The Artful Activist Collective Fights Climate Change and Toxic Politics

Artists are gearing up for the next four years in America.
December 30, 2016, 1:30pm
Gary and Laura Dumm, ‘Old King Coal’. Images courtesy the artists and The Artful Activist

If ever there were a time for a major activism rebirth, it will be the arrival of a highly controversial president in the White House. Artists will surely become more like activists, and maybe the opposite will become true as well. In the collective The Artful Activist, contributors are already blurring the lines between activist and artist with various works serving as vehicles of protest.

The Artful Activist, founded by Melanie Oliva, promotes artists who have something to say politically, as well as grassroots activists and galleries who are willing to host collaborations. The idea is that each will be inspired by the other, allowing them to connect and be a part of each other’s events.

The collective’s origins can be traced back to 2014, when Oliva moved to South Florida, where she was struck by what she saw as an epicenter for both climate change and climate deniers. She soon came across John Sabraw’s Toxic Art, in which the artist—in collaboration with fellow professor Guy Riefler—used toxic sludge to make paint pigment for his works, raising awareness about coal mining pollution. Riefler also sold the paint commercially, with profits directed toward cleanup efforts in the very streams polluted by the runoff.

“Months later, I learned more about the rapid decline of pollinators and responded by creating Inspiration Pollination,” Oliva tells The Creators Project. “The Facebook group uses art to connect the public with pollinators’ plight, encouraging artists and makers to incorporate them into their next project, almost like free advertising.”

Various other experiences fed into what eventually coalesced into The Artful Activist. A vital one was a collaborative article for—part of an effort to stop the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission-approved black bear hunt in Biscayne Park. This led to the Imagine Our Florida, a document designed to aid other activists in helping their own communities. And the FOR EVERGLADES group show, where Oliva met photographer JohnBob Carlos and Miccosukee tribe member Betty Osceola, also showed her how art and activism could be intertwined.

Carlos tells The Creators Project that he is contributing his photographs to help create a voice for Florida’s threatened natural areas. Much of his activism is focused on counteracting the destruction of miles of the Everglades, as well as protecting this area and the rest of Florida’s wildlife.

“It has pushed me to walk 80 miles twice in protection of the Florida Everglades, clean water, stop fracking, and destruction of natural environments,” Carlos says. “This plight as an activist is driven mostly by the need to protect our natural lands for our future generations.”

Without funds to build an app, as originally planned, Oliva created a “secret community” online for about 20 visual artists, writers, musicians, gallerists and activists. Contributors can organize and collaborate in any number of ways. An artist could incorporate an important message into their artwork, literature, or music. Artwork could also be used to help promote a petition, while artists could work with organizers to invent creative ways of protesting.

“With each of these experiences, I connected with amazing artists, scientists, activists, and gallerists, including National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s Artist-In-Residence, Jenny Kendler, who gave me some great advice,” Oliva says.


The first project The Artful Activist posted was Sabraw’s toxic art. The first opportunity for collaboration was the Call to Artists for the Nasty Women art exhibition. The collective’s contributors have also been making memes out of contributors’ inspirational quotes, as well as connecting with groups who have similar ambitions, like Keef Ward’s Art With Teeth.

Cleveland-based artists Laura and Gary Dumm, who have addressed consumerism and corporatism in their work since 2012, are currently creating art with an environmental focus for The Artful Activist. Their new series, Here There Be Monsters; Dragons Be Here, blends Gary’s background in underground comics alongside Harvey Pekar and Laura’s pop art to create psychedelic collages with political messaging.

“Using iconic movie monsters (who were often the by-products of corporate greed and human egotism manipulating nature to spawn our own annihilation) [we] present the consequences of pollution, climate change, genetic engineering, for profit destruction of animal habitats, and species’ extinctions,” Laura Dumm tells The Creators Project. “We are rapidly approaching a disastrous tipping point, and action needs to be taken yesterday.”

Contributor Scott Kraynak is offering up selections from a book he wrote with his brother Jeff titled Animal Crackers. Designed to look like a children’s book, it is meant to be both confrontational and educational.

“You'll probably notice the anger behind the work,” says Kraynak. “This stems from not only hearing and reading about what is happening to the Earth, but also from being a Park Ranger and seeing nature treated like shit firsthand on a daily basis.”


“It is vital to take an activist stance because I feel that bringing the ruckus is sometimes the only way to draw people's attention away from their phones,” he adds. “To realize that there are some seriously horrible things happening right now that can permanently destroy our planet.”

While several artists are working in an environmental activism vein, Oliva is inviting artists and activists of all stripes to contribute. Debbi Becker is tackling homelessness with her art, while Virginia Erdie’s phallus-shaped sculpture Warhead depicts “masculine” territorial wars that devastate the planet, with the penis shrouded in bullet casings and painted in camouflage.

As The Artful Activist continues to evolve, Oliva would like artists and activists to explore issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other humanitarian or social issues that need attention. She will be posting artwork and activism opportunities for Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, The Women's March on Washington, and any others that will, as she says, “push the needle forward in creating positive change.”

“This group of brilliant people could be a source of inspiration for others, and further promote a culture of solidarity and outspokenness,” says Oliva. “We not only produce content but can keep each other informed as to what’s happening in the artist activist communities in cities across the US.”


Click here for more from The Artful Activist and information on collaborative opportunities, and here for articles written by the contributors and other artists, activists, and gallerists.


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