Framing the Climate Conversation Through Art, Science and Community Collaborations

Back to news

By Jane Appel


Coloradans are experiencing climate change. Residents face challenges like fires, drought and poor water and air quality.  

The Colorado Arts Science Environment Program’s (CASE) main goal is to address critical environmental and social issues across Colorado. CASE is doing so through an exhibition called Coloradans and Our Shared Environment in Times of Challenge and Change—a collaborative exhibition that brings together CU Boulder scientists and artists from various parts of the state. 

The people involved in CASE—a program of the Office for Public and Community-Engaged Scholarship— were asked to produce a unique representation of these issues using art and science to transcend climate change debates and showcase the deep connection that Coloradans have with the natural world.  

For the exhibition, eight teams of two, one artist and one scientist, produced a final piece highlighting a climate issue. One group—artist Hannah Taylor and CU scientist Noah Molotch—explored what warming winters meant to a community reliant on snow. They studied Dillion Reservoir’s role in Colorado’s waterways by examining how water levels, stream banks and ice structures change. The team’s final project is a 2D installation of reconstructed maps and frozen ink washes sewn together to mirror what earlier snowmelt means for infrastructure and mountain communities.  

The exhibition places emphasis on lived experiences. To tie this into the final project, Taylor hosted a printmaking workshop with students at Summit High School. The students carved and printed snow water equivalent maps illustrating the general pattern of melting through the spring season in Summit County. Students also produced art drawn from their own experience seeing the Dillion Reservoir over the years. 

Artist Jocelyn Catterson facilitated community-engagement by asking her community in San Luis Valley what environmental issues were most important there.  

Catterson took what she learned about her community’s lived experience, combined it with related scientific data and told that story.  

It was important to Catterson and her scientist partner from CU Boulder, Holly Barnard, that the community did not feel exploited during the process. They wanted to make sure it was an equal partnership with benefit for both the community and the CASE team.  

Lisa Schwartz, lead facilitator and designer of CASE and community program manager in the Office for Public and Community-Engaged Scholarship (PACES), stated, “In our office [PACES], we really care about having collaboration across the Front Range and Western Slope. The idea behind having all eight [CASE] teams focus on something different is to show that these issues are not just focused in one part of the state; they are all connected.”  

Schwartz’s emphasis on connectivity is important to the locations the exhibition is presented. It is traveling around Colorado so as many people as possible can view it. The first exhibition was at the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver.  

“With the CASE fellowship, we had a shared objective to create art for the Capitol with the understanding that art at the Capitol is public and meant to be accessible to anybody,” said Schwartz. “The Capitol also symbolizes the shared space [Colorado] we are representing.” 

The exhibition, accompanied by workshops and events, then moved to Breck Create in Breckenridge; Mesa County Libraries in Grand Junction; the Creative Industries Summit in Pueblo; and CU’s campus in the Sustainability, Energy and Environment Community (SEEC) building.  Next, the art was featured at The Four Corners Climate Summit on April 27 at Fort Lewis College in Durango. The summit was designed to bring together national policymakers, scientists, artists and community members to discuss climate change in Colorado.  

“CASE’s involvement encourages a deeper understanding of how historical and cultural contexts shape current environmental issues and solutions,” said Cory Pillen, member of the summit’s planning committee. 

The Climate Summit placed a large emphasis on lived experience because telling people’s stories pulls listeners’ heartstrings and gets them more involved in solving issues like climate change.  

“You frequently hear of academics and science existing in the ivory tower where information isn’t accessible to the public, and folks don’t see the connection between the science and their hometown issues. So, using community-engaged techniques can break down those barriers,” said Barnard. 

Using a community’s experience allows them to be more involved in the process, which results in them being more involved in the outcome. It also brings a new perspective into the mix, which can refresh the research and remind scientists that there are real people involved in these issues and in need of solutions.  

Regarding CASE and the Climate Summit’s use of interdisciplinary approaches to talk about climate change, Catterson said, “You know everybody has a different way of thinking and functioning in the world. So, if we only teach and explain things from one perspective, you’re missing out on the whole web of the complex issue, and potentially a way of engaging a person that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged.” 

Coloradans and Our Shared Environment in Times of Challenge and Change will continue to tour Colorado in 2024-2025, including workshops and hands-on activities to activate the art with audiences. For more information, visit the exhibition’s webpage.