The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, and it was initiated by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat and a strong advocate for the environment. By 1990, Earth Day had become a global event with 141 countries participating. The first United Nations Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and the Paris Agreement was initiated in 2015 to combat climate change. Today, April 22, 2021, the world celebrates the 51st Earth Day.
Judy Chicago, famous for her well-known work “Dinner Party” (1979), starting the first Feminist Art Program in 1971, and the Through the Flower non-profit to support women artists in 1978, turned 80 in 2019. TIME magazine put her on its cover and named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. An outspoken advocate for women’s equality, Judy Chicago often is thought of as making only feminist art. In reality her long career has embraced several issues. A Jew, Chicago with her husband Donald Woodman explored the Holocaust; the result was the exhibition “The Holocaust Project: Darkness into Light.” After a severe health scare in 2012, Chicago began work on the series “The End: A Meditation of Death and Extinction” (2012-2018). When the exhibition of this work opened in September 2019, the Washington Post commented, “Judy Chicago doesn’t have time for games. The planet is dying, and so are we.” Her sculpture “Extinction” (patinated bronze) (53’’ X 30’’ X14’’) is just one of the works resulting from her research on endangered species and contains several of the animals depicted in this series.
“We pretend that animals are resources to be con STRANDED served or con FINNED sumed when POACHED they have lives entirely independent of us…it is wrong TARGETED to believe that they are not sentient SILENCED beings…who nurture, love and DECLINING grieve together. But any crea SMOTHERE tures that sparks economic interest is DOOMED COLLECTED. These pretenses are destroying VULNERABLE life BATTERED on this planet. Quote from Derrick Jensen”
Chicago’s work, “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction” was exhibited for the first time at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC., from September 19, 2019 through January 20, 2020. Chicago’s concern for the environment is palpable. She did extensive research for the three distinct issues represented in the series; human mortality; the end of our lives; and the extinction of animals, plants, and ultimately the earth. Chicago commented on the research: “Believe it or not, the section on mortality was easier to do than the section on extinction. When I really began researching, it was unbearable. We’re driving the human species and all other species to extinction.”
“Frog populations have been declining worldwide and nearly one-third are threatened with EXTINCTION. Frogs have survived in their current form for 250 million years and should serve as an alarm call that something is dramatically wrong with the environment. Frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress. Pollution, global warming and habitat destruction HAVE ALREADY TAKEN A TOLL.”
The series consists of 13 painted images and the bronze sculpture “Extinction.” Each of the 13 pieces is 12’’ x 16” and painted with oil paint in layers, each layer fired onto glass. Chicago chose glass because it is reflective and hard and fragile at the same time. Chicago commented on the size of the works, “I deliberately wanted to go the opposite way of the art world: bigger, more impersonal work created by the [other] people. Because the subject matter was so personal and intimate, I wanted it to be in my own hands. I wanted it to go from, my hand into other people’s hearts.”
“Historically gorillas have been portrayed as vicious killers. But they are actually shy and gentle creatures who are threatened by habitat loss, disease and poaching. Their body parts are sold and their babies are stolen for pets, research subjects and private zoos.”
Chicago writes the extinction story of each animal or plant on each piece. This article lets her written words tell the story. Several pieces have been selected for this article. The choice was not an easy one. Images not covered in the article: “Stranded” concerning Polar Bears; “Vulnerable” concerning the remaining 1600 pairs Galapagos Penguins; “Targeted” concerning the Mexican Gray Wolf which was wiped out in the United States; “Smothered” concerning Sea Turtles who grow tumors on the nose and mouth caused by fertilizers and factory farm waste; “Battered” concerning damns which block Salmon as they migrate; “Bleached” concerning Coral Reefs that are dying due to global warming; and “Harvested” concerning Himalayan Yew Trees when the back is cut for medicine. All pieces are available on-line, www.judychicago.com – extinction.
“Elephants are the most caring, compassionate and sentient beings on the planet. Once common throughout Africa and Asia, they are being depleted ty habitat destruction and POACHING. Every year thousands of elephants are slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade and their tucks are brutally hacked off with HACKSAWS and MACHETES.”
In Chicago’s interview with the Washington Post on September 24, 2019 interview on the opening of the exhibition she stated: “Climate change won’t just change how we live, it will radically remake how we die. Along with cancer and heart disease, now we can expect to perish during crop failures, extreme heat events, catastrophic storms and tropical disease pandemics, and suffer increases in asthma and lung ailments. As the world becomes largely uninhabitable, we will also lack the old and reliable solace of knowing that the beauty of the world — the flora and fauna of the planets we love — will outlast us. None of us will be able to say on our deathbeds: All of this richness and wonder will subsist, nature will outlast me, and it is time now for other people to sustain the rhythms of life, birth, love, loss and death.”
“It is estimated that 100 million sharks are slaughtered every year by commercial and recreational fishing. Sharks are often mutilated for shark fin soup which is a Chinese delicacy. Living sharks are captured, finned and tossed back into the ocean, unable to swim, hunt or survive. They sink to the bottom of the sea where they SUFFOCATE.
“Orchids are the largest plant family on earth. There are over 250,000 different types but many are threatened, endangered or extinct due to HABITAT DESTRUCTION or SMUGGLING by-or for collectors, some of whom picked every orchid in an area, then burned the land in order to CORNER THE MARKET on that species.”
In 2020 Judy Chicago collaborated with Jane Fonda and others in a social media campaign called “Create Art for Earth.” Artists form the world were invited to submit work for a virtual exhibition and then an on-site exhibition. There were over 3000 submissions. To encourage participation, Chicago wrote in her post, “Over the last few decades, we have witnessed the melting of Arctic ice; the warming of the oceans; massive wildfires; dramatic changes in weather patterns; the extinction of hundreds of living creatures; a series of pandemics and now, the coronavirus which is upending human behavior all over the planet, causing the disruption of economic systems at a level never seen before and death for many thousands of people. Will we finally pay attention and wake up before it is too late for all of us?”
To end on a more positive note, Chicago also stated, “I always have hope. You have to choose hope. Hope comes from feeling that you’re on the side of right, and fighting for it. If you are a passive observer to what’s going on, it’s easy to give in to despair. I’ve spent my whole like fighting for what I feel is right. It’s given my life meaning, and I hope it’s given some insights to other people. You have to choose hope.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.