Berkeley High School students sculpt better future through ‘Art/Act: Youth’

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Doug Smith/Staff

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The newest generation of teen activists continues to take the world by storm, marching for our lives and speaking out against injustice. Unsurprisingly, the art students of Berkeley High School are partaking in this movement, using their intellect and artistry to produce masterful commentary on a similarly pressing issue: environmentalism.

Since 2016, the David Brower Center has annually held the environmentalism-focused event “Art/Act: Youth,” working closely with Berkeley High School art teacher Kimberley D’Adamo Green to bring it to fruition. Running through Sept. 14, the free exhibition hosts the works of more than 80 students from grades nine through 12, highlighting their insights on the problems plaguing our planet.

With its energy-efficient, low-impact design, the building itself is undeniably more functional that beautiful. Gray ceilings mirror the gray floors, which match the gray couches, whose asphalt-like appearance mimics the exposed-cement support pillars scattered throughout the space. Like much of the art, 50 percent of the center is made of recycled materials, its monochrome minimalism providing a sharp contrast to the colorful eclecticism of the art.

Using varied mediums, ranging from found objects to acrylics, the exhibition displays thought-provoking demonstrations of the impact of humanity on Earth. The art is both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, ranging in scope from a brush leaf sculpture to realistic examinations of insect life. While the phrase “environmental art” may bring to mind animal paintings or wildlife landscapes, much of the art goes well beyond that, featuring complex pieces that border on surrealism with heavy imagery of nature.

Ranging in skill level from first-time painters to seasoned sculptures, the artists hail from both an advanced studio art class and an introduction to materials class. Regardless of technical talent, the students deliver exceptionally cognizant pieces.

“They were unusually careful at making each of the pieces really polished, really finished, ready for exhibition, so that the craft of it didn’t take away from the importance of the subject matter,” said D’Adamo Green in an interview with The Daily Californian.

D’Adamo Green saw that the students felt particularly motivated when they were told that the pieces would be for an environmental exhibition at the David Brower Center.

“I think there is such a commitment in this generation to figuring out ways to preserve our environment,” D’Adamo Green said. “I think you see that in the level of care that they put into each of these artworks.”

The David Brower Center chose to host the budding artists’ work as part of an initiative with D’Adamo Green to develop a youth program through the center. Within this vein, the center provided funding for both a scientist and an artist to consult with the students on their work. As a result of contributions such as this, the “Art/Act: Youth” exhibit continued to grow and improve over the past three years while still maintaining its central focus on environmentalism.

D’Adamo Green’s shared goal with the David Brower Center is “to build a new generation of young, environmental artists.”

That goal is realized in the art displayed. Students Anna Reed, Maya Otey, Anaya McFadden, Alex Lafetra Thomsen, Mayorie Ovalla Rojas and Kiki Valenzuela collaborated on one particularly punchy piece, an examination of Flint, Michigan, which provides impactful commentary on the city’s water crisis. The work — made entirely of recycled materials — consists of three cutout images of children done on manila folders and pasted onto a background of aquamarine water bottle labels. Mounted above, PVC pipes painted to look like rusted water ducts ominously rest. Below, plastic water bottles filled with polluted water stand.

“The students did all this deep research into what’s happening in Flint,” D’Adamo Green said about the work’s artists. “They thought about how to represent what is happening to people in Flint through the language of art.”

Other highlights include a lifesize silhouette of a mother and daughter whose clothing is made up of fragmented illustrations of the moon landing, representing the lack of women in STEM and environmental leadership roles. A papier-mâché sculpture of a human torso with a burst-open chest reveals mangled organs and discarded plastic waste, demonstrating how humanity is closely tied to the environment.

“Art/Act: Youth” successfully provides complex analysis of global problems through its originality. The works depict the chaos of pollution and the beauty that is lost while also communicating potential solutions. While the range of skill levels is apparent, the work done by the advanced studio art class shines through its layered meanings and intense symbolism, coupled with excellent technique.

Fascinating commentary ran through many of the works, distinguishing the exhibit as not simply beautiful, but also entirely insightful. The art show provides hope that young people will tackle our contemporary environmental crisis, sculpting a better future for us all.

Contact Casey Lane at [email protected].

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