Jeff Goodell on Painting Climate Realities Through Art

Jeff Goodell on Painting Climate Realities Through Art

Photograph by Jeff Luker / Connected Archives



Featuring visual artists dating back centuries and commentary from leading environmental voices, the acclaimed writer co-curated a new art exhibit that confronts the dire threat of climate change.

Jeff Goodell has never been short for words. He’s the writer of seven books, including his latest, The Heat Will Kill You First, which was released earlier this year. His acclaimed two-decades-long career as a journalist covering climate change has been damning, sobering, and galvanizing. This month, Goodell’s career took an unexpected turn, as he guest-curated a newly launched art exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas—a creative venture that’s a first for him. 


Co-curated with Blanton Museum director Simone Wicha and deputy director Carter Foster, If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change weaves together the voices of scientists and artists, writers and activists. It doesn’t devolve into partisan debates over whether climate change is real, nor does it claim to have a solution. It’s a stark, emotional exhibit that grapples with the reality people are facing today—a conversation starter and a force for social movements. 


The show features an eclectic set of pieces, including historical works dating back to the 1600s, which weren’t created with climate change in mind, but yield new and insightful interpretations in today’s world. It also exhibits a set of contemporary works which are accompanied by writings and reflections by environmental figureheads including writer Elizabeth Kolbert, journalist Amy Westervelt, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy Katharine Hayhoe, and more. Their voices echo in, as Goodell puts it, “shocking and sudden and powerful ways.” 


On the heels of the art show’s grand opening, Goodell and Wicha spoke with Atmos about the role of art in the climate movement and the significance of opening the exhibit after record-setting summer temperatures, in a state governed by climate deniers, just months after the exhibit’s titular hypothetical became a reality.

Jessie Homer French, “Mojave Burning,” 2021. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Jason Dinh

Let’s start with the top line. What is the goal of the exhibition?

Simone Wicha

I’ve wanted to do an exhibition at the museum about climate change for many years. It’s a big and important topic in the world in all of our lives, and this museum is very much committed to having art reflect the world around us and addressing significant conversations—as a place to spark curiosity. Artists have the capacity to highlight ideas and visualize the world around us in ways that are really unique.


It’s also something that I hadn’t seen happening in many museums. There were a lot of smart projects, but they were, in my opinion, too nuanced, too specific to a region, too either overly poetic and unclear what you were learning from it, too focused just on nature and not also what’s happening to us as people. I was more interested in having a bigger, broader conversation, not through an art history dialogue. I wanted it to be smart. I wanted to hit topics that we should be talking about, but I also wanted it to be accessible.


The initial idea was to invite Jeff to respond to our permanent collection, which is one part of the show. We also invited other writers and scientists to respond to works of art, and that’s the second part of the show. Jeff helped curate the works and also the writers paired with them.


Before we dig into the actual structure of the show, I’m wondering, what is the overall tone and tenor of the exhibit?

Jeff Goodell

That’s an interesting question. First of all, the show begins in the world beyond the question of whether climate change is real. This is not a show offering a both-sides debate about climate change. This is a show about artists and writers reacting to what’s happening now in our world. It also doesn’t pretend to be about solutions. We’re not advocating what we should be doing. We’re trying to extend the conversation about what is really happening around us and using the best science, the best journalism, and the best artists who are thinking about this to bring that conversation to a different audience—a new audience. We wanted these different voices to complement, underscore, and echo each other to bring new nuances to this conversation.

Vernon Fisher, “Man Cutting Globe,” 1995. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


Just touching on something that you said there about writers and artists echoing each other: I know that you spent a lot of your career writing, and writing very prolifically. When you think about how we communicate the climate crisis, where do you think art can appeal where writing or speaking can’t?


Well, I think two things. One is that a lot of the climate writing and the climate conversation in general is sort of ghettoized among energy geeks, climate geeks, climate activists, or climate deniers. There are all these hardened walls of communication that make it very hard for a discussion to break through about climate and this great transformation our world is going through. For me, this show was an attempt to do that, to really broaden the conversation. 


As writers, we have one medium. I’ve been writing about climate change for 20 years, and I know the science well. I’ve read everything that’s been written, practically. But visual arts bring a whole other dimension to thinking about this, and I felt that very powerfully in this show as Simone and I and Carter Foster, the other curator who worked on the show, brought these pieces together. 


They echo in interesting ways that are both shocking and sudden and powerful in ways that a piece of writing isn’t. When I walk through that show now, still things echo for me in ways that I didn’t even understand as we were picking these pieces out. I think it’s really a kind of profound exercise in the power of art to communicate ideas and to speak to our moment.

“This is not a show offering a both-sides debate about climate change. This is a show about artists and writers reacting to what’s happening now in our world.”

Jeff Goodell
Author, The Heat Will Kill You First


You mentioned that the show has a couple of sections, with both historical and contemporary artwork, plus written reflections by scientists and writers. Why did you structure it that way?


