Floridians have always responded to climate change in interesting ways, from denying it’s happening to suggesting that the Navy drop ice into the Gulf of Mexico to stop Hurricane Dorian. And let’s not forget that hilarious social media joke telling folks to aim their firearms at Hurricane Irma and shoot it off course. It’s all made for very interesting, but mostly unproductive, conversation. But if anyone should be taking climate change seriously and having a real conversation about it, it’s Floridians.
Florida artists Carol Mickett and Robert Stackhouse get that conversation rolling with their latest body of work, “Expanding Waters,” at The Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo.
Carol Mickett & Robert Stackhouse: Expanding Waters
Through June 13
The Gallery at Creative Pinellas
12211 Walsingham Rd., Largo.
Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Mickett and Stackhouse moved to Florida’s Gulf Coast in December 2002, first settling in St. Petersburg and then in Tarpon Springs. Seeking to set themselves apart from Florida’s many waterscape artists, the artist duo looked past the sunsets and focused on depicting the Gulf of Mexico in more unique ways.
The Gulf is always changing—with the tides, with our atmosphere, and with our actions. Living off the Gulf of Mexico gave Mickett and Stackhouse a front seat to these changes and the scientists monitoring them. During their time in St. Pete, the two artists shared a building with the U.S. Geological survey. On their frequent visits, they learned about the layers of the ocean and saw maps of barrier islands which had washed away over time. These maps influenced much of their earlier work.
In 2008, Mickett and Stackhouse created their first iteration of “Current Exchange,” a wall-sized abstract map of the Gulf of Mexico with stylistic blue swirls representing currents. Climate change is such an epic problem now, I assumed that the large blue swirl hovering over New Orleans was a hurricane. But the duo tells me they created this piece to celebrate the natural dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico—not to draw attention to the massive storms accompanying climate change.
"The dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico are really something," Stackhouse told CL. "And what that painting shows is that even though we can localize the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Stream shows that it is connected to the rest of the world. It's a river that runs through the ocean. Somewhere in Scotland and Ireland, there are palm trees because it comes close to shore.”
It wasn’t until after living through Irma and dealing with Tarpon Springs’ frequent flooding, that Mickett and Stackhouse refocused their Gulf portraits through the lens of climate change.
This year they added ice cube trays and mangroves to “Current Exchange” as symbols of our need to cool the ocean and remove more carbon dioxide (the primary gas responsible for global warming) from the atmosphere.
The nearby installation gallery tells the story of the Gulf of Mexico and the things that influence it, from oil spills to climate change to the sun and the moon.
“Rows of long paper strips radiate from a 12-foot metal ring at the center of the gallery,” Creative Pinellas Curator Danny Olda describes in his essay, “Making the Invisible Visible.”
“As you step through the ring and walk by the strips of paper, the strips sway and rustle in the slight breeze that follows you. It suggests how even small and seemingly banal actions have effects on the environment around us… , "Olda adds.
Looking through the metal ring to the back wall of the gallery, a painting of the moon appears to illuminate the gallery and the artwork within it. It’s a clever illusion Olda created using gallery lighting. Somehow, one can even see the moon reflected upon the gallery floor as it shines upon the ocean’s surface.
Looking in the opposite direction, the moon shines over troubled waters. A painting of an empty ice cube tray and a sperm whale in distress flank an image of the ocean on fire—a reference to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Two paintings of water lead up to the fiery triptych; one is a pristine blue, while the other is an oil-tinged black.
In another room Mickett and Stackhouse have created a two-dimensional forest of mangroves and live oak trees.
“One of the ways to cool the Earth is to absorb CO2 and create shade,” says Mickett. Florida’s mangroves and live oaks are exceptionally good at this, which is why Mickett and Stackhouse honor them throughout the exhibition.
In the “Thought Experiment” room, tiny paintings of ice cubes hang over larger prints of the Gulf of Mexico. The ice cubes’ small size highlights the magnitude of the problem Floridians face as our climate changes, hurricanes worsen and sea levels rise. It also reminds us, as Mickett puts it, “to actually think through our brilliant ideas.”
Mickett and Stackhouse’s ice cubes and ice cube trays aren’t there to suggest we throw a bunch of ice into the ocean; they’re present to start a real conversation about climate change. You know, the type of conversation where we all acknowledge that (a) our climate is changing, (b) this affects both our health and our property, and (c) we need our elected politicians to collaborate with scientists to find practical solutions to this problem.
To further spark these conversations, Mickett asked Creative Pinellas CEO Barbara St. Clair to facilitate a series of science talks to accompany the exhibition.
The team invited eight local scientists, environmentalists and clean energy advocates to help launch the discussions.
Together, the scientists recognize seven local, state, regional and national environmental agencies and universities including the University of South Florida, University of Florida, Largo Sustainability Program, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey.
They are Florida Sea Grant Agent Libby Carnahan, USF Oceanography Professor Gary Mitchum, U.S. Geological Survey Researcher Davina Passeri, Florida Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Susan Glickman, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Electric Transportation Manager Dory Larson, UF/IFAS Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program Coordinator Doris Heitzmann, Largo Sustainability Program Administrator Laura Thomas, and UF-IFAS extension director Jeffrey P Gellerman.
Collectively, the group is intimately familiar with how climate change is affecting the Tampa Bay area, which is why I recommend you watch all four and a half hours’ worth of science talks—I’m serious. But I also write this knowing that I won’t convince everyone to watch these talks. Four-and-a-half hours is a lot of time, and science isn’t always pretty or entertaining like art.
Sometimes, science is downright depressing, like when scientists tell you that our increasingly horrible hurricanes, rising sea levels, harder rains, nuisance flooding, beach erosion, mosquito-borne diseases, and unusually massive toxic algae blooms are all a result of climate change, and climate change is only going to get worse.
At this point, trying to stop climate change can feel like trying to stop a car with no brakes. Sometimes, thinking about it makes you want to drive into the bushes.
As Carnahan put it, “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in modern civilization. These changes are primarily the result of human activities, the evidence of which is overwhelming and continues to strengthen. The impacts are already being felt across the country, and climate-related threats to American’s physical, social, and economic well-being are rising. And we’re already adapting, but not enough.”
But the science talks associated with “Expanding Waters” do more than just explain the problem. They also show which human activities contribute to climate change and which human activities can help mitigate climate change. And they don’t ask much of us. The best most of us can do to slow climate change is trade our gas-fueled vehicle in for an electric car, plant a live oak or two on our property, and elect politicians willing to collaborate with scientists on climate change. That’s worth taking four and a half hours to consider.
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