Deidre Murphy is a Lehigh professor and artist. Murphy researched bird migration in relation to light pollution, making art centered around climate change's impact that is now at the Nurture Nature Center until June 26, 2023. (Anna Piecuch/ B&W Staff)

Students tackle climate change through art


Through combining data research, science and mixed media, the “Risky Beauty: Aesthetics and Climate Change” art exhibition outlines the effects of ecological destruction due to climate change.

The exhibition’s opening reception was held in the Nurture Nature Center in Easton on April 14 from 6-9 p.m. The exhibition includes 3D sculptures, photographs and acrylic, oil, and ink paintings.

The six artists behind the media have experience studying ecology and environmental issues, and they combine this knowledge with artistic skill to evoke intentional emotional responses.

One of the artists, Deirdre Murphy, is a professor of art, architecture and design at Lehigh.

Along with individual pieces by Murphy, “Risky Beauty” included work from students in her “Art and Climate Change” class, a first-year seminar she taught for the first time this semester.

The 12 students in the course collaborated on a piece titled “Disrupted Forest,” which is displayed on the first floor of the gallery — the only student installation amidst work of climate change experts.

Murphy said “Disrupted Forest” was made using recycled materials from Wilbur Powerhouse, a makerspace with design labs. According to a Lehigh informational brochure, students built trees from stacks of 3D printer filament spools.

Using recycled paper, cardboard and cloth, students also created replicas of birds on the Pennsylvania conservation watch list, such as the golden-winged warbler, brown-headed nuthatch and wood thrush.

Chantal Westby’s artwork “Point No Return” on April 14, 2023. This artwork seeks to bring a figural element to the mental abstraction of planetary apocalypse and was presented in The Nurture Nature Center in Easton, PA. (Anna Piecuch/ B&W Staff)

Murphy said the students divided responsibilities into three groups: teams to research, create the trees and make the endangered birds.

Samia Rahman, ‘26, a student in Murphy’s seminar, helped build the trees and birds for the installation. She said she values how art can help others visualize environmental threats to Earth’s inhabitants.

“By creating this forest, we wanted to emphasize how these birds’ (habitats) were being destroyed due to deforestation and plastic waste,” Rahman said. “Therefore, we were trying to advocate to reduce our carbon footprint through better choices of living and protect us and our environment.”

Murphy said the inspiration behind “Disrupted Forest” stems from the plastic waste and deforestation causing the natural habitats of avian species to dwindle.

“Risky Beauty” curator Cynthia Haveson Veloric said the final result of “Disrupted Forest” adds to the gallery’s collective climate message.

“I think that they’re all pleased with the work because it fits the space really well,” Veloric said.

She said it presents a great opportunity for students to showcase their work in a professional exhibition alongside professional artists.

Veloric, who earned her Ph.D. studying how international artists respond to the climate crisis, said showcasing a variety of artistic mediums is important because audiences may learn more through one form of art versus another.

Murphy said after being a visiting assistant professor at Lehigh for three years, she joined the permanent faculty and was excited to create a first-year seminar with a fresh idea.

She said she wanted it to focus on art and climate change because that is what she does in her own practice.

The course follows ways people can reduce their carbon footprint and be more environmentally conscious in their everyday lives through experiential learning.

Over the course of the semester, she said she invited three scientists and three contemporary artists working with climate change to lecture.

“My goal is just to get the students to really feel and then process what’s going on,” Murphy said, “and to not have the end of the day be about anxiety of the state of the world and the crisis of the climate, but to feel empowered that what they can do, even if it’s the smallest thing, can make a difference.”

Rahman said the works in the exhibition are not just pieces of art but vessels with meaning that can impact society.

Murphy said she is proud of her students’ accomplishments, and so was the Nurture Nature Center, which was impressed by the students’ thoughtfulness and quality of artwork.

She said the center wants to keep working with Lehigh students.

The exhibition will run at the Nurture Nature Center from April 14 until June 26, 2023.

“My goal is to help us all feel less doom and gloom and more of (the idea that) if we all pitch in, we really can make a difference,” Murphy said.

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