Climate Change and the Oceans: One Artist’s Response 

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

What could I do with my rage, despair, and disbelief after the calamitous US election? My mind raced as I realized the new president’s intention to turn back Obama’s climate change protections and give free reign to climate change-denying, coal-burning, and oil-drilling billionaires. What would happen to our Mother Earth, our life-giving oceans, and our future generations?

On the eve of the inauguration, the only thing I could do was to make a political statement with my art, particularly on the topic of climate change and the oceans. Recently my digital collages have explored the beauty and serenity of sea shells and seashores with photography and scanned acrylic painting. Because of this work, it was an easy transition for me to make this statement using similar digital techniques, and visual elements of sea creatures and bodies of water. In this new series, the colors and shapes are more dramatic than the previous gentle images of shells and shores. The semi-abstract images could be harder to interpret, even with the titles and written descriptions that inform the viewer of various environmental issues. Some of my followers have found the new series austere, and some have seen the beauty in it, but all have been supportive of the new work.

Perhaps the most alarming of the collages is Coral Grief (pictured above). Ocean coral gets its purple, pink, and other colors from the algae living within it. Existing in a symbiotic relationship, the coral provides a dwelling for the algae, while the algae provide the coral with food. Coral reefs thrive within a narrow temperature range. Their fate is being challenged as the oceans absorb much of the heat created by global warming. When coral is stressed, it discharges its algae and becomes white or bleached, and vulnerable to death. A major bleaching event is considered one of the most visual indicators of climate change.

This image was produced by layering ocean and coral photography. With photo-manipulation, I was able to portray the coral as bleached. As I searched for an appropriate title, the term coral reef yielded to the reality of ‘coral grief.’

Temperature Rising, Betty Butler, Digital collage, 2017.

Temperature Rising is a visual commentary on global warming. Carbon generated over the ages is stored in Arctic frozen soils called permafrost. As global temperatures rise, melting permafrost releases this stored carbon in the form of C02 and methane gas. With this release, both of these powerful greenhouse gases are expected to exacerbate climate change.

For me, Temperature Rising became an amalgamation of earth and sun, with the sun clearly encroaching on the available space. I started with a photograph of waves in the cobalt-blue Gulf of Mexico. With a photo-manipulation program, I inverted the ocean, and it stunningly became a bright yellow-gold. Inversion is the equivalent to reversing a color photograph to that of a negative. I found it interesting that the yellow-orange area bears some resemblance to sun spots and the bright areas (faculae) that surround them.

As an artist, I am fascinated with the patterns repeated in nature, from the spots on sea shells, to similar spots on leopards. The photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of newly forming stars in the ‘Pillars of Creation’ could be mistaken for exaggerated cumulonimbus clouds that accompany earthly thunderstorms. If these visual patterns are connected, aren’t all creatures and systems similarly bonded and worthy of concern?

Coastal Question, Betty Butler, Digital collage print, 2017.

Coastal Question asks questions related to our coasts. For example, how will sea level rise affect our cities? Sea levels in South Florida could rise up to two feet over the next four decades. That puts Miami Beach – an island three miles off the Florida coast – at risk… The city is already experiencing sunny day flooding – days when there’s no rain, but high tides push water up through storm drains and flood city streets.

The execution of this image began with a scan of an acrylic painting overlaid with coastal photographs. Shapes were subtracted digitally from the watery scene in order to allow the painted color to reveal itself. A similar technique was used in Sea Change.

Sea Change, Betty Butler, Digital collage, 2017.

In Sea Change, variations in color symbolically embody the non-static nature of our oceans. Ocean waters are becoming warmer and more acidic, broadly affecting ocean circulation, chemistry, ecosystems and marine life.

From the very start, the big concern about global warming has been the possibility of a ‘runaway’ global warming and climate change. ‘Runaway’ (self-accelerating) global heating and climate change is the planetary tipping point of many tipping points combined. We must work diligently to prevent this worst-case scenario from occurring.

Working on this series about climate change and the oceans has felt satisfying and productive. Connecting with organizations such as Artists and Climate Change has felt empowering. Even as scientists and climate-activists are marching and organizing, I hope that artists lending their voice to this urgent issue will provide an emotional component that inspires positive action. In spite of climate-denier propaganda, many U.S. citizens are aware of the climate-crisis; it just isn’t on the top of their list of concerns. It is not as personal to them as the need to pay the rent, and feed and educate their children. I hope that the beautiful, inspirational and gut-grabbing aspect of art will bring the nation toward realizing that their children’s and grandchildren’s very future is at stake, as drought and coastal city flooding induce food shortages, mass migration, conflict and war.

(Top image: Coral Grief, Betty Butler, Digital collage, 2017.)


Betty Butler is a nationally exhibiting artist, specializing in digital collages of her own painting and photography. She has recently participated in one-woman shows at the Frame Warehouse and Creative Coworking galleries, both based in Evanston IL. The artist has exhibited at Flow Art Space, St. Paul, MN and took part in a public art campaign in Niles, IL. Butler has won six awards, 2012-2017, in the new media category, from , an international contemporary art network. A native Chicagoan, she earned her B.A. in Design from the University of Illinois Chicago after studying fine arts in NYC.


About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog


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