Tea with Judy Natal and a Conversation about Process, Grief, and why Science needs Art

By Alex Nates-Perez

“Acclaimed Chicago photographer Judy Natal will talk about her recent work, Another Storm is Coming, and screen two moving new videos that were commissioned by the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University (CENHS).  Commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina she dramatizes the effects of extreme weather on residents living along the Gulf Coast.”

This is a rare opportunity to see Natal’s new work—not to be missed!

See event details below and at chicagoclimate.org 

Judy Natal: Another Storm is Coming

  • Tuesday, October 11, 2016
  • 6:30pm – 8:30pm
  • DePaul University, Lincoln Park Campus, McGowan South, 1110 W. Belden Ave., Chicago, IL60614
  • Room 108
    • Featuring renowned Chicago artist and educator Judy Natal
    • Keynote address and video screening
    • Videos: Breathed on the Waters and Storm Redux

See photos from this project, Another Storm is Coming, at her website www.judynatal.com.  All images below are from Natal’s website.

My ride pulls up to a nondescript brick building in the middle of an urban jungle. I am not sure I’ve arrived at the right location. “Studio,” she said in her email. “Meet me at my studio.” Intrigued but a little perplexed by the glass block windows, I look again at the numbers on the door. This was the right place, and I waved my Uber driver on. I took out my phone and texted, “I’m here,” and the door opened to reveal a smiling woman with piercing eyes and a warm disposition.

Walking into her studio is walking into Judy Natal’s living room. Right away I am greeted with a big smile and a cool refreshment. A futon is open for lounging. Her work, finished and pending, is hung neatly on the walls. Stacks of books line shelves and the room is full of assorted coffee tables and desks overflowing with ideas and collections from her travels.

Natal is known for her innovative images dealing with environmental degradation and climate change. My first question, after we sit down at her desk, fan blowing while we sip our tea, is this: “Our focus is mainly on Climate Change, but I think the lifeblood of this project is figuring out how art and science overlap and the insight that comes from an emotional and factual understanding of the complex issues. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it relates to your work?”

“So your question is, why is art a good way to express scientific facts or theories? I think there are many roles that artists play. They are storytellers, they are tricksters, they are cultural arbiters, they are aesthetic soothsayers—we do a lot of different things. For me, I think of my role as a weaver. I weave all different kinds of threads together. Many artists will take one thread and do that for a lifetime. I’m interested in connecting the dots and building connective tissue between things. My practice has always been between things. I love that space because it’s very grey and squishy. So if you think of the world, or environmental issues, or climate change as a ball, many artists will cut out one specific facet of that gigantic messy, sometimes horrible ball, and that’s what they will direct their practice toward. I see the ball as more of a globe with all these intersecting triangles that have to be connected. Those points of connection are where I think my practice is. As a connector between art and science, there are many points to build connective tissue with. That’s always been my path. I don’t see one thing. I see these layers of complexity about things, and I try really hard in my work to visually depict that, and then use my work as a point of departure to start a dialogue. There’s the work, and then there’s the work in service to having a really thoughtful conversation.”

Judy Natal was born and raised in Chicago. She says she’s “South Side educated.” “I am an incredible product of the public school system in Chicago. So I think I’ve spent my life trying to make up for this education that didn’t happen,” said Natal while searching through a pile of books on her desk. Most of them were about mirrors.

Her newest project uses mirrors to talk about weather, and is tentatively called “Eve’s Eye” after the first mirror. Natal was recently in Iceland looking for inspiration; finding none, she went up to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin and began shooting. Some trial photos were hung on the wall with binder clips. The photos were of a pond with a circular mirror placed on the sandy bottom. The mirrors reflect whatever was above: clouds, blue sky that looks likes ice disturbed by the water’s surface, a double school of fish, ripples. “I create a library for every body of work I do. I started reading the history of the mirror, which is unbelievably fascinating. All of this research, reading and thinking, all opens up windows of possibilities.” Being South Side educated has influenced her thirst for knowledge and feeds her drive to use research when working on projects, some of which can take up to five years to complete, morphing from rough hewn original ideas into something very different . . . eloquent and elegant.

Our conversation switches to her recently completed work, “Another Storm is Coming,” a project about how the Gulf Coast has been and will continue to be affected by climate change. Natal begins talking a lot about the people she met and their influences on her work and in her life. I had to ask, “How do you process the horrors of environmental degradation? How do you wrap your head around what you make art for?”

