Art: Artists Create Tapestries About Climate Change Awareness For Exhibit

Jessie Jackson not only learned the high temperature in Philadelphia on the day her husband was born, but she also learned the high temperature in Philadelphia for every other day in 1980. She knows these days because she has stitched them all into a tapestry.

“That was really cool to think about,” Jackson said. “Like, did you know that the day you were born, this was the high temperature in Philadelphia?”

Jackson is one of 39 participants in Philadelphia’s own version of the global Tempestry Project, a public art initiative aimed at climate change awareness. Knitters and crocheters stitch temperature data into long tapestries, which will be on display at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m.

The Tempestry Project, cofounded in 2017 by Justin Connelly, Emily McNeil, and Marissa Connelly in Anacortes, Washington, began as a tangible, relatable, and artistic way to inform people about the effects of climate change. 

Connelly tracks and compiles data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information for these projects. Initially, he said, everything was put online for free, which included instructions for how to download the data and where to buy the color-coded yarn for the specific temperatures of each day in the year. Now, the project sells supplies for organizations to launch their own Tempestry projects. 

The process of blocking a Tempestry.

“We make custom kits,” Connelly said. “People will say a location and a year and I’ll go dig up the data and put it into a spreadsheet. And we give them a kit with a color card and all the yarn they need.”

Christina Catanese, director of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center, first heard about the Tempestry Project in January and wanted to host a collaborative display that shows the effects climate change has had on Philadelphia since 1875. 

“People can come to look at the exhibit and draw their own conclusion about what they’re seeing,” Catanese said. “But, the data and the Tempestries show a very clear warming trend for Philadelphia. It’s pretty stark when you look at the 1875 Tempestry and the 2018 Tempestry right next to each other.”

Once a month, volunteers would gather at the center to knit part of a year’s tapestry. 

“I never expected the level of enthusiasm that I was about to be flooded with about this project,” Catanese said. “It’s such a beautiful visual, clear representation of information around climate change that is often extremely difficult for people to wrap their minds around.”

Participants of the project came from all experience levels and locations in the Delaware Valley. While Jackson teaches knitting classes, Olivia Ortiz had only learned how to knit two months before her participation in the project. 

“I thought it sounded like a structured project where I’m going to obtain certain skills,” said Ortiz, who works for the Clean Air Council. “And I won’t have the shame of knitting an ugly scarf I don’t wanna wear. And the idea of art in climate change is really cool.”

Each row of the Tempestries represents a different day, with color based on the fluctuations in temperature during the specific month and year. Although it’s an active and involved project, Jackson said it’s easy to sometimes lose track of the bigger picture while working your own piece. 

“You really do have to see a whole bunch of [Tempestries] lined up to start to see trends,” she said. “So for me, it definitely makes you think more about the issue and about climate change, but it’s hard to interpret the data while you’re just working on your own individual project.”

Jackson’s finished Tempestry.

The intersection of art and science is a unique component of creating Tempestries. Catanese said while the Schuylkill Center mostly views art as somewhat in service to their environmental mission, the organization does see art as a useful gateway into environmental advocacy.

“So, I think what we can do is kind of expand people’s perceptions,” she said.

While Jackson and Ortiz approached the project coming from an artistic background, each appreciated the opportunity to learn more about climate change and explore the grounds of the center. 

“I realized what a great resource the Schuylkill Center is,” Jackson said. 

Funding for Tempestry projects depends on the individual organization hosting the project. For the global Tempestry Project organization, Connelly said the majority of funding comes from the money it receives selling kits and a knitting device called the Needle Wrangler.

“It doesn’t really cost too much to do,” Connelly said. “It’s just the yarn that’s really the only material cost and somebody’s time to get the data and compile it.”       

At The Schuylkill Center, the Environmental Art program receives funding from arts and culture grants that are specific to the project itself, Catanese said. The Schuylkill Center as a whole is made up of many revenue sources like earned income, non-arts grants and donations. 

For its own Tempestry Project, Catanese explained the center held a small fundraiser offering donors a few different levels of rewards, such as a mini-Tempestry that highlighted one month, rather than a full year. 

As the reveal of the project approaches, Jackson reflected on her knitting process, as she even created a self-imposed deadline to knit the day of her husband’s birthday on his actual birthday.

“I also just love that it was a way to tap into a community of like-minded people who are also interested in crafting and share my concerns about climate change,” Jackson said. “That actually turned out to be my favorite part of the project.”

Amber Denham is a graduate student in Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where she is earning a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months she will be reporting on arts education in Philadelphia.

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