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How art captures feelings about a changing environment

Matt Wood

Sea Change, See Change is an art exhibit that brings awareness to the health of the oceans. It’s on display now at Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut through May 19.

WSHU’s Sabrina Garone spoke with local artist Matt Wood, about how art can capture feelings about climate change. 

WSHU: Tell me about your involvement with Sea Change, See Change. Where did the idea for this originally come from?

MW: During COVID, I did a series of small iceberg pieces. But, what struck me was how incredible people's responses were to these small paintings. Then it occurred to me — the most wonderful memory that came back to me — almost everything that I was using as a reference for these small paintings came from a trip, a gift from my stepdaughter. She paid for a trip for my wife and I to go to Iceland in 2017.

Absolutely life-changing. If it weren't so expensive, it should be compulsory for everybody to go to a place like that. Because it's an island, it's manageable. But what you see there is exactly what's going on with our climate, with the warming of the atmosphere. There are icebergs breaking off the Antarctic shelf that are the size of Rhode Island. We can't fathom what's going on, but when you see images like that it gives you a little bit of a taste of what's happening.

Matt Wood

We can be shamed into changing policies, and doing this and that that are mandated, but really, we divide ourselves. And we're doing that more and more and more. What we need to do is find, I don't know, somewhere some common ground. And that's one of the reasons in my exhibit, when I thought about this theme, I realized it can't be just me. It has to be different voices coming at it from a different perspective. It's a beautiful thing to see. The Mattatuck is an incredible museum. This museum could be in any big city in the United States. And the Mattatuck is doing incredible outreach to the community, an underserved community, and to everybody around. I'm so grateful they're there.

WSHU: That's exciting! I want to go back to what you were saying before about climate change being such a divisive issue. I totally agree with that. I think a lot of climate reporting tends to be a little bit doom and gloom, and can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for people. Can you speak to how, maybe, visual art could be a better way of conveying messages about climate change, and the health of our environment and the oceans?

MW: I think when art is at its best, artists respond to their time. The art that I respond to from the past that is speaking about the times they're living in is generally not overtly, like, hitting you on the head with whatever the issue was that was going on at the time. It's creating a masterpiece or a moving piece of art that causes you to think.

It doesn't force a lesson down your throat like an advertisement, a politician, or someone else will. They can't nuance things. A poet can. Definitely, an artist can. They can draw you in, and then when you start to look closely, hopefully, it will evoke questions. And then what you do is search out answers. There's so much to be gathered outside of where we're being led to look for answers. But I think it's more lasting when that leads to you educating yourself, and then you're prepared to go out and have a discussion with somebody.

The See Change, See Change exhibit is on display at the Mattatuck Museum through May 19.
Matt Wood
The See Change, See Change exhibit is on display at the Mattatuck Museum through May 19.

WSHU: Aside from the iceberg paintings featured in the exhibit, you do a lot of other work, as well. I feel like a lot of what you do seems to be inspired by the environment here in Connecticut, and maritime culture around here. Can you speak to how and where you find inspiration more locally?

Matt Wood

MW: Oh my gosh, yes. I built this vessel that's in the exhibit, it's pretty much in the form of a canoe, and it's made out of wood salvaged from job sites that I've been at. And all of the icebergs in there are created from solid foam insulations that were discarded at job sites. So in that way, you're not elevating yourself. You're physically bringing yourself closer to the earth. All this discarded material — that connects me to it because I know it's out there.

And then secondly, when I bring it back up, sometimes all that's left is the patina of this painting or drawing that I thought was really kind of cool. Now it's so much better, but now when people look at it, they're gonna see that's dirt from Litchfield County, or that's moss, or whatever might be on the piece. And then on the vessel — you know, I have people come into the exhibit, and part of the tabletop from their house that they've thrown away is now part of this vessel.

So they come into the show, and they go 'Oh, that's part of my kitchen'! Then, they get to walk around and see other artists interpreting such an important issue. That's how I feel connected. Also, it's just a pretty cool place to live. I've got to admit!

Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.