Bell resident artist Donald Thomas holds his work in progress

A Bird’s-Eye View of Climate Change

Resident artist Donald Thomas' work is on display in Audubon Animated

Published02/24/2020 , by Gretchen Zampogna

Artist Donald Thomas

Mixed-media artist Donald Thomas is the second resident artist of our 2019-20 cohort to display work at the museum. Thomas created an eagle affirmation mirror reflecting the relationship between the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers and climate change, with the eagle representing nature’s view of climate change.

“I feel like it’s a very different conversation than the one from five years ago, because I feel like for the past five to 10 years I’ve heard that if we don’t do something soon, it’ll be too late, and we’ll start to see things radically change that we won’t be able to reverse. That makes it feel like whatever’s going to happen is going to happen 50 years out, or more to our children than to us. But then you see pictures of kolas in someone’s car because a random person is trying to save as many koalas as possible, and now that’s like your average seasonal update on the international situation. These giant forests are our lungs and they’re burning down. It’s not 10 years from now or 50 years from now—we’re watching large amount of forests just burn.”

In making the eagle art piece, Thomas hopes to give people a lens for climate change that’s not their usual perspective.

“If we looked at it through the lens of the rivers, the forests, the animals, we would have a very different relationship—at least I would hope that we would,” Thomas says.

Gallery connection

Thomas and his friend Saba Shabazz, who’s helped with the affirmation mirror project, had seen a group of 10 to 15 eagles by the river earlier in the winter. Even though they were far away, Thomas could tell they were huge, but didn’t understand exactly how big they were. “When I told Saba I was building an eagle with nearly an 8-foot wingspan he said, ‘Oh, you’re building it to scale,’ ” Thomas says. “I didn’t know that and it’s incredible,” he says. Later, when he saw the eagle on the second floor of the museum in the Minnesota Journeys gallery, he made the connection to how massive this bird can really be. “The eagle talon is as big as my hand,” he marveled. “That’s informative.”

It’s important to Thomas to spend a lot of time in nature, observing. When he went trhough the Bell’s galleries and looked at the dioramas, he enjoyed seeing the recreation of the nature he spends so much time soaking in. “For me it was impressive seeing the dioramas. As somebody who’s spent time in those wooded settings, [I liked] seeing that they get down to the tiny flowers, even.” Besides that, Thomas appreciates that the dioramas bring real places in Minnesota to life. “If you think a diorama is cool, you can go to that area and see it in real life.”

Phenology

The study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant life, is know as phenology. For Thomas, this study can be done at many levels, but everyone can benefit. “Phenology is amazing to me because it’s a way to connect time, place, space, and change, without having to go take college courses. It gets so in depth that you need serious education, but it can be as simple as just paying attention to what’s around you in your yard,” he says.

Thomas plans to create a phenology checklist for visitors to take from the museum and use to engage with the natural world around them. He says the big idea is that people can just step outside their homes and find half the list, but for other entries they’ll have to seek out a place with more nature: and that’s his goal. “We don’t have as deep a relationship with nature as we do with our cell phones, our cars, our coworkers,” Thomas says. “The more communal time we spend with nature, the more we realize we’re hurting a relative and change our ways.”

Artist’s statement

With this installation, I seek to shift perspectives and prompt the viewer to consider climate change, not from our human orientation but from nature’s point of view.

I am a Twin Cities-based artist and designer born in St. Paul on the land of the Dakota people. I create mixed media art installations called affirmation mirrors, composed mostly of fabric-wrapped wood, yarn, beads, and mirrors. I also create murals and digital illustrations, design digital and print materials, and work as a teaching artist. My art explores many themes, including nature, time portals, repetitive geometry, healing trauma, setting intentions, asking questions, and exploring identity. Water is an especially strong theme in my work, as I live near the Mississippi River and it has influenced my life on many levels.

Nature connection

Thomas feels very strongly about spending time in nature.

“I live close to Bdote, and at the beginning of December, I went down and took my son to the river, which was frozen on the edges. I was standing out there saw a few eagles standing on the ice. The more time you spend in nature, the more you’ll see them, and gives you the chance to see what you’re messing up. The river gives us life—we are water.”

Thomas’ eagle affirmation mirror has a water aspect, too. A river extends behind each wing: the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Thomas uses the rivers’ Dakota names: Haha Wakpa and Mnisota Wakpa.

There are more eagles around than there used to be, and Thomas has noticed, spending as much time outdoors as he does. “The more relationships we can build with water, with eagles, the more you get to see how they live.” He watches the eagles fish and fly near the river, but he also pays attention to the cardinals, gulls, and crows. “All these different animals have naturally for thousands of years figured out a way to coexist without destroying the earth … we’re the only ones who have not only not found a way to coexist but also have destroyed the atmosphere,” he says.

When to visit

A Bird’s-Eye View of Climate Change is housed in the Nova Galleries during Audubon Animated, which runs through May 31. Visitors can view this exhibit any time the museum galleries are open.