Spring is a season of growth, making it the perfect time to try a new hobby. Taking up an art practice is a great way to disconnect from the stress of daily life, as well as become more in tune with your surroundings. Numerous studies have shown that art therapy can decrease anxiety, boost mood, and improve quality of life
However, conventional art materials often contain harmful chemicals and compounds. For example, some paints, markers, and glues are thought to release toxic vapors, while inhaling powdered materials such as clay and aerosol may trigger asthma, allergies, and headaches—particularly for children. Take inspiration from these bold artists in British Columbia who are using sustainable materials to create their art and catalyze conversations around honoring our environment.
Visual artist Alana Hansen first became interested in the connection between art and the environment while finishing her degree in global resource systems at the University of British Columbia. Although she had no formal training, art became a way for her to conceptualize what she was learning in class. What started as doodles in the margins of her notebook soon morphed into watercolor maps of the British Columbia coastline integrated into the bodies of salmon, eagles, or orcas.
Time spent living and working in the remote islands of Haida Gwaii particularly influenced her, and she fell in love with ephemeral art—impermanent art pieces created with elements of the landscape, such as washed-up seaweed and seashells. Hansen has left these pieces on beaches, by streams, and even on the trails of VanDusen Botanical Gardens.
“I have some sort of dream, or vision, of connecting different elements of the environment,” says Hansen about her creative process. “I’ll walk into the forest and see a fern—I’ll challenge myself to be curious and think, ‘What’s the bigger picture here?’”
Rebecca Graham and Jaymie Johnson are two British Columbia–based artists and educators affiliated with the EartHand Gleaners Society, which works to engage communities in environmental art projects. They use a range of natural elements in their work, such as salmon skin for leather products, and even make use of invasive species such as Himalayan blackberry for weaving.
When foraging for natural materials, Graham and Johnson recommend harvesting respectfully and mindfully from a place with which you are familiar. “You don’t know how foraging will impact the land over time,” says Graham. EartHand Gleaners hosts regular workshops where participants learn to process linen, harvest seasonal fibers, and use natural dyes. Public projects are also a fundamental aspect of their work. In 2015, the group showed community members how to turn invasive Himalayan blackberry into rope, which was then installed in trees as part of a larger initiative to revitalize native bee populations.
“Engaging the community with environmental art is an entry point into taking action,” says Johnson. “It fosters hope—otherwise it would be too easy to feel powerless against or apathetic toward environmental issues.”
According to Johnson, art that truly shows respect for the environment is inherently collaborative. When working with natural materials, you need to collaborate with the weather, seasons, and plants; if you’re using recycled materials, you need to collaborate with other people; and if you’re engaging the community, you need the support of the public and local professionals.
“In my experience, collaboration is extremely important in deepening our relationships to a place, and connections to other beings that share that place,” says Johnson. “This is the foundation of a sustainable society.”
Johnson recommends beginning your own practice with weekly observational drawing—for example, drawing one plant for an entire season. It’s a great way to nourish a relationship with your surroundings, and you can do it with the most sustainable materials you have, such as natural ink or pencil.
Of course, eco-friendly materials might not be immediately accessible for all artists. Graham suggests a simple litmus test to determine what you want to work with. “Ask yourself, would I eat something grown in dirt that contains remnants of that? For example, I wouldn’t want to eat food grown where acrylic paint was composted.” Hansen also advises upcycling old or unused materials and reaching out to other artists to share their supplies when possible.
For Hansen, what matters above all else is your desire to care for and cherish our natural environment. “Take something that might not be typical and find the magic in the process, not the end result,” she says. “That’s where you can truly lose yourself.”