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September 28, 2021
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Is a picture worth a thousand words … or its environmental cost?

An attendee observes an exhibit at the Phillips Art Gallery on Thursday. The exhibit, titled “Our Global Climate Crisis,” features 29 artists. (Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)

SALT LAKE CITY — Phillips Art Gallery, the oldest commercial art gallery in the Intermountain West, is nestled inside a brick building downtown with a bright red door and forest green awnings framing the storefront.

The red door creaks slightly when pushed open and reveals a moderate gallery space filled with natural sunlight. Currently, that space is filled with a group exhibit titled “Our Global Climate Crisis,” displaying the concerns of the artists featured. The exhibit was created, according to the gallery’s website, “in hopes of inciting the public to exercise their own influence on the crisis.”

The exhibit drew notice from Healthy Environment Alliance Utah, a grassroots organization dedicated to environmental policy and improvement.

“We thought it was a really good opportunity to talk about it in a different way than we usually do,” said Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah. “Art is related to that way of us, creating the kind of deep emotional connection to the issue that we’re talking about of saving the climate and protecting what’s being lost on the earth.”

Volunteers, art gallery members, HEAL Utah board members and associates and the public slowly trickled into the space recently. It looked smaller as it began to fill with about two dozen people, the quiet hum of conversation

One woman inquired of a gallery member if the air conditioning could be turned up slightly. The extreme temperatures had persisted through the summer months in Salt Lake City and followed into the gallery space. After a moment the air conditioning could be heard kicking in and the request seemed inconsequential.

Maureen O’Hara Ure, an artist featured in the gallery, spoke to attendees regarding her piece.

“I want to clarify what’s on my mind when I’m doing work that fits into a contemporary political theme, what’s motivating me and where am I situated as a citizen in regards to the climate and the environment,” O’Hara Ure said. “I’m very aware of the fact of what my part in all of this is. If I want to change the world as HEAL Utah is attempting to do, I would not do it through painting.”

The sentiment drew discourse surrounding the emotional power a piece of art can carry. Fine art consultant Hadley Rampton pointed to the impact of the photo known as “Napalm Girl,” taken by photojournalist Nick Ut.

But even then, O’Hara Ure questioned the role of an artist amid a crisis, stating that often you can see documentation and not intervention. The question highlighted broader conversations regarding the individual versus the collective when evaluating climate impacts.

“If I was going to be simon-pure about this I’d stop doing stuff like making that painting. I go through so much wood, masonite, paper, and work with plastic paints, acrylic paints, and aerosols in order to get what I want. I’m yet another person in society saying I want what I want,” O’Hara Ure said. “I’m not ignorant about what are the implications of what I’m doing. I’m aware I’m consuming resources. I think it’s related to ethical issues — it’s how do you go through life and where are you complicit?”

O’Hara Ure’s blatant transparency contrasted the disconnect seen in both private and collective spaces. Small acts performed by individuals resulting in a collective impact, like increased global use of air conditioning systems contributing to rising emissions.

“There is this feeling that can be of the world crowding in on you,” O’Hara Ure said about the disconnect. “If one stops to think about it, it is one of those things that is causing anxiety and that can cause paralysis.”

Williams pointed to historical times of crisis, noting that people thought the world was coming apart at the seams then too.

“It’s important for us to sort of not get too siloed in the way we think about this but realize that there’s also that this is a way of turning the ship and creating a different kind of society.”

The exhibit remains on display until August 13. For more information regarding the gallery or show visit phillips-gallery.com.

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