NIU Museum, Institute Deliver Environmental Message Wrapped In Art

Sep 24, 2015

Credit Guy Stephens

The NIU Art Museum and the school’s institute for environmental studies are teaming up to deliver a message on sustainability. 

Melissa Lenczewski is standing in front of one of the paintings in the NIU Art Museum’s exhibit “Embarrassment of Riches.” The work by John Sabraw uses paints derived from toxic waste – neutralized and rendered safe, we’re assured – to form an aerial landscape crisscrossed by rivers.  Lenczewski is director of the NIU Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy and an associate professor in NIU’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences.  She’s wearing both hats as she admires the work.

“Looking at this painting with all these different colors, I’m actually trying to formulate what chemical is in each one of these.  ‘Cause I’m like, ooh, reds are probably iron-based compounds.  But then, also, when I look at this painting, how the river system’s flowing and how the pollutants are moving from the one area down into the other areas.  And so it really strikes me. I just love this painting.”

NIU art professor Peter Olson curated the show.  He says the title of the exhibit, ‘Embarrassment of Riches,’ reflects a realization of what our pursuit of a higher standard of living has wrought.

“We have a world bejeweled with plastic bags and lids and beer cans and things that are thrown around.  That’s kind of a richness, but it’s also a little embarrassing, because it’s trash.”   

The work is varied in media and approach.  Some address the issue by using recycled materials.  Several works take off on well-known masterpieces, but with an environmental poke in the ribs – it looks like Van Gogh, but is that an old plastic bag in that painting? Others use sustainable vegetable dyes, offering a possible solution to the environmental problems caused by traditional materials.  

Melissa Burlingame is outreach & communications director for the Institute.  She says Olson reached out to the organization to discuss coordinating programs and presentations during the show’s run.  Burlingame says the Institute is working with many faculty and students to address environmental issues with changes to facilities as well as the curriculum.  She says she’s excited to bring the arts into the mix.  

“One of the ways we can talk to people who maybe aren’t already part of the conversation, is to bring them in and have them view the problems and solutions the we have through a different perspective.  And that’s really the arts and the humanities that we have here.”

Lenczewski agrees that the exhibit adds a new dimension to the Institute’s efforts.

“We don’t just want to study it from an academic point of view.   We want to see how can inspire people to do things for the environment.  And one of the ways we can inspire people is through the arts.”

Olson says that’s because art reaches its audience differently than conventional messages.

“A lot of people are turned off because they think they’re being yelled at for doing something wrong.  And so they just kind of shut it down, which is kind of unfortunate.  And I think art is one way to kind of expand that message, to soften it, to wrap it up a different way, and to present it so that it becomes about something that’s interesting and pretty. You can take a little bit of a journey.”

The Institute and the Museum have worked together on a series of events around the issue of sustainability during the show’s run. There are also posters in the hallway outside the gallery touting area environmental groups.  Burlingame says they remind people that good work is being done to address the issues raised by the art inside.

“I think that we do need to celebrate what we are doing well, and those really are a celebration of what we are doing in our local community.”

“Embarrassment of Riches” runs at the NIU Art Museum through October 24.