There are two projects happening together. One is solely about reinterpreting works in our collection that span across time. Many works were not created in any way in response to climate change. It’s about looking at these works through Jeff’s lens and telling a story about climate change through our collection. 


That story is complementing the other project, which are contemporary artists who are addressing climate change today. In that space, we have videos, tapestries, paintings, and digital pieces, which Jeff paired with an extraordinary group of writers and scientists. We asked them to do what normally a curator or an art historian at the museum would be doing, which is writing a label in response to that work of art.


It is a really interesting exercise in taking art and looking at it through a new lens, which is, frankly, something all of us do. We each bring our own lens to works of art when we stand in front of them. In this case, we’re allowing an expert in climate change to bring their lens to the collection.

Christine Sun Kim, “The Sound of Temperature Rising.” Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


What kinds of insights have you gained from looking at these pieces of art—that are sometimes almost half a millennium old—through the lens of climate change, when clearly that’s not how they were conceived?


Climate change sometimes gets stuck as an idea, a novel idea, that’s happening today for those of us who are learning about it and experiencing it perhaps for the first time. One of the key anchors of this exhibition is that this is a story that has a long history to it. 


Yeah, the museum pulled out several hundred pieces that they thought might echo with me, and we assembled this narrative from the works in their collection. It was really interesting because I basically built the story of humans and their relationship with nature and with energy and told the story in 40 pieces of art. 


What you see when you look at things through that lens is that this complexity that climate change embodies about our relationship with nature and our relationship with energy is, as Simone said, an ancient story. It’s always been part of human life on this planet. Humans have been fucking around with the environment and with nature as long as we’ve been humans, burning fields and digging up minerals and things like that. In some ways, the show traces the roots of that backwards. In other words, the show is very much about the here and now and about what is happening today in our world, but I also wanted it to echo back deeply through time to show that all these things that we’re talking about are not new. They’re just at a different scale and pace than they have been before. 


The show takes you through that story in a way that a book can’t. It feels epic in a really interesting way that even I, putting it together, didn’t expect.


And if I may add, Jason, back to your last question of what is unique about visual art versus writing: A visual artist has this extraordinary ability to so succinctly bring something to your attention. If done right, it opens up all kinds of questions, stays with you, lingers, and shows you something that was there that you didn’t see. That’s the beauty and power of visual arts. I think that’s what this show does. 

Tonel, “As Seen From the Moon,” 2001. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


You’ve mentioned a couple times that the exhibit is about the here and the now, and something that is striking to me is the where and the when of this exhibit actually opening. I want to dig into a couple of ways the exhibit ties into the current moment, and I’ll start with the elephant in the room, which is the name of the exhibition: If the Sky Were Orange. 


You write in the show introduction that if carbon dioxide stained the air that people would care, and this year, the sky, at least on the East Coast, was literally orange as wildfire smoke spilled over from Canada. So, I’m wondering, do you think that actually did make people care?


Well, that goes to this old question that’s been around as long as we’ve been talking about climate change: What will wake people up? What is the thing that changes people? What Al Gore once called in a conversation I had with him your “Oh, shit” moment, when something happens and the scope and scale of climate change becomes clear. 


Whether the orange sky, the sort of Blade Runner sky that we had on the East Coast this year, did that for people—I’m sure it had an effect on some people, and I’m sure that it woke some people up to this, but it’s not like we’ve seen some dramatic change in American politics in the aftermath. It’s not like all of a sudden the Republicans are like, Oh, we need to pass climate change legislation now, because the skies above Washington D.C. were orange for four days.


I think that there is not going to be a collective awakening with climate. It’s a trench war about one step forward or two steps forward, then one step back. These kinds of social transformations and economic transformations are complex, difficult, and slow, and I think that this story is going to play out over a long, long time—for better and for worse. 


The title of the show, which I think is so interesting, is based on a piece by Aaron Morse piece of the orange clouds. That was just part of the collection at the Blanton and part of the several hundred pieces that Simone and Carter pulled out for me to look at. I looked at that piece, and I thought, This piece has got to be in. When the sky turned orange in New York and Washington D.C., it was a very weird thing. It was like, Wait a minute, that’s the name of our show that’s launching in a couple of months. It felt very eerie in a kind of Stephen King-ish kind of way.

Julian Charrière, “Towards No Earthly Pole,” 2019. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


Austin, Texas is an interesting place to be hosting the exhibition. It opened after the state experienced a summer of record-setting heat waves, more than a month straight of 100-degree temperatures. The governing bodies include outspoken climate deniers, and there’s a very public fight to keep climate denial out of public schools. I’m wondering if these factors came into play when you were developing this exhibition.


Texas is really interesting. We’ve been dealing with the heat wave. We’re dealing with water issues. We have a huge coastline that’s going to be dealing with sea level rise. Obviously, a big part of our conversation here is also about the border, and climate change impacts immigration and will continue to in the future. Texas is certainly dealing with challenges of climate change. These are issues that we’re grappling with, and it seems important for us to explore them and talk about them.


