About "Toxic Beauty"
This art show is the capstone project for my Global Studies: Environments and Sustainability major, but inherently an interdisciplinary culmination of my two majors and passions at the University of Virginia, studio art and sustainability. The intention of the virtual version of this show is for the viewer to have the ability to engage with the pieces individually while having the work contextualized. Like artist talks at a gallery opening, the viewer has the option to learn about the concepts behind the pieces, the academic and visual research that went into this show, or alternatively, view the work void of text.
These pieces are a reflection and culmination of many themes within the topic of environmental injustice. This is the beauty of abstract art; utilizing multiple themes and ideas, knowing that all are reflected in the entire process; inspiration, creation, and the visual product.
Famed “Father of Environmental Justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard simply states “environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.” And yet, “America is segregated and so is pollution” (Bullard 2018).
There are a multitude of ways to define and apply an environmental justice framework and the rights and values it encompasses. Activists at the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit witnessed the adoption of 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, including universal protection from nuclear testing and production of toxic waste that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water and food (“Principles of Environmental Justice”). For this project, I focus on the environmental injustices that occur when the environmental living conditions for vulnerable communities maintain health disparities, specifically related to proximity and exposure to toxic waste and polluted water.
Race is a strikingly reliable indicator of the demographics of communities located in close proximity to toxic and hazardous waste, including landfills, Superfund sites, brownfields, and SMIAs. Neighborhoods that house toxic waste facilities are 56% people of color, versus 30% in waste free neighborhoods (Bullard 2007). Communities living in close proximity to toxic facilities have disproportionately high levels of poverty, increasing the vulnerabilities from negative impacts of hazardous waste facilities.
In “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana, the 85 mile stretch of small towns between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a strip of petrochemical facilities release harmful chemicals. This has exposed the local majority African American population to a risk of cancer 700 times the national average (Byrd 2019). In her 2006 TedTalk “Greening the Ghetto,” Majora Carter claims the South Bronx alone houses 40% of commercial waste from all five boroughs of New York City, including 100% of the waste from the Bronx, one sewage treatment facility, and four power plants. In that same community, 1 in 4 children are predicted to have asthma and hospitalization rates related to asthma are 7 times greater than national averages.
The proximity of communities of color to these toxic environmental burdens is not coincidental. Discriminatory and racially biased planning policies such as redlining, urban renewal and displacement, and racially restrictive covenants have created segregated cities for decades. This exposes vulnerable, minority communities to the undesirable places where low property costs makes the risk of exposure to toxic waste sites and the related health effects extremely high (Sherwin 2019).
In this project, many of the prints are inspired by these examples mentioned above of communities facing rampant environmental injustices. By combining inspiration from specific case studies with broader ideas, I attempt to communicate through a visual medium the scale and effect of which environmental injustice is experienced.
It is a unique and powerful experience to be fully engaged with a body of artwork. The experience of looking at art and stimulating thought and conversation with a group of people is somewhat lost with this body of work, yet was a vital part of the very question I created this show to begin with: what purpose does it serve to engage with ideas of environmental injustice through a visual medium? Part of that purpose was the act of the viewer and community engagement itself.
Due to COVID-19, there are finished prints that remain unphotographed in a closed studio, and ideas that remain a vision in my head or on my sketchbook pages for the time being. But, one of the beauties of being an artist is creative problem solving. I hope viewers can still engage with this show in a meaningful way in its virtual platform, while recognizing this process is ongoing.
To generate a type of engagement similar to viewing art in person, I encourage you, the viewer, to leave any thoughts, emotions, feedback, or questions you may have come across in viewing this work, in the hopes that one day, this show will hang in person in a version better than ever.