14 Artists With a Green Message

Brick arch against a panoramic vista
Photo: Peter Edwards [CC by SA-2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Nature has been inspiring artists for centuries, and its beauty has been captured in paintings, sculptures, photographs and a variety of other mediums. But some artists take the relationship between art and the environment a step further, creating works from nature itself or producing artworks that make bold statements about the natural world and the imprint mankind has left on it. Here are 14 talented eco-artists who are redefining art's relationship with Mother Nature.

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Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan.

Photographic artist Chris Jordan takes pictures of ordinary objects like bottle caps, light bulbs and aluminum cans and turns them into art by digitally rearranging them to construct one central image. However, it’s the tiny pieces that create the artwork that make Jordan's pieces so shocking and drive home their environmental message. For example, his 2008 work "Plastic Cups" (at left) depicts 1 million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the U.S. every six hours.

Jordan recently described his work this way: "Seen from a distance, the images are like something else, maybe totally boring pieces of modern art. On closer view, the visitor has an almost unpleasant experience with the artwork. It’s almost a magic trick; inviting people to a conversation that they didn’t want to have in the first place."

Take a closer look at "Plastic Cups."

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Henrique Oliveira

Henrique Oliveira.

Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira was looking for ways to bring texture to his art when he had a breakthrough while a student at the University of São Paulo. He noticed the plywood fence outside his window had begun to deteriorate, revealing layers of color. When the fence was dismantled, Oliveira collected the wood, known as “tapumes” in Portuguese, and used it to create his first installation. His use of weathered wood to evoke the strokes of a paintbrush has become Oliveira’s trademark, and he calls his massive constructions “tridimensional” because of his art’s combination of architecture, painting and sculpture. Today, he uses scrap wood and recycled materials to create his masterpieces. (Oliveira also uses "tapumes" as a title for many of his large-scale installations, including the one pictured.)

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Nele Azevedo

Associated Press.

Visual artist Nele Azevedo works with video, installation and urban interventions, but she’s best known for her “Melting Men” interventions that she stages in cities across the globe. Azevedo carves thousands of small figures and places them on city’s monuments where audiences congregate to watch them melt. Her ice sculptures are meant to question the role of monuments in cities, but Azevedo says she’s glad her art can also “speak of urgent matters that threaten our existence on this planet.” Although she says she’s not a climate activist, in 2009 Azevedo teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to place 1,000 of her ice figures on steps in Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt Square to show the effects of climate change. The installation was timed to correspond with the release of the WWF’s report on Arctic warming.

Minimum Monument - Article Biennale 2010 from Nele Azevedo on Vimeo.

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Agnes Denes

Wikimedia Commons.

One of the pioneers of environmental art and conceptual art, Agnes Denes is best known for her land art project, “Wheatfield – A Confrontation.” In May 1982, Denes planted a two-acre wheat field in Manhattan on Battery Park Landfill, just two blocks from Wall Street. The land was cleared of rocks and garbage by hand, and 200 truckloads of dirt were brought in. Denes maintained the field for four months until the crop was harvested, yielding more than 1,000 pounds of wheat. The harvested grain then traveled to 28 cities across the globe in an exhibition called “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger,” and the seeds were planted worldwide.

Planting wheat across from the Statue of Liberty on urban land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox that Denes hoped would call attention to our misplaced priorities. She says her works are “intended to help the environment and benefit future generations with a meaningful legacy.”

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Bernard Pras

Bernard Pras.

In his work, French artist Bernard Pras uses a technique known as anamorphosis, the art of sticking objects on a canvas to give the work texture and dimension. Pras uses only found objects in his creations and literally turns trash into treasure. Look closely at his art and you’ll find everything from toilet paper and soda cans to slinkies and bird feathers. Pras often reinterprets famous photos and paintings — such as Hokusai’s famous woodcut “The Great Wave,” which this piece reimagines — through his art of upcycled anamorphosis.

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John Fekner

Wikimedia Commons.

John Fekner is known for his street art and the more than 300 conceptual works he has created, primarily in New York City. Fekner’s art typically consists of words or symbols spray painted on walls, buildings and other structures that highlight social or environmental issues. By labeling old billboards or crumbling structures, Fekner is calling attention to problems and provoking action from both citizens and city officials.

His stenciled message, “Wheels Over Indian Trails,” (shown here) was painted on the Pulaski Bridge Queens Midtown Tunnel in 1979. It remained there for 11 years until Earth Day 1990, when Fekner painted over it.

