'Environmentally Speaking' exhibit aims to empower, inform about climate change

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When harmful, bright green algae bloomed in Lake Erie a few years ago, affecting Toledo's water supply, Leslie Sobel of Ann Arbor wanted to see the blooms not just as a concerned citizen worried about the planet but as an artist.

She took pictures of the blooms and water samples. She later photographed the samples through her microscope, using the images to create art.

"I've taken a lot of those microscopic images, blown them up a lot, and make them into stencils because I'm a printmaker," said Sobel. "..."I try to make images that convey a little bit about what's happening."

"Environmentally Speaking," a new exhibition opening Jan. 16 at the Janice Charach Gallery at the Jewish Community Center, will also include an interactive dance on its opening night in honor of Tu B'shvat, the Jewish festival of trees. Pictured is co-creator Olivia Guterson in one of the featured costumes.

Science, and specifically the environment, plays a huge role in informing Sobel's work as she seeks to both understand what's happening to the planet but also help others.

Some of Sobel's work will be on a display along with more than a dozen other artists, many from Michigan, as part of unique new exhibition opening next week at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield Township called "Environmentally Speaking." The show, inside the Jewish Community Center, aims to both raise conversations about climate change and its impact but also a sense of community and healing.

"I don't believe that people change their behavior because of facts and data," said Sobel, whose parents were both scientists. "If they did, we wouldn't be in the beginning of the third year of a pandemic. I deeply believe people don't change what they do unless they feel it emotionally. So for me, art is a way to seduce, to connect emotionally, to show people why you might care in ways that numbers don't resonate for most people."

Artist Leslie Sobel of Ann Arbor draws on the environment and science as inspiration for her work.

The show's three curators — Sobel and fellow local artists Laura Earle and Olivia Guterson — say it isn't about presenting "doomsday" scenarios. They want to empower those who see it and raise possible solutions.

"It's engaging work that empowers people so that they can come away feeling like, 'Hey, I have an idea of what I can do personally,'" said Earle, who has created a paper sculpture about pollinators that will span two levels at the show.

Jana Dietsch Wingels' "The Trash Catcher" is featured in the new "Environmentally Speaking" exhibition at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield.

The exhibition — which will include sculptures, two-dimensional work and more — is actually three all rolled together, all of which address environmental issues in some way. One is “Climate Conversations: All We Can Save,” originally co-curated by Earle and Sobel in July 2021. Another is  “Drawdown: Pathways Out of Global Warming." And the third is “Lumenality: Embodying Light,” which Earle co-curated with Guterson, a Detroit artist.

"Drawdown," in particular, is very much about solutions to climate change, said Earle.

"When I think about the environment, I was frustrated, as many of us are, that it seems so daunting and I don't know where to start," said Earle. "I looked for something very practical and pragmatic and doable and 'Drawdown' is exactly like that."

"Greenhouse Gasses" by artist and curator Laura Earle is one of the featured pieces in "Environmentally Speaking," a new exhibition opening Jan. 16 at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield.

The show opens on Jan. 16, a fitting day given that it falls on the Jewish holiday of Tu B'shvat, the new year for trees. 

"In Israel, it's their Earth Day," said Earle. 

The new exhibit also will include a dance component in honor of Tu B'shvat at 6 p.m. on Jan. 16. Called "Elements of Life: Moving Together with Nature" and sponsored by Hazon Detroit, it will be an interactive dance, demonstrating the life and growth of trees through dance and costuming. Five sculptures will be featured with dancers, all celebrating Tu B'shvat.

"It's like a strolling walk through this sculpture garden that's been activated by a dancer," said Earle. "...I love the convergence of all of the different disciplines coming together and really taking people on a journey."

Laura Earle, a Detroit-based curator and artist, is one of three curators of "Environmentally Speaking."

Ultimately, the show is about providing a catalyst "to have these deeper conversations," said Guterson, another curator.

"And being really intentional about not letting this be a doomsday dialogue that always exists around climate change but really offering tangible solutions and mindset shifts that we can implement now," she said.


'Environmentally Speaking'

Jan. 16 to March 3 at the Janice Charach Gallery inside the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield.

Free and open to the public.

Family programming at noon Jan. 16, art opening from 3-6 p.m. and Tu B'shvat Seder performance 6-9 p.m.