Art Exhibition Engages Student Body Across Disciplines in Environmental Themes; Announces Closing Reception
by Leah Schmerl


Join us for a closing reception and conversation with curator, artists and faculty on March 25, 6-8pm focusing on promoting student/community engagement with social practice/environmental art exhibitions.

A March 25th conversation between the curator, artists and St. Francis faculty will close Environmental Empathies, an interactive art exhibit that explores the connection between empathy and action around climate change.

all photos by Nate Dorr

The multi-media exhibit, which opened February 6th in St. Francis' Callahan Center Art Gallery, features film, photography, and other artistic works from ten New York City-based artists. It brings to life the current and anticipated effects of climate change on people, plants and wildlife, and invites visitor participation in an effort to help counteract individual apathy and hopelessness, prompt dialogue and to enrich the artistic creations displayed.

The show's curator Katherine Gressel will lead the closing-night discussion, which will explore best practices in designing and teaching from interactive art exhibitions in educational settings.

Since its opening, St. Francis professors have assigned students to visit, write about and discuss Environmental Empathies in classes across a range of disciplines.

Highlights of student participation in the show include:

  • Artists Rachel Schragis and Nathan Kensinger solicited students' reflections on their personal experienceswith and competing beliefs about climate change and climate activism.
  • Dr. Alison Dell's biology classes collected local soil samples and students wrote their own "soil stories" to display in growing soil library and edible garden by artist Mary Mattingly; these soil samples were tested, observed and drawn under microscopes in a corresponding Art in the Lab workshop.
  • Students in Dr. Augusta Palmer's Basic Digital Media Production class used Environmental Empathies as a subject for short video pieces, informed in part by discussions they had with artist Moira Williams and curator Katherine Gressel.
  • Student volunteers helped lead photographer Carolyn Monastra's "Postcards for Politicians" workshop, collaging and writing postcards to local politicians about environmental concerns.
  • Moira Williams' workshop invited art history and film students along with the general public to sample fermented foods, study them under microscopes, and explore their potential to combat the negative effects of microplastics in waterways.

"One of our biggest challenges is the belief that the environmental crisis won't affect us personally, or there's nothing we can do to stop it," said Gressel. "It's been really rewarding to witness students connecting with the stories of people who are hardest hit by climate change, and also have fun engaging creatively with ways to connect with nature, live more sustainably, and get involved in climate activism, as an alternative to apathy or hopelessness."

all photos by Nate Dorr

Environmental Empathies is inspired by the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, known as the Patron Saint of Ecologists based on his belief in "care for creation," or love for all living things and our interdependent relationship with the Earth. The term "environmental empathy" is associated with recent research demonstrating that concern for the suffering of other humans correlates with "compassionate feelings for the suffering environment" and, as a result, pro-environmental tendencies.

"In American Art class, we spend time looking at 19th-century landscape paintings and public sculptures on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to understand how they embody contradictory attitudes that Americans held toward the land and its indigenous people," said Dr. Jennifer Wingate, Associate Professor of American Studies at St. Francis College.

"Seeing the art in Environmental Empathies allowed us to make connections between those 19th-century tensions and the contradictions that we still live with today, as well as how artists are raising awareness, eliciting empathy, and prompting action."

Environmental Empathies is funded by the St. Francis College Office of the President with additional support from the Departments of American Studies, Biology, Communication Arts and Fine Arts. Installation photos by Nate Dorr, artworks by Moira Williams (top), Nathan Kensinger (middle), Tara DePorte (bottom).

About the Curator

Katherine Gressel is a New York‐based curator, artist, and writer focused on site‐specific art. She earned her BA in art from Yale and MA in arts administration from Columbia. She was selected for the 2015 Independent Curators International (ICI) Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans. Katherine has written and presented on public and community art issues for Createquity, Americans for the Arts, and Public Art Dialogue, among others. Katherine also served as Programs Manager at Smack Mellon Gallery from 2010-2014, and has worked and consulted for diverse nonprofits in the areas of arts education, project management, and development.

Gressel's previous exhibits have been recognized by the New York Times, Time Out New York, Hyperallergic, News 12 Brooklyn, and DNAInfo. In addition to developing a new contemporary art program for Brooklyn's Old Stone House & Washington Park over the past 10 years, Katherine has curated for FIGMENT, No Longer Empty, and Brooklyn Historical Society, and was the 2016 NARS Foundation emerging curator.

FREE & Open to the Public 7 days a week, 8am-8pm, except when campus events are taking place in the Callahan Center.

Please see the College's calendar for a list of events: https://www.sfc.edu/news and email the curator at katherinegressel@gmail.com to arrange a specific visit. Visitors should check in with the concierge and security.

About the Artwork

Elena Soterakis' paintings connect our "throw-away society" and overconsumption to the impending ecological disaster that we are facing in the 21st Century. Eric Corriel's interactive window projection links passersby's movement on the street to melting arctic glaciers, a reminder that seemingly distant and slow-moving climate changes affect and are affected by the actions of people everywhere.

Photo and video works by Nathan Kensinger, Carolyn Monastra, and Alicia Grullon promote deep engagement with populations and places currently most impacted by environmental change, and with both grassroots and bureaucratic solutions. Grullon collaborated with teenagers and climate scientists to highlight the personal impacts of pollution in the U.S.'s poorest congressional district, in the South Bronx. Her video "frames the interconnectedness of resiliency as fundamental to survival."

Kensinger questions the future viability of the city's coastlines. His new film documents the gradual return of three Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Staten Island neighborhoods to wild marshland in a government-sponsored "managed retreat" from rising sea levels.

Monastra's photographs of communities around the world adapting to climate change suggest the necessity of a global response, as "those who consume the least are often most affected by those who consume the most." Her recent collaboration with writer Betsy Andrews gives voice to "Elder Activists" who hope to inspire future generations.

Rachel Schragis's work visually maps seemingly contradictory truths about climate change. Her contributions include an ideological map of the 2014 People's Climate March; "vent diagrams" of debates around the Green New Deal (in collaboration with Janice Gan) and opportunities for participatory community diagramming and dialogue to seek common ground. Says a student participant, "These 'vent diagrams' help us recognize and reckon with contradictions; serve as emotional release and tiny windows for building unity and power."


all photos by Nate Dorr

Projects by Mary Mattingly, Moira Williams, and the Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) provide opportunities to connect with and learn from nature. This type of immersion is critical to avoiding "'ecophobia'...or the growing feeling of hopelessness and disempowerment" when exposed to daunting environmental problems, in the words of environmental empathy researcher Diane M. McKnight. Mattingly's edible plant installation encourages visitors to "tell the stories" of their neighborhood soil in addition to testing it for toxicity. Williams' installation on the ameliorative qualities of fermented foods will provide free recipe cards and connect environmental and human health on a micro level. The EPA's recent projects "draw from the wisdom of spontaneous urban plants" (aka weeds) to encourage acts of resistance and self-care.

A site-specific installation by Tara DePorte references the stories of St. Francis and others to allude to the inherent interconnectedness between humans and nature, and to "mother earth" as a sacred being caught between destruction and revitalization.

Most artwork in Environmental Empathies will be available for purchase.