In climate change art, nature’s elements can become collaborators

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      By Jean Huang

      Do you remember when you were little? I think we all shared a common childhood friend. They may have looked different to each of us: the perfect stone to skip across the water, a favourite tree to climb, or a grassy field to play make believe in. They went by many names, but I think many of us know them as Nature.

      When I think back to my childhood memories with Nature, they always involve creating art. I remember summer road trips with my family, when I would create en plein air paintings with my Baba. I remember getting lost in my brushstrokes, trying to capture every tree branch and the exact shapes of the valleys while my sketchbook pages fluttered in the wind. These memories of painting outside stayed with me.

      Photo courtesy of Jean Huang/

      As time passed, both Nature and I got older, grew, and changed. Summer road trips felt different, too—the roads were flooded by atmospheric rivers, the air was tinged with sweltering heat waves and wildfires, and my mind was clouded with climate dread.

      This left me feeling disconnected to Nature. I felt overwhelmed by statistics showing the rapidly increasing impacts of the climate crisis on habitat loss and the decline of biodiversity.

      Photo courtesy of Jean Huang/

      The urgency of this crisis inspired me to record these temporal landscapes—places that will eventually change or disappear through the seasons, with time, and due to climate change. I wanted to create an archive through art, but I found that my original method of en plein air painting was producing an incomplete interpretation of the landscape: one shaped only by the human gaze. I wanted to create paintings with—not of—the landscapes and the weather, allowing them to be active participants in telling their own stories and representing themselves.

      This is how my collaboration with Nature began. I started to invite the landscape and its ephemeral elements (wind, rain, snow, and ocean waves) to contribute their own colours, textures, and compositions to the paintings. When I brought a canvas outside, I noticed how the wind would playfully move it in the same way that it lifted the pages of my sketchbook when I was little. But instead of straightening the canvas, I invited the wind to shape it and add spontaneous paint splatters to the piece—which created a much more complete picture of the environment, including the weather.

      Photo courtesy of Jean Huang/

      This new art process felt like a return to childhood. The sense of childlike play and curiosity helped transform my climate dread into climate action by reconnecting me with Nature. When I wanted to capture the texture of a cedar branch, I wrapped my canvas on the tree and directly traced its lines. I found that subtle details, such as the small holes left by a woodpecker, were only revealed when I took my time and got close enough. It’s a bit like friendship—it takes time and presence to know and see someone: their history, their seasons, and their stories. And along with friendship comes a great sense of care and love for them, as well as the wish to learn more about them and to protect them.

      Photo courtesy of Jean Huang/

      Jean Huang is a multi-disciplinary artist who calls Vancouver home. She is currently completing her Masters in Painting at the Royal College of Art in London. With the support of TELUS STORYHIVE Voices, Huang recently produced a documentary series called When We Were Little that shares her art process of collaborating with Nature in the unceded and ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.