“It’s hard, it’s really hard.” Said Natal, “There’s writing about grief and grieving that is taking place because of what is happening in relationship to climate. I think during “Another Storm is Coming,” I was pretty depressed, honestly. Not clinically depressed, but you know those feelers that I’ve developed, those antenna that I have developed as an artist, I can’t turn them off when it’s not good. It is very hard to deal with because I can’t put a filter on my eyes and not see. Trying to find a way for me to both cope, so that I’m still productive, and yet not diminish the intensity of our destruction, and the devastation that is being wrought on the land, on people, on dreams, or my emotional responses. I can’t close my eyes to that.”

We then talked about art’s role in understanding and processing the grief of environmental destruction, “Why art? I think I have a quote here that I really love. ‘Art aspires to poetry, not propaganda.’ Art is fed on emotions. Scientists, although of course they do have them, it’s not perceived as a good thing to have [emotions] in public. Emotion does not play a part in science. It’s the facts. Artists attach the emotions. I think it’s about thinking, acting, seeing, feeling and connecting those things. And there’s a huge range. Some artists are totally emotional; other art is totally devoid of emotion.”

Natal’s work expresses the emotions of climate change. She helps viewers deal with the grief of Climate Change while hoping her work educates them, and motivates viewers to make a change. “I’m not interested in making doom and gloom work. It turns people off. I’m kind of what they call a romantic realist. I believe in humanity. I believe in our ability to change. I believe that when people know, they will do the right thing. Otherwise, I would not get out of bed in the morning. I believe in education. I’ve devoted my entire adult life to teaching. I’m not teaching because I can’t be a working artist, full time, believe me. Because initially I thought, oh I’m not going to teach at all; I’m just going to make art. But then I realized I wanted to give back. And the way I realized I wanted to give back is not money, because I don’t have any. It’s educating the youth of America and now of course, not just America.”

When asked, “How do you/your art help?” her response, like her art, was all about connecting. “In my words, I get out of my own artistic way and I help people have an opportunity to speak for themselves. I am not a documentary photographer. For me, art is creating acts of interpretation. And that has to be there for it to be called art. That leap from the thing itself. So, the leap from the mirror for example. You know it’s a mirror, but it’s definitely taking you somewhere else.”

Education, understanding, emotions—Natal’s work is a rich and finely woven, ever-unfolding cloth for communicating harsh realities to the general public. Judy Natal’s work does not confront the viewer, though. It’s elegantly seductive in its presentation. “I want my work to help people understand that they can make change. And that change is possible.”

Alisa Singer Pop-Up Exhibit

ACTUAL BREAKING NEWS: The opening reception of the Chicago Climate Festival has been cancelled due to a scheduling conflict at the reserved venue. However . . .

DePaul will still be hosting a pop-up exhibit of the work of our featured artist, Alisa Singer, at various locations around the Lincoln Park Campus throughout the month of October.

See the Festival Calendar of Events for details.

Singer’s Environmental Graphiti has been displayed at various universities and is featured in collections across the country.  DePaul is truly fortunate to be able to display her work on campus in this format.  Please visit Singer’s remarkable website here.  Note in particular the inspiring video, THE ALARMING ART of CLIMATE CHANGE.

For more information about the festival, and a calendar of events, visit the Chicago Climate Festivalwebsite: http://chicagoclimate.org/

Image and data source: http://www.environmentalgraphiti.org/shells-dissolve-in-acidified-ocean-water

Mystery and Murder at Brushwood

Go now. See Doug Fogelson’s On Climate exhibit at Brushwood Center, Ryerson Woods (Deerfield, IL), ending September 4th.  The exhibit features photographs, photograms, an outdoor sculpture, and an indoor installation, all in a remarkable setting.


After a generous tour of the Ryerson home, built in 1942 but evocative of David Adler, I was particularly attuned to the haunting quality of Fogelson’s centerpiece, Broken Cabinet. The room-sized installation features a modern cabinet of curiosities, a display of “vintage” books on ecology, climate change, and extinction, and a compelling set of photograms. Fogelson’s cabinet artifacts were perhaps the most astonishing, in their revelation of (and witness to) biology as death and dismemberment. “Don’t miss the mummified bat,” I whispered to a family beginning the short tour. But as I reflect on the specimens, including a rolled-up rattlesnake skin, dead black coral branch, and decomposing bird wing, I feel as though I am being watched. We are all implicated in this murder scene.


Fogelson’s photograms, which literally capture shadows of the artifacts, extend the impression of being haunted. A bunny face/mask morbidly animated. Lithe mushroom silhouettes, musical notes from the underground. The bat again. Enlarged. Inverted. Still unseeing?  (Undead?)  I hear the tour guide speak, but imagine a ghostly voice. This was the master’s chamber.  And there slept the lady.  Both rooms open to the outside. (Shattered glass . . . screens . . . stifled screams.)

