Artists and scientists combine forces at Third Coast Disrupted

Chicago and the Rain
"Chicago and the Rain" by Meredith Leich (Emily Little/MEDILL)

By Emily Little
Medill Reports

Seven artists and seven scientists met in 2019 to discuss how to make Chicago aware of climate change in its own backyard. The result was a series of art pieces reflecting the science and the devastation of this crisis.

Third Coast Disrupted, an art exhibit at Columbia College, is a science-inspired installation featuring sculptures, collages, paintings and other visual mediums. Sponsored by Terracom, Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University, the exhibit is the culmination of the year-long ongoing conversations between artists and scientists.

“Conversation has been at the heart of this project,” said Christine Esposito, founder of Terracom and the Ex.Change Project. “The most important climate action is talking about climate change.”

Breathing to the Next Breath
“Breathing to the Next Breath” by Masani Landfair explores her experience living on the South Side of Chicago. (Emily Little/MEDILL)

Chicago has seen increased urban flooding and large heat waves in the past two decades, which are direct results of climate change. But while 80% of Cook County residents believe that climate change is happening, only 41% discuss the topic occasionally, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Esposito founded Terracom, and later the Ex.Change Project, as a way to build visibility and public relations around climate change organizations. She came across a similar art installation in Fairbanks, Alaska, that explained the damage of fires on local ecosystems. This inspired her to create an exhibit based in Chicago.

The collaboration between artists and scientists began at a retreat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in September 2019. During this retreat, participants engaged in conversations about climate change and went on nature walks to be closer to their natural environment.

“We got there right after they had had an impact from climate change with the coastal erosion,” said Dr. Katherine Moore Powell, associate scientist at the Field Museum. “By the end of the day, we were all mingling and talking and having fun getting to know each other.”

Jeremy Bolen created a sculptural memorial to the 41 unclaimed victims of the 1995 heat wave in “Albedo.” (Emily Little/MEDILL)

After this initial retreat, Esposito held four salons for further conversation between the artists and scientists. They included presentations by scientists on climate change phenomena, specifically with the effects of urban flooding. These conversations helped influence the artists to create their pieces with the science in mind.

Each art piece at the exhibit is inspired by climate change within the city of Chicago. Meredith Leich created a series of watercolor paintings depicting the effects of urban flooding, while Jeremy Bolen made a sculptural memorial to the 41 unclaimed victims of the 1995 heat wave.

The collaborators on this project believed that art is the best method of communication about climate change issues. Andrew Yang, associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and creator of “Parts-per-million (planetary aspirations),” said that art can create a sense of wonder within its viewers.

Parts-per-million (planetary aspirations)
An insert of “Parts-per-million (planetary aspirations)” by Andrew S. Yang. (Emily Little/MEDILL)

“Art also lets people come to their own interpretation,” Yang added. “And that ability to come to your own interpretation is a really important freedom to have, and I think it can sometimes elicit a lot more than just being given information or facts.”

Esposito hopes that this exhibit will encourage its audience to discuss climate change more frequently. She includes resources for viewers at the end of the exhibit on how to talk about climate change.

Through this new communication method, the collaborators at Third Coast Disrupted hope to reach a wide audience to reflect the diversity of Chicago and continue these conversations.

“The Chicago region has a variety of people from different countries,” Moore Powell said. “Art transcends any sort of language barrier.”

Emily Little is a health, environment, and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyM_Little.