Toxic Beauty

examining environmental inequity through an artistic lens

This project visually explores environmental inequity through an abstract, artistic lens, presenting a unique way of engaging with themes of environmental injustice, discriminatory planning policies, and environmental degradation. These pieces are emotional and visual responses to topics typically researched and presented in traditional academic journals or books. This project is inspired by visual and traditional research of environmental injustice in the United States, and examines how this topic translates to a broader audience through a visual medium. Central to this project and the artistic process is the underlying question, what purpose does it serve to communicate prevalent issues through the medium of visual art? The goal of this project is not to make a statement within the category of politicized art. Rather, I am exploring work at the threshold of visual beauty and conceptual complexity, and how this might achieve a uniquely affecting response to themes of environmental inequity. 

Effluence

Beauty & Complexity

The ultimate theme of this body of work holds beauty and complexity in tension. The power and meaning of this work comes from pushing back against inherently political art and art simply for beauty. This prints attempt to make a statement, yet not strictly in the content. Rather, one that is embedded within the process of creating these works and the experience of the viewer engaging with these ideas in a new light. These pieces ask the question – how do you tell powerful stories through visual art while also striving to create beauty? 

 

These pieces are rooted in place, yet not traditional landscapes. Some are inspired by the more literal representation of a place, ie, shapes and patterns created by streets, rivers and zones on a map of Richmond, Virginia. Others are inspired by a more general approach to place, such as the fluid forms created by bodies of water of all varieties. 

 

My inspiration for much of this work lies in organic undisturbed form; water lapping on the shores of a lake, the colors of sundown in smog-ridden air. When paired with colors representing toxicity and pollution, or juxtaposed with the geometric grids of cities, these pieces inspired by natural space begin to highlight the tension of environmental beauty and degradation, and finally, the inequitable distribution of degraded environments. Organic forms attempt to bring the viewer in, but exist in a larger, complex narrative that serves to engage the viewer in issues of equity and justice in environments.

Zoned series; Richmond, VA

"America is segregated, and so is pollution."

-Dr. Robert Bullard

URBAN Environmental Justice

Vulnerable communities; people of color and low income communities, are more susceptible to reside near toxic, less desirable, and potentially life threatening land uses. A history of discriminatory policies in planning have shaped these present day environmental conditions of a place. Policies such as redlining districts, urban renewal and displacement, and racially restrictive covenants have defined where people live in urban areas, often disproportionately exposing historically oppressed and vulnerable communities in undesirable places to environmental burdens. 

 

These images were specifically inspired by American zoning maps used in the 1940s to demarcate the “most desirable” to “least desirable” places to inhabit, often citing the least desirable places as those with significant populations of people of color. When comparing mapping projects that show demographics in the present day, it is striking how many American cities that created these discriminatory zoning maps have almost identical or similarly segregated demographics almost a century later. This shows truly how pervasive these policies have been in shaping where communities exist today, and subsequently, the environments they are exposed to. 

 

Artistically, I was drawn to the strange, jagged shapes created by zoning maps, as well as the brilliant colors used in these maps. Lively colors usually associated with positivity or innocence have actually been used to show undesirable neighborhoods. In these pieces, I search for a mixture of bright color combinations that reflect traditional zoning maps, as well as dulled earth tones that might suggest there is something more than meets the eye. I also rely on bold reds frequently in these pieces -- the very hue used to show the least desirable parts of town and a direct reference to redlining. 

Prints from Zoned series

Mapping

These pieces are inspired more directly by maps. I attempt to strike a visual balance between forms found in a natural landscape and the geometric forms of strategically planned systems. Taking an aerial view, like most maps, I highlight the organic, flowing forms of waterways to juxtapose them with the irregular geometric shapes formed in carefully planned cities. 

 

Most maps communicate a singular purpose; geographic navigation, topography, population demographics, future projections, etc. We can see various kinds of maps for one place, yet they all serve a different purpose. The inspiration of using maps in my work comes from the desire to consider these different perspectives and layers to a place and culminate them into one holistic image. Specifically, these pieces were inspired by multiple visual mediums. Discriminatory zoning maps show the planning history of a place. Land use maps communicate natural elements, such as water ways through a city. Maps showing present day demographics acknowledge how history has impacted where people live today. Maps predicting the impacts of climate change show communities that are vulnerable to bear the most burdens. 

Zoned series; Downstream

STITCHING STORIES

I am drawn to the medium of stitching and sewing. Like a patchwork quilt created from fragments, these pieces reflect overlapping ideas and layered experiences of a place over time, visually and literally threading these ideas together. I align individual prints with different size and color combinations with the idea that each cluster has its own story or narrative. The shapes of these clusters also reference the obscure forms created by districts in zoning maps, enlarging them and separating them to highlight the specificity in which they were created. 

 

I thought a great deal about positionality while working on this project. I try to use my creative voice via art making productively; not to take space away from others with lived experiences in places disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices. Rather, I react to these issues more holistically and based on concrete visual data like the map. Instead of bringing a human presence into these pieces, I transform an aerial view using abstract forms and color to elicit metaphor and emotion related to the place as a whole; land and human experience. In using organic form, I rely on landscape and place to communicate these ideas. 

Below the Surface

Water & Toxicity

Unjust environmental burdens can be experienced in a multitude of ways; poor air and water quality, proximity and exposure to toxic waste, inadequate transportation, lack of greenspace, to name several. Although many are interconnected and act at the same time, this body of work specifically is a reflection of equitable exposure and access to water and toxic waste. 

 

These pieces, inspired in part by the beauty of flowing water, aim to express water isn’t beautiful and pure to all.  Sea levels are rising in communities without the infrastructure for prevention or the resources to leave. Polluted rivers flow toxins downstream, impacting communities that aren’t the polluters. Flood zones and storm surges in close proximity to toxic waste facilities and low-income, minority communities provide greater risk of toxic flooding leaching into soil, drinking water, and homes. These pieces strive to juxtapose beautiful organic forms of water with unexpected colors to communicate toxicity, in an attempt to disassociate the viewer from simply just forms of water. 

White Water; embossment

Originally planned to be viewed in person, this show intends to strike a balance between letting the art speak for itself by standing alone and allowing the viewer to gain the conceptual ideas behind the work that provide meaning to the viewing process.

 

This body of work is ongoing. Like many artists, several pieces remain in my imagination or half finished while I shift my energy into new forms of art-making from home during the coronavirus pandemic. However, as data emerges about COVID-19 affecting African Americans with exceptionally high rates, the devastating health disparities we are witnessing today are closely aligned with housing discrimination and other structural inequalities that have made people of color more likely to live near polluted environments and exposed to subsequent chronic health risks. As society works through the climate crisis, a global pandemic, and one of the worst economies of our lifetime, these issues and this body of work remain relevant, now more than ever. 

© 2020 by Ava Reynolds. Created by Wix.com

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