As I reflect on the experience I feel a sense of vertigo. Appreciation for the family that donated the property, and a conflicted sense of intimacy and trespass for inspecting the details of the home, and the shades in family photos. The photos were not so old, in fact. And yet the scenes, so distant, even as I walked through the very rooms. Nostalgia.  For some place I have never known (or merely forgotten). Regret?  (What have I done? What have I failed to do?)

Apparently, there is a door in the main hallway leading to a second–floor passageway that spans the whole house.  It had rooms for the staff, but also served as a secret form of communication from one end of the house to the other. Fogelson’s exhibit is a similar form of communication between things revealed and hidden, life and death, light and shadow, intimacy and trespass.


See exhibit information here.

Image sources: 1. http://www.brushwoodcenter.org/Programs/Art/ArtExhibitions/Fogelson.html ; 2. http://chicagoartworld.blogspot.com/2015/11/2015-critics-picks-expo-art-week.html ; 3.  http://dougfogelson.com/public/; 4. Author’s irreverent close-up of Fogelson’s outdoor sculpture, Physis.


Artists: Start Your Engines!

Chakaia Booker sculptures at Millennium Park and The 606

“Millennium Park [unveiled] six recent sculptures by American artist Chakaia Booker in a new exhibition in the Boeing Galleries—running April 30, 2016, through April 2018. A seventh, site-responsive sculpture (a new work) will be added in September 2016 in the South Boeing Gallery.”

Chakaia Booker is the first African American artist to be showcased in the Boeing Galleries.

Ranging in height from 96 to 192 inches and weighing up to a ton, the exhibited works are created using rubber tires and stainless steel. As the New York Times describes, “Old tires never die, but in Ms. Booker’s hands they become pure poetry.” The Plain Dealer says, “The art of Chakaia Booker, who creates spectacular sculptures from discarded tires, melts expectations like burning rubber on pavement”. The installation beginning at the end of April includes the works Gridlock (2008), One Way (2008), Pass the Buck (2008), Take Out (2008), ShapeShifter (2012) and LBD Duty Free (2014).”

Read more at City of Chicago.

Complex Science Made Accessible: the Fog Lifts from Climate Change

By Alex Nates-Perez

There is nothing simple about Climate Change. Not only does it involve complicated scientific concepts, but also the predicted ramifications of Climate Change are scary to think about. One local Chicago Museum has put together an exhibit aiming to explain Climate Change to families and, most importantly, children in an easy to digest and interactive way. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum recently opened the doors to a new exhibit titled Weather to Climate: Our Changing World.

Climate and weather are often misunderstood to be the same. Weather to Climate, however, makes the distinction right from the start. While it can be hard to believe our climate is changing when recent winters in Chicago have been so cold, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s explanation is simple and elegant. The outfit you are wearing describes the weather. Your wardrobe describes climate. For example, people living in Chicago have outfits for hot weather, cold weather, and moderate. In places like Hawaii, by contrast, nobody owns a winter jacket. This shows that Chicago’s climate and Hawaii’s climate are very different even if both areas require shorts.

Concepts like adaptation, extinction, weather patters, and the polar vortex are made accessible in interactive, colorful ways. Children will be engaged and informed by hands on activities and games. Spin the wheel of fortune and find out how well a selection of animals could survive if their climate changed. Design a new species, look at artwork made for kids about climate change, learn through interactive videos, and much more. Whether kids are cooking up the perfect storm or learning how climate changes affects people and animals around the globe, Weather to Climate: Our Changing World makes learning like play time.

But don’t leave your child (or inner child) inside! Perhaps one of the most unique attributes about the museum is its dedication to the conservation of natural Midwestern habitats. The exterior of the museum pays homage to the prairie and grasslands of the Midwest before it was settled. There are delicate paths woven through a recreation of tall grasslands with native flowers in bloom. Pink, yellow, and purple blossoms speckle the green and brown stalks of native grasses swaying in the gentle breeze from the lake. I found myself wondering as if I were in a Zen garden. There is a butterfly garden with seating and a small pond for waterfowl and fly fishermen. All of the outdoor grounds are free and open to the public with informational kiosks at regular intervals so you know what you’re exploring. Free educational grounds and affordable admission to interior exhibits shows this neighborhood museum’s dedication to education. Interior exhibits include a walk through different biomes, a playhouse habitat, a butterfly adventure room, and much more.

Sophisticated topics are made simple for any confused or young audience member to understand inWeather to Climate: Our Changing World. All of a sudden, engaging in dialogue about our changing planet is more accessible than ever before. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum provides an important service to the Chicago community by providing tools to understand the natural world. The exhibit runs through October 23rd.

Museum Address:
2430 N Cannon Dr, Chicago, IL 60614

Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday,10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

More information here.

1. http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/sites/default/files/styles/json_lg/public/field/image/climateexhibithero.jpg?itok=TSFNPPzK&gt

2. Photography class from Marwen art school receiving a tour of the grounds. Marwen students will display their work at the Chicago Climate Festival.

