constantly thinking about. When people see her art, she wants them to think about how the human experience would be “impoverished” if a connection to the natural world is lost.
“If we destroy the natural world before we mature as a species,” Kendler says, “we are never going to be able to read the first chapter of the story of what it means to be human.”