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The Art of Sustainability


For centuries, nature has been a subject and source of inspiration for artists. In recent decades, however, this interest has taken on more consequential implications, as artists and viewers have become more aware of climate change and related environmental catastrophes. The artists featured in this module address sustainability and environmental issues in their artwork, some through the materials they used in creating their artwork or the way they have depicted their subjects, and others through the subject matter they have chosen to depict. Some—like Ikeda Manabu and Nancy Mladenoff—draw the viewer in through their minute, detailed drawing style or the colorful abstraction of objects, respectively. Others, like Fabrice Monteiro, create a narrative to try to impart to the viewer current threats to the environment. Ikeda’s work was inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant nuclear accident caused by a tsunami and Monteiro’s references flooding. El Anatsui uses found objects (in his case, bottle caps and wrappings) to create his artworks. While often directly referencing the environment, these artists also speak to different meanings of sustainability, including the continuation of cultural traditions and artforms, the continued repercussions of colonial exploitation, trade and the economy, invasive species, and environmental racism. Two of the artworks featured here directly reference Madison or Wisconsin; others confront environmental disasters and conditions in faraway places such as Japan and Africa. In this way, as a group, the artworks speak to the hyper-local and the global, the way the two intersect, and the impact of unsustainable practices on both.

Checklist and dossiers

Danu, El Anatsui

Meltdown, Ikeda Manabu

Feather Tree, Truman Lowe

Vortex, Nancy Mladenoff

Untitled #7 from The Prophecy, Fabrice Monteiro

Questions for Discussion

1. When you hear the word “sustainability”, what do you see? What types of images, thoughts, or phrases do you associate with sustainability?

2. Sustainability is broadly defined as being able to meet the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. What are your three biggest needs? Does meeting these needs create future ecological harm? If so, in what ways can you be more mindful about the environment in meeting these needs?

3. What role do we as humans play in creating a sustainable world? Is it essential for humans to be “connected” to the environment in order to make systemic change?

4. Whose responsibility is it to create and maintain sustainable conditions? Does this responsibility belong to individuals or groups? What is the difference?

5. In what ways can we increase public awareness of our ecological footprints?

6. Is it enough for artists to raise awareness of the need for sustainability in their artwork, or do you think they should aspire to a sustainable practice in and of itself?


Learning Activities


To build students’ observation skills, challenge each student to look at an artwork for thirty seconds and write a list of ten words, phrases, or thoughts associated with the work. After thirty seconds, repeat, adding another ten words or phrases to the list. See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To build upon observations and link ideas, assign students a viewpoint–or perspective–from which to read the artwork from (such as one of the individuals or objects depicted in the image). Then ask them to write a letter to you from this person or thing’s perspective. The letter should address items that that individual or object might care about, believe in, or wonder about. See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To encourage students to think like an artist, ask students to design a work of art that demonstrates resilience without using representations or images of human figures.


To build observation skills and develop visual literacy, blindly distribute printed copies of an artwork and do not provide any contextual information in advance. Next, ask students to draw, write, and mark up the image recording observations along the way. Challenge students to write an interpretative response to the work of art using visual evidence to support their understanding of the meaning of the work. See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To improve research skills and contextual development, assign students to compile a dossier on an artwork. Choose from works listed in the Collection Connections section of a dossier on the checklist above, right.


To help students connect ideas and consider context, assign a work of art and ask students to consider the following questions: 1) what do you see, 2) what do you think about what you see, 3) how do you relate to this artwork or what personal connections do you have, and 4) how is this work related to the world, our place in it, or the larger themes of this class? See Learning Activities PDF for more details.


To encourage students to think like an artist, ask students to create a past, present and future self-portrait to reflect where they’ve been, where they see themselves today, and what their future selves might look like.

Additional Resources

Braddock, Alan C. and Renée Ater, “Art in the Anthropocene,” American Art vol. 28, no. 3 (Fall 2014), pp. 2-8,

Jean, Hayley, “Introduction” and “Literature Review,” Connecting Art and Science: An Artist’s Perspective on Environmental Sustainability, Environmental Studies Electronic Thesis Collection 54 (University of Vermont, 2019).

Soloviy, Vitaliy, “When Science is not Enough, Could Arts Save the Planet?,” Sustainability Times (October 30, 2018),

For more information and additional resources, teachers may contact Katherine Alcauskas or Candie Waterloo. UW–Madison faculty and teaching staff may access these materials on Canvas.