Film4Climate Global Video Competition Opens

“Film4Climate Global Video Competition Opens, In Search of Short Videos to Inspire the World” from The World Bank

Winners to be honored at official awards ceremony at COP22 climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2016



WASHINGTON, June 20, 2016 – The Film4Climate Global Video Competition formally opens today as the centerpiece of the Connect4Climate initiative to promote sustainability in the creative industries through active engagement with young people in finding solutions to climate change.

Announced at the Cannes Film Festival by the World Bank Group’s Connect4Climate global partnership program, the competition will be open for submissions through September 15, with the winners to be announced at a high-profile awards ceremony at the United Nations COP22 Climate Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco in November.

The winning entries will receive cash prizes of $8,000, $5,000, and $2,000 for first, second and third place in each of two categories: an under one-minute Public Service Advertisement (PSA) or a Short Film up to five minutes.

Read more here.

MoCP Exhibits Environmental Degradation: This Time It’s Personal

By: Alex Nates-Perez

I walked into the air-conditioned building into the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Chicago’s Columbia College (MoCP) and felt I had entered an environmental sanctuary. Not only was I sheltered from the muggy 90-degree July day, I was also met with a refreshing example of art as activism. It was July 21st, the opening of a new exhibit called Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy.

Tracing Dirty Energy is an effort by MoCP partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southeast Environmental Task Force to amplify the voices of activists on the Southeast Side of Chicago who are doing battle with a local oil refinery. The art in Tracing Dirty Energy is a direct response to the environmental and public health impact of petcoke, a dust-like waste product containing dangerous pollutants. This dust collects in industry districts as well as surrounding neighborhoods, coating homes in a layer of black pollution, which causes serious health issues. In response, the affected communities began protesting the oil companies responsible, educating the community and those outside it of the issues, and demanding reform. They hope to swing legislation to help their suffering community.

The eight artists and collaborative teams showing at Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy give an even louder voice to this degraded community. From photography artfully displaying the ugliness of pollution with emotionally moving aerial shots, to sculpture designed to instill fear in the viewer, this exhibit does serious work educating the public about the dangers of particulate matter. The main floor of the exhibit has photography, interactive maps, sculpture, and a 20-minute short film displayed on three screens. The second floor walls are adorned with portraits of the people in the affected community along with a one-paragraph testimony about living in a heavily polluted neighborhood. This floor makes the science described on the first floor personal, showing the faces of the affected individuals while telling their stories. The third floor has another interactive map on pollution as well as an entire wall dedicated to eerily beautiful photos of oil transportation barges.

Even though the exhibit describes a situation close to home, one instillation brings the danger of mismanaged oil production to the greater Chicago area. On the stairwell leading up to the third floor, there is a large map of the City highlighting the major freight train lines connecting oil refineries around the Chicago area. At certain points along some of these train lines are ominous symbols of mini explosions. They mark points where trains carrying explosive material have blown up while in transit. The carelessness of the oil companies is clearly illustrated through this massive installation. I noted that some of the explosions took place very close to my own Chicago neighborhood.

Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy should not be missed. It is visually exciting, educational, and emotional. The exhibit is elegantly curated by Karen Irvine and organized by Natasha Egan. It closes on October 9th. Make sure not to miss it!

Museum of Contemporary Photography
at Columbia College Chicago
600 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605

Hours: Monday – Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm; Sunday 12:00 – 5:00 pm

(312) 663-5554

Find more information about the museum and the exhibit here.

Image: Terry Evans, Petcoke piles with sprinklers at KCBX site on Calumet River, 2014

Addressing Climate Change: In Focus, 
International Youth Photography Competition

“Addressing Climate Change: In Focus is a global photography competition, created to raise awareness on climate change amongst the youth of the world, giving them a voice that will be heard by world leaders and negotiators alike. Seen through the lens of the world’s younger generation, their interpretation of climate change will be all the more poignant.”

“Managed by the Lucie Foundation, the Competition will be open internationally to all youths aged 7 to 18. In today’s world, where photography is an increasingly accessible medium, participants need only a mobile phone to capture powerful images of the effects of climate change. The deadline for submissions is 29 July 2016.”

Read more here.

The Weaving: Artwork Consumes Waste Materials

The Weaving is a processual, impulsive, lifelong work with no set out design. I add to it when I can and with whatever fabric I can get my hands on, from friends and from myself. An addition to contemporary textile work, it is experimental and expressive, lacking any sense of tradition or control. With my roots as a painter, I attempt to treat fabric like paint; a strip of fabric is not too different from a stroke of paint, and an oil painting can become part of a weaving.

Continue reading here.

Photo by Angela Guest.