I’m so excited that I’ll be joining the first Chicago Climate Festival as keynote speaker and premiere two new videos from Another Storm is Coming – Breathed on the Waters and Storm Redux – commissioned by the Center for Energy & Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS). Hope to see you there!
By Alex Nates-Perez
“Acclaimed Chicago photographer Judy Natal will talk about her recent work, Another Storm is Coming, and screen two moving new videos that were commissioned by the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University (CENHS). Commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina she dramatizes the effects of extreme weather on residents living along the Gulf Coast.”
This is a rare opportunity to see Natal’s new work—not to be missed!
My ride pulls up to a nondescript brick building in the middle of an urban jungle. I am not sure I’ve arrived at the right location. “Studio,” she said in her email. “Meet me at my studio.” Intrigued but a little perplexed by the glass block windows, I look again at the numbers on the door. This was the right place, and I waved my Uber driver on. I took out my phone and texted, “I’m here,” and the door opened to reveal a smiling woman with piercing eyes and a warm disposition.
Walking into her studio is walking into Judy Natal’s living room. Right away I am greeted with a big smile and a cool refreshment. A futon is open for lounging. Her work, finished and pending, is hung neatly on the walls. Stacks of books line shelves and the room is full of assorted coffee tables and desks overflowing with ideas and collections from her travels.
Natal is known for her innovative images dealing with environmental degradation and climate change. My first question, after we sit down at her desk, fan blowing while we sip our tea, is this: “Our focus is mainly on Climate Change, but I think the lifeblood of this project is figuring out how art and science overlap and the insight that comes from an emotional and factual understanding of the complex issues. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it relates to your work?”
“So your question is, why is art a good way to express scientific facts or theories? I think there are many roles that artists play. They are storytellers, they are tricksters, they are cultural arbiters, they are aesthetic soothsayers—we do a lot of different things. For me, I think of my role as a weaver. I weave all different kinds of threads together. Many artists will take one thread and do that for a lifetime. I’m interested in connecting the dots and building connective tissue between things. My practice has always been between things. I love that space because it’s very grey and squishy. So if you think of the world, or environmental issues, or climate change as a ball, many artists will cut out one specific facet of that gigantic messy, sometimes horrible ball, and that’s what they will direct their practice toward. I see the ball as more of a globe with all these intersecting triangles that have to be connected. Those points of connection are where I think my practice is. As a connector between art and science, there are many points to build connective tissue with. That’s always been my path. I don’t see one thing. I see these layers of complexity about things, and I try really hard in my work to visually depict that, and then use my work as a point of departure to start a dialogue. There’s the work, and then there’s the work in service to having a really thoughtful conversation.”
Judy Natal was born and raised in Chicago. She says she’s “South Side educated.” “I am an incredible product of the public school system in Chicago. So I think I’ve spent my life trying to make up for this education that didn’t happen,” said Natal while searching through a pile of books on her desk. Most of them were about mirrors.
Her newest project uses mirrors to talk about weather, and is tentatively called “Eve’s Eye” after the first mirror. Natal was recently in Iceland looking for inspiration; finding none, she went up to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin and began shooting. Some trial photos were hung on the wall with binder clips. The photos were of a pond with a circular mirror placed on the sandy bottom. The mirrors reflect whatever was above: clouds, blue sky that looks likes ice disturbed by the water’s surface, a double school of fish, ripples. “I create a library for every body of work I do. I started reading the history of the mirror, which is unbelievably fascinating. All of this research, reading and thinking, all opens up windows of possibilities.” Being South Side educated has influenced her thirst for knowledge and feeds her drive to use research when working on projects, some of which can take up to five years to complete, morphing from rough hewn original ideas into something very different . . . eloquent and elegant.
Our conversation switches to her recently completed work, “Another Storm is Coming,” a project about how the Gulf Coast has been and will continue to be affected by climate change. Natal begins talking a lot about the people she met and their influences on her work and in her life. I had to ask, “How do you process the horrors of environmental degradation? How do you wrap your head around what you make art for?”
“It’s hard, it’s really hard.” Said Natal, “There’s writing about grief and grieving that is taking place because of what is happening in relationship to climate. I think during “Another Storm is Coming,” I was pretty depressed, honestly. Not clinically depressed, but you know those feelers that I’ve developed, those antenna that I have developed as an artist, I can’t turn them off when it’s not good. It is very hard to deal with because I can’t put a filter on my eyes and not see. Trying to find a way for me to both cope, so that I’m still productive, and yet not diminish the intensity of our destruction, and the devastation that is being wrought on the land, on people, on dreams, or my emotional responses. I can’t close my eyes to that.”
We then talked about art’s role in understanding and processing the grief of environmental destruction, “Why art? I think I have a quote here that I really love. ‘Art aspires to poetry, not propaganda.’ Art is fed on emotions. Scientists, although of course they do have them, it’s not perceived as a good thing to have [emotions] in public. Emotion does not play a part in science. It’s the facts. Artists attach the emotions. I think it’s about thinking, acting, seeing, feeling and connecting those things. And there’s a huge range. Some artists are totally emotional; other art is totally devoid of emotion.”
Natal’s work expresses the emotions of climate change. She helps viewers deal with the grief of Climate Change while hoping her work educates them, and motivates viewers to make a change. “I’m not interested in making doom and gloom work. It turns people off. I’m kind of what they call a romantic realist. I believe in humanity. I believe in our ability to change. I believe that when people know, they will do the right thing. Otherwise, I would not get out of bed in the morning. I believe in education. I’ve devoted my entire adult life to teaching. I’m not teaching because I can’t be a working artist, full time, believe me. Because initially I thought, oh I’m not going to teach at all; I’m just going to make art. But then I realized I wanted to give back. And the way I realized I wanted to give back is not money, because I don’t have any. It’s educating the youth of America and now of course, not just America.”
When asked, “How do you/your art help?” her response, like her art, was all about connecting. “In my words, I get out of my own artistic way and I help people have an opportunity to speak for themselves. I am not a documentary photographer. For me, art is creating acts of interpretation. And that has to be there for it to be called art. That leap from the thing itself. So, the leap from the mirror for example. You know it’s a mirror, but it’s definitely taking you somewhere else.”
Education, understanding, emotions—Natal’s work is a rich and finely woven, ever-unfolding cloth for communicating harsh realities to the general public. Judy Natal’s work does not confront the viewer, though. It’s elegantly seductive in its presentation. “I want my work to help people understand that they can make change. And that change is possible.”