Skip to main content
You are here

EXHIBITIONS: 'Igniting' the art of sustainability

By Dave Jones on June 15, 2012 in University

More Exhibitions.

By Dave Jones

Figuratively speaking, 13 California artists will “ignite” the sustainability conference that is taking place here next week.

Among the artists are two from the UC Davis faculty: Professor Ann Savageau and Professor Emerita Gyöngy Laky — each of whom works with reused and repurposed materials.

Savageau, Laky and the others are participating in Ignite! The Art of Sustainability, scheduled to open Monday (June 18) and run through Aug. 31 at the Design Museum before going on tour around the state. The Design Museum is an appropriate venue, considering the museum is a founding signatory to the Green Museums Accord, a commitment to environmentally friendly operations, programming and business practices.

The exhibition's premiere coincides with the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference, which UC Davis is hosting for the first time, June 18 to 22. Nearly 1,000 people are expected to attend from more than 70 institutions, mostly in California.

The Ignite! exhibitors are among the state’s foremost contemporary artists who have long focused their work on issues of the environment and sustainability.

Central Valley Ghost Stories

Savageau, a member of the faculty in the Department of Design, is showing a new work, Central Valley Ghost Stories, 4 feet square by 4 inches deep, a three-dimensional viewing box depicting animals that used to roam the valley in large numbers, but today not at all or in much, much smaller numbers. 

These extinct and endangered animals appear in two layers, one at the front of the viewing box and one at the back. For the front layer, Savageau burned the images into polyester silkscreen fabric, then placed the fabric in between sheets of Plexiglas.

She pinned a duplicate image of each animal to a board at the back of the box, so, when looking through the box, one image lines up with the other.

The images play off each other — and with the shadows of the pinned images, creating a “ghostly” effect.

“This extinction event mirrors, on a smaller scale, what is currently happening on a global scale due to climate change,” Savageau wrote in her artist statement. “I hope that this artwork helps the public grasp the implications of what we are experiencing right here in our own Central Valley.”  

Transforming waste into art

She also uses art to address consumer culture and wasteful consumption, and she often transforms waste into art. See her website.

Take, for example, her BAG (Bags Across the Globe) project, an example of what artist-activists call an “intervention,” in which artists carry out actions in the public sphere.

Through BAG, Savageau promotes the crafting of reusable bags to reduce the use of plastic. Further, she shows how the reusable bags can be made from textile waste, thereby saving resources.

Last year she curated a Design Museum exhibition with a tornado as the centerpiece — a tornado made from more than 1,000 plastic bags, the number that an average California couple uses in a year.

The tornado symbolized how plastics bags “are causing serious environmental problems” all over the world, Savageau said at the time.

Laky, affiliated with the art and design departments, is a self-described environmentalist who, in her artwork, often uses materials harvested from nature and agricultural sources, and incorporates recycled elements as well.

“She is attracted to humble materials, and simple, direct methods of hand construction that she associates with basic, grass roots, human ingenuity about making things,” her website states.

Laky’s art is seen in the Ignite! logo, a photograph of letters and an exclamation point that she crafted from apple, grapevine, nails and wire. The typeface is from a collection that she made for The New York Times’ Sunday magazine’s Green Issue in 2008.

Heightened connections to nature

The other participating artists: Kim Abeles, Robert Dawson, Penelope Gottlieb, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Sant Khalsa, Judith Lowry, Linda MacDonald, Luke Matjas, Daniel McCormick and Kim Stringfellow.

All of them — Savageau and Laky included — communicate a heightened connection to their natural surroundings through rich imagery using a variety of media from the traditional (photographs, painting and video) to the unconventional (smog-particulate matter on porcelain), according to a news release from the nonprofit organization Exhibit Envoy, which produced the exhibition.

“What emerges are the unique traits of California’s ecological regions and the range of extremes present in our state,” the news release continues.

Dawson, a San Francisco-based photographer, celebrates the success stories of environmental preservation: “For all the destruction witnessed, however, I discovered that California remains a remarkable source of innovation that is often fueled by love of the place and memory of what it once was.”

Matjas, an associate professor of art at California State University, Channel Islands, is showing large, colorful, chaotic digital drawings — distorted scenes of the collision of natural and human-made objects. “Ultimately, my work attempts to re-instill a sense of mystery and wonder to our world,” he said.


WHAT: Ignite! the Art of Sustainability, a response by California contemporary artists to regional environmental issues around the state

WHEN: June 18-Aug. 31

WHERE: Design Museum, Cruess Hall (enter off California Avenue)

SPECIAL HOURS: noon-5 p.m. opening day, June 18.

REGULAR HOURS: noon-4 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed weekends and holidays)


Two works from the exhibition are being shown at the Pence Gallery, 212 D St., Davis. Special hours, noon-5 p.m. Monday (June 18); regular hours, 11:30-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, and 7-9 p.m. (6 p.m. opening for members), 2nd Friday ArtAbout.

  • The Rafting Hypothesis, Luke Matjas, 2011, digital print
  • Corkscrew, Cabbage, Clearcut, Linda MacDonald, 2012, oil on canvas


The exhibition grew out of Ignite! Museums as Catalysts for Sustainability, a project of the California Association of Museums and its Green Museums Initiative, which also sponsors the Green Museums Accord. (Tim McNeil, assistant professor and director of the Design Museum, chairs the Green Museums Initiative.)

The initiative hosted seven forums in seven regions, bringing together museum leaders, scientists, environmentalists, artists and others to discuss how to preserve ecosystems and promote healthy communities.

Ignite! The Art of Sustainability debuts at UC Davis, then goes on tour. The schedule so far:

  • Humboldt State University Art Gallery, Arcata — Sept. 23-Nov. 18
  • Arte Americas: Casa de Cultura, Fresno — Feb. 10-April 7, 2013
  • Pasadena Museum of California Art — Aug. 11, 2013-Jan. 5, 2014
  • Museum of History & Art, Ontario — June 15-Aug. 10, 2014

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Twitter.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,