Northwestern scientists collaborate with artists to create art that calls for climate change action


Courtesy of Christine Esposito

“Des Plaines McDonald’s” by Meredith Leich, one of the artists in this collaboration. It is part of the series “Chicago and the Rain” and uses watercolors to portray flooding and high precipitation events in Chicago.

Vivian Xia, Assistant Campus Editor

After a year of collaborating, McCormick Prof. Aaron Packman and earth and planetary sciences Prof. Daniel Horton created “Third Coast Disrupted: Artists + Scientists on Climate” — an exhibition focused on climate change and mitigation solutions for Chicago.

“Third Coast Disrupted” also consists of a series of online and in-person events, running from Sept. 8 to Oct. 30 at Columbia College Chicago’s Glass Curtain Gallery. Organized by project director and lead curator Christine Esposito, the exhibition portrays the impact of climate change in the Chicago area.

“A lot of people don’t realize that climate change is happening here and now in our region,” Esposito said. “They tend to think that it’s happening in some faraway place, or it’s happening in the distant future, but I wanted to use that approach to bring attention to what’s happening in our own backyard.”

After she came up with the idea of the collaboration, Esposito said she invited Packman and Horton, along with a team of other scientists and artists, to work on what ended up becoming “Third Coast Disrupted.” As scientists, Packman and Horton said they worked with the artists and helped them come up with their art by providing them with information on how climate change functions in the Chicago area.

Packman said though the scientists provided their input on the art being made, the artists were “completely in control” of their own projects.

“Depending on the artist, they had an initial vision, we provided information, they modify their vision,” Packman said. “And in the end, they kind of each went off on their own and then produced these final products that were great.”

One piece of art in the exhibition is the “Chicago and the Rain” series by Meredith Leich, which used watercolors to portray flooding and high precipitation events in Chicago. One of her pieces in the series, “Des Plaines McDonald’s,” shows a McDonald’s in a Chicago neighborhood flooded in water.

Horton said the piece is “not like your typical art,” but rather “art of an extreme event.” The Midwest has seen a significantly uptick in extreme precipitation, he said, and as a result, the city has trouble dealing with the amount of water because it isn’t something that has happened here in the past.

“We’re getting more water than we’re used to,” Horton said. “And so, figuring out ways to drain that water away has become challenging but also started to impact people in negative ways, so sewers (are) backing up into people’s basements and issues with flooding streets and so on and so forth.”

Horton also said though each person may get different messages out of these pieces of art, the biggest picture one can get from them is that climate change is a “real concern” to society at large. Climate change isn’t just relevant for future generations, he said — it’s something happening right now.

“Climate change is something that’s happening not just in third world countries far away, but it’s happening here in Chicago where we live,” Horton said. “Climate change is something that we have solutions for ― we can fix our problem, and all it really requires is the courage to act.”

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Twitter: @vivianxia7

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