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Philly artists spark dialogue around climate change
Philly

Philly artists spark dialogue around climate change

Rhonda Babb and Chantal Westby challenge audiences to rethink their relationship with the planet, reminding us that we have agency in the face of global warming. 

There are moments when climate change can no longer be viewed in the abstract. It’s an immersive experience – an inescapable reality. (Just step outside on the 6th day of this excessive heat warning!)

June’s heat dome trapped a swath of the United States under a canopy of sweltering temperatures. Stinging eyes and scratchy throats met those who dared to venture outdoors during last summer’s blast of Canadian wildfire smoke.

But global warming isn’t always so tangible, its impact so immediate. 

That’s where Philadelphia-area visual artists Rhonda Babb and Chantal Westby come in.

Their work aims to awaken a sense of urgency and agency about the climate crisis in all seasons, asking viewers to consider their role in the planet’s prognosis. 

“I’m trying to get people to think, ask questions, and look at the world through the lens of seeing what’s going on,” says Babb. “And how we as human beings are affecting things.”

Hope Symbol at EcoFair
The Hope Symbol Project outside of Green Philly’s EcoFair, April 2024 Photo: BeauMonde Originals

Babb, creator of The Hope Symbol Project, is a graphic designer-turned-screen printer. Westby, who moved to Philadelphia from France over 30 years ago, is a painter and sculptor with a background in fashion design. The two share a belief in art’s potential to bring people closer to the realities of climate change. 

Last summer, they collaborated on an installation at inLiquid Gallery, “Glass House + Meddow,” depicting water’s journey from river to faucet to single-use plastic bottle. And this spring, they were featured individually in the Human Impacts Institute Creative Climate Awards in Brooklyn, where their works were projected onto the Manhattan Bridge. 

Rhonda Babb’s Take the Wheel 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Babb

Now, Babb and Westby are forging ahead with new projects, independent from one another, yet complementary in their message.

“Walking through the Anthropocene”

Two of Babb’s new prints are currently featured in a Da Vinci Art Alliance exhibit, “The Earth Has a Fever,” which opened July 5 and runs through July 21. Curated by printmaker Bill Brookover, the group exhibition explores the relationship between the climate crisis and human exploitation of Earth’s resources. 

“Why are we building rocket ships to go to another planet when we could be making this planet–which is a paradise–even better?”

Rhonda Babb

Babb’s contribution to the gallery comes from a six-piece series entitled “Walking Through the Anthropocene,” developed from close-up photos she captured in Maine last summer. With a grant from The Puffin Foundation, she’s been experimenting with screen printing on a larger scale at Philly non-profit studio, BYO Print. The 20×30 images spotlight the human artifacts Babb observed in the wilderness: a glove stuck in seaweed, the wheel of a cart, and a shard of glass. Text accompanies each print, offering a reflection and invitation to enter into dialogue with the artist.

“What I’m trying to do with the words is be provocative in a positive way,” Babb says. “In one of them, I’m questioning: do we see this? I see it. Do you see it? Or, why are we building rocket ships to go to another planet when we could be making this planet–which is a paradise–even better?”

Like all of Babb’s work, each print includes three symbols: peace, love, and hope. The latter is a symbol she created herself, born from a thesis project she completed for Thomas Jefferson University’s Master’s in Sustainable Design. Through it, Babb intends to bring greater awareness to climate change and how our choices affect the planet. “Hope + action = change” is the Hope Symbol Project’s tagline.

“My point is, everybody has agency,” Babb says. “Really with the artwork, it’s asking you, ‘What are you doing?’ And whatever that is, take a step forward. Maybe that will inspire you to keep going.”

Climate activism through immersive art & a new book

Westby approaches the theme of climate change from a similar angle using different mediums. Her French upbringing instilled a natural inclination towards sustainable living, which was later shaped by decades of tending to her home garden outside Philadelphia. Observing the impact of global warming in her own backyard, Westby made it her mission to use art as a forum for climate activism. 

Chantal Westby at SustainPHL 2023
Chantal Westby at SustainPHL 2023
Photo: Lexy Pierce Photo

“What I do is for my grandchildren to have a future,” she says. “There’s always hope in my art. It’s up to you to make the change.”

Her sculptures and immersive installations, created in collaboration with multimedia artist Lénaïc G. Mercier, push audiences to confront deforestation, pollution, and rising temperatures. 

“Not too many artists speak about global warming,” she says. “I want people to understand it is a fact. We are forced to change. There is no other way.”

This year, Westby received a lifetime achievement award from the ECO Channel at its Earth Day Summit, recognizing her environmental activism. Now she’s working on a book with Mercier, set to be released by the end of summer.

Global Warning: The ocean, the earth, space and humanity will bring together images of Westby’s sculptural art and immersive installations that center on climate change. Its pages will feature photographs of Westby’s collections, like “Forest” and “Silence – it’s up to us,” including “Children of the World,” which won first prize in sculpture at the Art of the State exhibition at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. 

Westby aims to amplify her impact by reaching a wider audience who may not be familiar with her art installations, incorporating text with scientific perspective on climate change. She will publicly present her new book at Dalian on the Park’s gallery space in November. 

“I want to emphasize hope,” she says. “I believe people are starting to get the message.”

Chantal Westby
“Children of the World” by Chantal Westby. Photo courtesy of Wesby.

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Stephanie Ostroff loves exploring green spaces in and around Philly. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and has been published in National Geographic, Generocity, and Fathom. When she’s not writing, she works as a speech/language therapist at AIM Academy. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys getting lost in the Wissahickon, practicing yoga, and planning travel adventures. View all posts by Stephanie Ostroff
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