Bay Area gives birth to green renaissance

February 20, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
When art historians look back on the turn of this century they will probably look back on a green renaissance. Artists are painting and sculpting with the environment in mind. In this Assignment 7 report, we take a look a the booming environmental art movement that's starting right here in the Bay Area.

"I've never actually been this busy as a painter in my life," says Oakland artist Josh Keyes.

Keyes' artwork is selling faster than he can paint it. Paintings are sold before he even touches his brush to the canvas. His work is being sold in galleries nationwide.

"I would say that I am painting about close to 12 hours a day, and the time that I am not painting, it's answering e-mails, doing interviews, and also having dialogs with galleries," says Keyes.

What Keyes is doing is part of a growing level of environmental consciousness by artists.

"I was thinking of, again, the crisis in the world of global warming, and thinking, for me personally, I wanted to mythologize that situation and bring a story to it -- something that I could understand," explains Keyes.

It's part of an expanding movement in the Bay Area.

"People are drawn to it visually and then when they get there they are really involved with the artwork. They start to really feel much more of a movement with it -- a vision, a content and a message," says D.J. Harmon, director of Hang Art in San Francisco.

The Hang Art gallery shows Josh Keyes' work as well as other artists creating works with environmental themes.

"What I am seeing in trends with artwork is artwork that's visually appealing, but then when it really comes down to it, there's a message there. A lot more art is coming out with a lot more message involved environmentally, all across the board," says Harmon.

In the last year, the genre has really gained attention and collectors are snapping it up.

It's that eco-consciousness many artists at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco are pinning their careers on. Students have even formed groups to promote environmental responsibility among artists.

"They want to see how art and design can give a glimpse of what's happening and straddle contradictions in a way that science couldn't. They want to be part of, I think, a movement of change, that provides a kind of tipping point for our culture," says Kim Anno with the California College of the Arts.

From architecture, to fashion, and everything in between, the health of planet Earth is having an impact on the creativity of a new generation of artists.

"I feel like you can't think about place and landscape and not think about what's happening to it," says Rachelle Cohen.

"All of my work has to do with plastic, specifically plastics which are not recyclable and usually food service containers," says Alicia Escott.

Escott see's these normally discarded containers as a canvas for powerful environmental messages. But students here aren't only using waste as a canvas, they're also looking for solutions to reduce waste.

Jessica Miller has been working on a substitute for stiff foamcore to use in her stop-motion animation projects.

"My science project is to try to make biodegradable formcore, because formcore is very toxic. It uses petroleum to make polystyrene and when you actually use it, you're releasing those volatile organic compounds. So there's no alternative that has the same properties out there in the market," says Miller.

It's alternative thinking like that putting the Bay Area front and center for the environmental art movement.

"It's only going to go upward and onward from here. I can only see work like this getting stronger, technique getting even more powerful, more drawing people in, larger crowds," says Harmon.

And that has some artists envisioning a very long career ahead of them.

"I would hopefully love to keep painting until I die. So hopefully I will be an 80-year-old man with a trembling hand and maybe the grass will be a little bit more expressionistic, but I would hope to do this until I can't do it anymore," says Keyes.

The California College of Art and Stanford University will host a environmental art conference next spring. It will be the first such gathering of its kind.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.