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New Art Exhibit to Explore Changing Perspectives on the Environment

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

After seven years of preparation, the University Art Museum has opened an exhibit on nature.

Last night, the museum opened its latest exhibition, “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment.” Encompassing more than three centuries of history, it focuses on the portrayal of nature in North America as well as the relationship between humans and the environment.


The exhibition features over 100 works, many from renowned names like Thomas Moran, Jackson Pollock, Maya Lin, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The exhibition takes a look at early renderings of nature, which many works romanticized in order to attract colonists. Over time, works depicting American landscapes became more realistic, but they retained a certain folksy mood. A style called “picturesque” replaced wilderness scenes with more open landscapes that often featured mountains, rocks, and bodies of water.

Karl Kusserow, the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the University Art Museum, has been working for the past seven years with Alan Braddock, a professor at the College of William and Mary, to bring together the exhibition.

“The overarching story of the show is to show how art helped people come to terms with the one-eighty degree shift in conceptions…about the natural world,”  said Kusserow. “If you go back really all through history until the end of the 18th century, people thought of the world as static, immutable, God-given, and therefore perfect ... And then in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, people recognized that not only does the world change but that humans have an impact in that change.”

Many recent depictions of nature have explored the role that industry and technology play in shaping it, and they have often strayed from previous styles’ idealism.

Remi Shaull-Thompson ’19 is in Kusserow’s course “Exhibiting Nature’s Nation: Ecology and Environment in American Art” and is one of the students who got a sneak peek of the exhibition this past week. She called the exhibition “revolutionary,” noting that she was especially impressed by the diversity of the artwork.


In addition to being home to works from a wide range in time, the exhibition boasts of the works’ diversity of mediums. Alongside paintings, the exhibition incorporates three-dimensional pieces, such as “Browning of America,” which contains various symbols and newspaper clippings, and a large, mahogany chest from the 18th century.

The chest — assembled by slaves and made of Jamaican mahogany, English brass drawer pulls, American tulip poplar and white cedar framing, and North African varnish — is one way that the exhibition links cultural and social issues to its discussion on the environment.

“One thing the exhibit shows through its examination of art and art materials is that there is a link between our country’s exploitation of people and its exploitation of nature,” Shaull-Thompson said.

A painting by the artist T. C. Cannon, showing a Navajo woman standing in front of a mushroom cloud, furthers this idea.

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“A big part of the show is the issue of environmental justice,” said Kusserow. “Environmental effects are not evenly distributed around the world. Who you are ... really factors large in how you relate to the environment. Indigenous peoples have been victimized by having nuclear test sites in their backyard.”

In addition to exploring these deeper concepts, the exhibition hopes to offer a pleasant experience for viewers.

Ruby Guo ’19, another of Kusserow’s students, said, “The design of the exhibition itself has so many elements that aren’t noticeable to the casual visitor but really affects their experience … the panels, lighting, and positioning of the works, for example.” Several sculptures and videos throughout also help to enhance the experience.

The exhibition, which will remain open until Jan. 6, 2019, also has plans to host speakers such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. After its time at the University , it will travel to Salem, Mass., and then to Bentonville, Ark.