Photograph by Haley Cole

Local artist Joanne Shank, shown here next to her collection on display at By Hand Gallery, creates her bird paintings using eco-friendly materials and techniques. She is part of a longstanding movement of area artists who create with environmental concerns foremost on their minds.

Joanne Shank doesn't remember the moment she realized that she wanted to create environmentally conscious art. A life-long lover of both nature and art, she can't imagine one without the other.

"I've always just enjoyed looking at nature as my resource for expression and inspiration," she says. "I've always enjoyed art, and I've always enjoyed nature, so I don't think there's a beginning point to either of those things in my life."

Shank is one of a number of Bloomington artists who have decided to work in environmentally sustainable ways. Whether artists choose to use recycled or organic materials or to create pieces that focus on environmental issues, the recent surge in interest in the green movement is a natural fit within the local arts community.

"Artists tend to be more in touch with change because they're more sensitive," says Shank. "That's the nature of being an artist."

Shank uses all natural materials, painting with bamboo brushes on rice paper. She says she hopes that her work will inspire those who buy it to better appreciate living in a sustainable way.

"There's a lot of need for creativity and for adapting our culture to be more sustainable and less consuming, as far as our resources," she says. "That's not thought of as 'art' per se, but that's very much a part of creativity and envisioning new ways of doing things."

The green trend takes shape

Since the explosion of the green movement began in the early 2000s, artists nationwide have begun exploring how they can work in environmentally conscious ways. Organizations like greenmuseum.org, founded in 2001, began appearing as forums where environmental artists display their work and confront "some of the challenges facing artists, community groups, nonprofit organizations and arts institutions when it [comes] to presenting and discussing environmental art."
"Conversations about global climate change had captured the imagination of the creative community, and artists in particular, very early on." - Miah Michaelsen, City of Bloomington
In October 2005, one of the first sustainable art exhibits opened in the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art. According to the museum's Web site, "Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art" explored how the green movement "resonates with an emerging generation of international artists who combine a fresh aesthetic sensibility with a constructively critical approach to the production, dissemination and display of art."

Miah Michaelsen, Bloomington's assistant economic development director for the arts, says she first noticed the trend in Bloomington's arts community about 10 years ago. She cites politicians like Al Gore as the inspirations for the most recent interest in environmental issues but says that the movement started years earlier.

"Conversations about global climate change had captured the imagination of the creative community, and artists in particular, very early on," she says. "I think that we're in the vanguard of that conversation as it's become much more widely understood."

What is 'green' art?

Artists can practice sustainability in several ways. Companies now manufacture all-natural art materials. Monroe County's own Twisted Limb Paperworks, for example, makes paper products by hand out of 100% recycled materials. ReFrame, a Bloomington framing center, produces frames using all recyclable materials and sustainable production methods.
"I think that we're in the vanguard of that conversation as it's become much more widely understood." - Miah Michaelsen, City of Bloomington
Sandra Tokarski, employee of Bloomington art supply store Pygmalion's since 1984, notes that many traditional art materials are naturally environmentally friendly. The problem, she says, is when toxic materials aren't disposed of properly.

"I think what's more important over the long haul is being sensible and being conservative, not with how you develop your art and your artistic methods, but in how you manage your materials," she says. "If you use solvents, I think that many [artists] know that they can take them to the recycling center."

Tokarski and Michaelsen agree that the use of recycled materials is the biggest sustainable trend in Bloomington's artistic community.

"Artists by nature are generally sort of frugal, and so the idea of reusing and recycling materials is attractive from a philosophical level and from a practical level," says Michaelsen. "It costs less to reuse materials than to start over with new materials, so it makes projects more affordable and sometimes more doable."

Bloomington on the forefront

In a liberal community like Bloomington, few residents are surprised that the idea of sustainability has found a home with local artists. Tokarski notes that Bloomington provides a unique breeding ground for liberal ideas like the green movement.

"Fortunately for Bloomington, there's a lot of energy around green issues, and the green movement was here for many years before it became so popular," she says. "In this community, people truly understand -- and our elected officials understand -- that the whole issue of the green movement is not just so things can be pretty. The issue is so that we can preserve a good quality of life for the future."
"My hope is that the general community will continue to be aware of supporting [eco-friendly] artists and the pride of having local art on their walls." - Joanne Shank, local artist
As an artist, Shank notes that Bloomington's liberal atmosphere has been conducive to supporting the sustainable art movement.

"Bloomington is a very fertile place for creativity," she says. "My hope is that the general community will continue to be aware of supporting [eco-friendly] artists and the pride of having local art on their walls."

What the future holds

The green art movement is more than a fad. As environmental issues continue to gain attention in political and social discourse, Bloomington residents agree that artists will continue to focus on sustainability in their work.

Shank doesn't expect that the green movement will leave the arts community any time soon. She hopes that as environmental art increases in prominence, it will inspire others to live in ecologically sustainable ways.

"The need to change our culture and coexist better with the earth is going to be staying with us for a long time," she says. "You keep beating the same drum and it finally starts to sink in. When it's something that people realize that they can make money from or save money with, they'll start paying attention."

Haley Cole can be reached at hjcole@indiana.edu.