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Andy Goldsworthy

Wikimedia Commons.

Andy Goldsworthy is a British artist who’s best known for the fleeting outdoor sculptures he creates from natural materials, including petals, leaves, snow, ice, rocks and twigs. His work is often fleeting and ephemeral, lasting only as long as it takes for it to melt, erode or decompose, but he photographs each piece right after he makes it. He’s frozen icicles in spirals around trees, woven leaves and grass together in streams, covered rocks in leaves, and then left his art to the elements.

“Stone River,” a colossal serpentine sculpture made from 128 tons of sandstone, is one of Goldsworthy’s permanent works, and can be seen at Stanford University. The stone is all salvaged material that toppled from buildings in the 1906 and 1989 San Francisco earthquakes.

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Roderick Romero

Roderick Romero.

Roderick Romero builds treehouses and creates nature-inspired sculptures out of reclaimed or salvaged materials. Although he’s well known for building treehouses for stars like Sting and Julianne Moore, Romero’s minimalist style reflects his respect for nature and his dedication to treading lightly even while building his intricate treetop structures. “I can’t imagine building in the Trees while knowing that the materials I use could be contributing to a clearcut somewhere else on the planet,” Romero says.

Romero’s Lantern House is situated among three eucalyptus trees in Santa Monica, Calif., and 99 percent of it was built with salvaged lumber — including the stained glass, which he recovered from an old movie set.

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Sandhi Schimmel Gold

Sandhi Schimmel Gold.

Using a technique she calls acrylic mosaic fusion, Sandhi Schimmel Gold upcycles junk mail and other paper waste into art. Gold takes papers most people throw away — everything from postcards and brochures to greeting cards and tax forms — and hand cuts the paper to form mosaic portraits. All of her art is applied by hand, and she uses only water-based, nontoxic paints. Gold’s mosaics have a strong environmental message, and she says her vision is to “create beautiful yet thought-provoking images of beauty.”

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Sayaka Ganz

Sayaka Ganz.

Sayaka Ganz says she was inspired by Japanese Shinto beliefs that all objects have spirits and those that are thrown out “weep at night inside the trash bin.” With this vivid image in her mind, she began collecting discarded materials — kitchen utensils, sunglasses, appliances, toys, etc. — and upcycling them into works of art. When creating her unique sculptures, Ganz sorts her objects into color groups, constructs a wire frame, and then meticulously attaches every object to the frame until she creates the shape she’s envisioned, which is typically an animal. This one is called "Emergence."

Ganz has this to say about her art: “My goal is for each object to transcend its origins by being integrated into the form of an animal or some other organism that seems alive and in motion. This process of reclamation and regeneration is liberating to me as an artist.”

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Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1960s, painter Nils-Udo turned to nature and began creating site-specific works using natural materials like leaves, berries, plants and twigs. His ephemeral creations are nature-inspired utopias that take on forms like colorful mounds of berries or giant, gnarled nests.

Nils-Udo is intrigued by the intersection of nature, art and reality, which is evident in this untitled piece that was part of the Earth Art Exhibit at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada. The grassy pathways to nowhere disappear into the trees, prompting viewers to contemplate their relationship with the natural world. Nils-Udo says that by “elevating the natural space to a work of art,” he was able to overcome “the gap between art and life.”

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Chris Drury

Wikimedia Commons.

While Chris Drury often creates transient artworks using only natural found materials, he’s best known for his more permanent landscape art and installations. Some of these works include his cloud chambers, such as this one at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which is known as “Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky.” Each of Drury’s chambers has a hole in the roof, which serves as a pinhole camera. When viewers enter the chamber, they can observe images of the sky, clouds and trees projected onto the walls and floor.

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Felicity Nove

Felicity Nove.

Felicity Nove’s creations use poured paint that allow colors to flow and mix naturally. The Australian artist says her fluid paintings spill over and collide in much the same way that humans do with nature, and her art is meant to question how we can live sustainably within the environment. Nove creates her masterpieces on sustainably farmed Gessoboard, and she uses only recycled aluminum stretches. She says her interest in the environment comes from her father, an artist and engineer who designs sustainable energy schemes.

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Uri Eliaz

Wikimedia Commons.

Israeli artist Rehov Eilat’s studio is home to numerous quirky sculptures he’s created from objects he found exclusively in the ocean. But he isn’t just a sculptor who turns trash into art — he’s also a painter who foregoes the typical, pricey canvasses that many artists use. Instead, Eilat paints on delivery bags, old doors and even large canister lids.