Texas also is a leader in renewable energy. In fact, I think we are the leading state. The University of Texas has been historically a force within oil and gas, but it’s also one of the leading universities on renewable energy. 


I think we are a perfect place to have this conversation. Yes, it will spark debate, but that is what art does and art has historically done. I am committed to allowing people to access information and encouraging them to have conversations here and beyond.

Robert Cottingham, “Hot,” 1973. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


There’s one more way I see this exhibition tying into current events: Art has been in the climate conversation in recent months as climate activists began vandalizing art as a form of protest. Were these protests on your mind as you were curating the show? And how do you think your climate-focused art exhibition can coexist with art protest in a larger messaging scheme?


Well, as a museum director, you’re always thinking about the care and safety of collections. You’re charged with caring for cultural heritage, and it’s part of your responsibility to engage audiences and bring people in and learn and give artists a place to have a voice. 


Truthfully, whether it’s this show or beyond, my hope is that we are giving a platform for a conversation that is needed, and museums are the place to have those conversations. I hope this is an opportunity for dialogue to take place. 


I just want to add that I started as a journalist in New York in the late ’80s, and I covered AIDS activism. I really saw the power of art as a tool, as a part of this conversation—as a part of social transformation. I hope that this show has some of that feeling in it. 


We have a couple of works, one in particular by Donald Moffett, who was involved in the AIDS fight, in the show, where we talk about social activism. Frankly, I really want this art to be a force, as a social force, not just as a conversation, but as an engine of thinking and as a tool to shift perspective on the world—to open minds to different ways of thinking and to confront power.

Nic Nicosia, “Near (modern) Disaster #8,” 1983. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


I have one more big-picture question. In both museums and in climate change, there’s a legacy of colonialism and racism. We’ve been talking about the here and now, and the reality of the here and now is that Black people, Brown people, Indigenous people, people of color, and people from the Global South are facing the most damning and pressing effects of climate change. How did you ensure that these voices were being platformed in the exhibition? 


Absolutely. In the paper vault, but especially in the contemporary project, it is a very diverse group of artists—a diverse group of writers as well. There’s a work by Nyugen Smith, a Caribbean-American artist living in New Jersey, whose work addresses the need to get up and leave your home. It responds to and reflects on having to flee a disaster. It was a work that Jeff selected and knew exactly who he wanted to pair this work with. Jeff, do you want to talk a little bit about that?

“I really want this art to be a force, as a social force, not just as a conversation, but as an engine of thinking and as a tool to shift perspective on the world.”

Jeff Goodell
Author, The Heat Will Kill You First


First of all, let me just say that these issues of social justice and equity are deeply wound throughout the show in many, many ways. It’s a central interest of mine, and it’s a central part of the story of climate change. The rich nations of the world have created this problem, and it’s the poor nations of the world and the Global South that are suffering the most although they have done almost nothing to cause any of these problems.

For the particular piece that Simone is talking about—we partnered with this African-American writer named Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who has written books about social justice and inequities. He wrote a wonderful piece about what it feels like to leave home. You can see the art he responded to on the website. It’s this put-together collage with a winter sled as a body and these life preservers as this neck and these weird collections of necklaces and jewelry hanging off. It really suggests the refugee. What do you take with you? That’s such a big part of climate change and of the show. 


For another piece, we featured Julian Brave NoiseCat, who was the head of research for Data for Progress and was behind a lot of the pipeline protests. He’s Native American. He’s very interested in tribal rights, displacement, equity, and justice. I’m really proud to have him because I think he’s one of the leading voices, especially among 20-somethings, on precisely this issue that you’re talking about—these questions of equity and justice. He wrote a wonderful and eloquent essay, which you can read online


Having these voices and these works of art that Simone has mentioned, I think that these questions of diversity and equity are really present in this show in a way that I’m really proud of.

Jerry Bywaters, “Oil Field Girls,” 1940. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin


That’s encouraging to hear. So, now that the show is open, what kind of reactions or feedback have you gotten?


So far, I just keep hearing people say that they love the show. This is different from exhibitions we’ve done in the past. I just had three people come up to me last night and tell me they actually came through the show this weekend. One told me that their son wanted to go and took her to go see it. I love it when I hear somebody telling me that it was their child taking them, making them go see a show. That’s thrilling.


It’s going to, I think, generate discussion and momentum over time in a way that I really look forward to. I haven’t had a chance to do this yet, but I want to go over there and just sit in the museum for two or three hours and watch what people respond to. When I publish a book, I can’t sit and watch them read. I’ll just get an email saying, Oh, I love chapter X. I’m really interested in just watching people look at the show and see where they’re drawn and what pieces speak to them, and I predict that I will learn a lot by just watching that.

Aaron Morse, “Cloud World (#3),” 2014. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change is open at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas now until February 11th, 2024.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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