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A stitch in time? Biscayne and nine other national parks exhibit quilts inspired by climate change.

In 1997, almost exactly five years after Hurricane Andrew tore through Florida, Biscayne National Park's new visitor center was unveiled, replacing a temporary building that the storm had flattened. But on the day the doors opened, all of the exhibits were still a year from completion.

As the date approached, park ranger Gary Bremen quickly mounted a juried exhibit featuring the work of 33 artists who found inspiration in Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys. When the permanent exhibits finally arrived, that show came down, but a funny thing happened: Returning visitors kept asking where the art was. Their enthusiasm led Bremen to purchase LED lighting and museum-style displays to turn the auditorium into an art gallery.

"Our Community Artists program is one of the ways we try to continually draw back local visitors," says Bremen. "We heard a lot of 'I never even knew this place was here--I never would've come if it wasn't for this exhibit,' and that means it's working."

In the last 18 years, the park has hosted exhibits featuring photography, oil paintings, watercolors, textile art, ceramics, mixed media, children's art work, and gyotaku (the art of Japanese fish printing), all with a focus on conservation issues facing the park and the region. The most recent show, "Piecing Together A Changing Planet," showcases 26 art quilts from 22 members of the renowned Studio Art Quilt Associates, all expressing a response to climate change. It can take a month or more for artists to create the quilts, made with cotton fabric, silk, wool, acrylic paints, dyes, thread, yarn, and other materials.

Climate change isn't an easy topic to grasp--or depict--but it was a natural fit for the gallery, given its potentially devastating effect on the national parks.

"Many studies indicate that people are more likely to accept a climate-change message if they see how it's impacting something they care about," says Bremen. "If you're in Southern Florida and you hear that polar bears can't get out of the water because there isn't enough ice, you'll probably say, "Wow, that's sad--I like polar bears, but I'm going to the beach today.' It seemed like the obvious solution was to help people make connections to the places they love--and most people love our national parks."

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Bremen likes to make the threat more tangible by telling visitors about epiphytes, tiny white-shelled creatures that thrive on blades of sea grass, which perish when carbon dioxide levels rise dramatically--a fact that may not seem terribly important until he goes on to explain that sea turtles and manatees feast on sea grass, relying on the nutrients from epiphytes and other often-overlooked species.

Maya Schonenberger, the artist who first conceived of the show, has helped initiate some of these conversations with works like "You've Got Brains," which merges the mountain landscapes of her native Switzerland with the bleached coral reefs of her adopted home in Miami. Suzanne Evenson's moody piece portrays a home being submerged in a rising sea of grey. Melani Brewer's colorful art quilt focuses on the plight of the monarch butterfly, whose migration is being impacted by climate change.

The show was a hit: Bremen estimates more than 15,000 people saw the exhibit, including 94-year-old Lloyd Miller, one of the locals whose hard work led to the park's designation in 1968.

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Although the exhibit was scheduled for only a brief appearance in Florida, the show is now slated to appear in at least nine more parks, from Point Reyes, California, to Acadia, Maine (see full list, page 23). Yale's Climate Connections program is also producing 90-second podcasts about the art and the issues it addresses to coincide with each opening, for broadcast on more than 150 radio stations. (Visit www.yale climateconnections.org to listen.)

Schonenberger believes that art can reach people in ways that science and data can't, and it's why she has focused on conservation issues for much of her career.

"I'm married to a scientist, and my husband always tells me, 'The numbers are proof!' But sometimes numbers are just numbers," she says. "Art is my language; it allows me to argue with my own words, to bring some emotion into the equation, and that can make it a little easier to reach people. And of course, it's also beautiful to look at it--afterwards, you have a picture to remember the experience."
PIECING TOGETHER A CHANGING PLANET

April-June 2015               Point Reyes, CA
July-September 2015           Glacier, MT
October-November 2015         Cuyahoga Valley, OH
December 2015-February 2016   Lowell, MA
March-May 2016                Statue of Liberty, NY
May-July 2016                 Cape Cod, MA
August-September 2016         Assateague, MD
October 2016                  Schuylkill River, PA
November 2016-January 2017    Great Smoky Mountains, TN

For exact dates and more details, visit www.nationalparkartexhibit.com.
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Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Trail Mix
Author:Kirkwood, Scott
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jun 22, 2015
Words:794
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