Rising Waters in Provincetown art project

Colorful flags “Rising Waters” art installation mark future flood levels on pilings Panama’s San Blas islands.

Photo by Susan Israel

Arts & Culture

Using art to inspire action

Arboretum workshop on Saturday illustrates the urgency of moving on climate change

4 min read

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and Climate Creatives founder Susan Israel ’81, M.Arch. ’86, are working together on an art and design collaboration, with an event planned for Saturday, that will help people see the urgent need to act on climate change.

And the inspiration for it all? Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary landscape architect who sought to help individuals develop a personal connection to nature.

“Olmsted designed 100 years into the future and what we see at the Arboretum is what he imagined, a beautiful library of trees,” Israel said. “But I would like people to think of it not just as a library, but as a living lab. The Arboretum is deeply involved and doing extremely important work with climate change, how our landscape will be altered, and how to manage it.”

Making art with kids
Susan Israel, wearing a Harvard ArtsFirst T-shirt, leads children through an art-making workshop on a San Blas island in Panama. Photo by Brandon Polack © 2017

It was the beauty of Olmsted’s park, designed in the late 1870s, that inspired Israel to help individuals, communities, schools, and organizations consider climate change solutions tangibly and concretely. She originally named her organization “The Energy Necklace Project” as an homage to Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of parks through Brookline and Boston, of which the Arboretum is a part.

Through workshops and scalable public art, including installations and sculpture made from reclaimed materials — office supplies, fabric, and even chopsticks — Israel teaches about climate issues in an innovative and fun way, inviting participants to make personal commitments to manageable, sustainability solutions.

“When I first realized there wasn’t a feeling of climate urgency, no feeling of it being personal, people weren’t connecting with the data, it occurred to me that this is a cultural and emotional problem,” Israel said. “So I thought, ‘What if we have public art to help people get more interested in the conversation about climate and help make a metaphoric connection by putting the art across the landscape?’”

Installation in Hong Kong

Susan Israel worked with Taylor Chung and Jane Chan at Renaissance College Hong Kong to install "Rising Waters" in this secondary school in Hong Kong, 2019.

Photo by Susan Israel

Rising Waters” is the largest of Israel’s site-based, ephemeral installations, and she uses it in her workshop to show people where water levels will be in 10, 20, and 50 years if no action is taken on climate change. There are more than 20 installations in and around Boston, from the East Boston Shipyard and Marina and multiple MBTA stations to the Provincetown ferry dock. Israel has also done installations on the Peace Boat for UN World Ocean Day, at the UN World Oceans Conference, Earth Day Texas, the San Blas islands of Panama, and in Hong Kong.

In “Creative Climate Commitment,” a collaborative workshop at the Arboretum as part of Climate Preparedness Week, on Saturday, Israel will lead small teams to create climate-inspired sculptures, which will stay at the Arboretum. She will also share ways people can take their actions on sustainability to the next level.

“How do we move forward in ways that are achievable? I want to keep the dialogue on action, staying focused on what makes us feel empowered, to think about climate solutions in a visceral way,” Israel said. “It’s about using creative exercises, not expertise, to feel less frightened by the data, and more empowered about solutions, accomplishment and community.”

Creative Climate Commitment with Susan Israel” is Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Arnold Arboretum’s Hunnewell Building, 125 Arborway, Boston. Registration is required. For more information on Climate Preparedness Week, please visit www.arboretum.harvard.edu/.