Nature as artist’s muse

Special to The Times

MONTE CARLO -- Mia Hanak couldn’t get rid of the prince. Hanak, the founding executive director of the Natural World Museum, was escorting Prince Albert II of Monaco through an art exhibit dealing with global warming at its opening here recently, but the prince wasn’t interested in racing through the show. Instead, he took in every photo, video and installation -- 40 artists from 25 countries.

Lingering at a computer simulation of water drops undulating and spinning like a tiny galaxy by Norwegian artist Sven Pahlsson, the prince pronounced the work “mesmerizing.” “It never ceases to amaze me how art can touch and inspire people,” Albert said.

That’s just the kind of reaction Hanak hopes to engender among viewers who see the show, which has been traveling around Europe and now moves to the Field Museum in Chicago, its last scheduled stop.


Hanak founded the nonprofit Natural World Museum in San Francisco in 2001 with the goal of combining her passions for art and the environment and a desire to spur social change.

“Our mission is to use art as a catalyst, not just to create awareness but to trigger action,” Hanak says. “Seeing a picture wakes people up. You hear a statistic but when you see what it looks like, that has direct impact that leads to direct action.”

Since 2005 the museum has been working with the U.N. Environment Programme to stage environmental-themed shows around the world, often at international conferences in the hopes that policymakers and ordinary folks will be moved by what they see. The Monte Carlo exhibit, for instance, coincided with a U.N. meeting of environmental ministers from more than 100 countries who were discussing ways to finance the fight against global warming. “This is about mobilizing the hearts and minds of the people of this planet,” says Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for UNEP. “If the creativity of these artists can be matched by politicians and business leaders, we are setting out on a good course.”

“The purpose is to shock people -- shock them into fear,” says Philip Pastor, an artist from Monte Carlo who created a forest of burned trees for the show.

Called “Melting Ice: A Hot Topic,” the show opened last summer in Oslo, before traveling to Brussels and Monaco and finally to Chicago, where it runs through Sept. 1. The art on display ranges from photographs of arctic regions beset by climate change to highly conceptual works.

New Zealand’s David Trubridge crafted panels of dark rolled steel sheeting riven by laser cuts, with the cracks getting bigger in each panel until the last one shatters into a maelstrom -- a schematic of melting sea ice as seen from above.


A world threatened

Chris Jordan, a U.S. artist, created a black-and-white image of Alaska’s Mt. Denali based on a photo by Ansel Adams. But on close inspection Jordan’s work turns out to be composed of 24,000 logos for General Motors Corp.’s Denali SUV (half of which have been changed to read Denial) -- representing six weeks worth of sales of the gas-guzzling vehicle.

Others are more didactic, such as “Peninsula Europe: The Rising of Water” by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, which marks on a map of Europe coastal areas such as the Low Countries and Venice that will be submerged if the sea level increases about 16 feet -- an event that would displace 23 million people.

Over two years Norway’s Pahlsson used 40 computers to create a one-hour loop of what a bouncing water droplet would look like under a microscope. “It’s always been man’s dream and goal to control nature and now we can,” he says. “This work is about the possibilities and threats of technology.”

Half the cost of the traveling show has been picked up by Autodesk Inc., a San Rafael, Calif.-based software maker, and the rest by local organizations in each city.

Bringing home the effects of climate change to diverse audiences is the animating idea behind much of what the Natural World Museum tries to do. It’s a concept rooted in Hanak’s own travel experience.

After graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 1996, where she studied art history and cultural anthropology, Hanak backpacked around the world, visiting dozens of countries and seeing a great deal of environmental destruction. In Madagascar, for example, she witnessed great swathes of deforestation that left her outraged.

“The center of the island was barren,” she recalls. “Life was just on the perimeter of the island. It was shocking to me.”

She earned a master’s degree in museum studies from Tufts University but found the idea of working in a traditional arts institution dispiriting.

“I didn’t want to dust off old exhibitions,” she says. “I wanted to use my time in life to do something to help humanity. Everyone else I knew was living their oblivious Western lives.”

Hanak wound up working at the Pacific Wildlife Galleries in Lafayette, near San Francisco, which specialized in work by Canadian environmental artist Robert Bateman. Hanak met Richard V. Smith, one of Bateman’s patrons, who was interested in establishing a venue to promote environmental art. He provided the seed money for what became the Natural World Museum.

“We call ourselves a mobile global museum,” Hanak says. “We don’t have a physical footprint.”

Leaving footprints

The organization’s big break came in 2005 when it staged an art show for a U.N.-sponsored World Environment Day conference in San Francisco. Former Vice President Al Gore gave a presentation opening the exhibit. “People were crying in the audience,” Hanak says. “It confirmed that art can bring people together and start dialogue.”

But how environmentally correct is the idea of shipping art all over the world every few months?

“Most people try to be carbon neutral,” Hanak says. “We double our carbon offsets.”

The organization buys offset credits from, which is planting trees in Nicaragua on the group’s behalf. Additionally, the Natural World Museum has pledged to plant two trees for every one used in the production of a catalog called “Art in Action.”