A Conversation with Artist and Climate Activist Ariana Thornton

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Thornton, a recent high school graduate, weaves her environmental advocacy into her paintings, drawings, digital art and multimedia work.

“Works in Progress” highlights artists across a range of disciplines whose work deals with ecological themes. Considering the particular role that artists play in the climate movement, this column will share their voices and provide a glimpse behind the curtain into their creative processes and experiences. Through a combination of Q&As and narrative pieces, this column will discuss the relationship between the natural world, advocacy, and the art itself. 

Artist and climate activist Ariana Thornton has been drawing for as long as she can remember. She also can’t recall a time when she wasn’t concerned about the environment. But it was just in the past few years that she started to combine her two passions, creating art that focuses on climate issues. One of her drawings, “Mother,” in ink and watercolor, received a silver in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, one of the most prestigious awards in the country for student art.

Thornton recently graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and plans to study economics and environmental studies at Dartmouth College after a gap year. Bluedot’s Lily Olsen spoke with the 18-year-old about the motivation behind her work, what it’s like to be a young person growing up in the shadow of a looming climate crisis, and how to maintain optimism. 


Lily Olsen: How did you get into art in the first place?

Ariana Thornton: Well, for as long as I can remember, I've been creating art and telling stories. I've always been scribbling and doodling everywhere, sometimes to the frustration of my parents. But over time I've directed my art to advocate on issues that I care deeply about. Climate is one of them. 

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LO: What mediums do you use? 

AT: I've been doing a lot of digital art since the pandemic started, because that was the easiest medium after everything closed, and I couldn't go to classes in person anymore. And it was really easy to carry around an iPad and Apple pencil and just draw anywhere. But as we've been getting back to in-person, I've missed the feel of paints and pencil. So I took two art classes in my junior year at school, and I got to use huge canvases and paint portraits for the first time. Over the summer, I experimented with multimedia at my local art center. 

LO: And where did your passion for climate action come from?

AT: I grew up connected to nature. I was very much an outdoors kid. And when you're outside all the time, you're aware of the changes that are going on. Also, I read a lot of National Geographic, especially National Geographic Kids, and watched Wild Kratts. I was looking in my garage over the summer, and I found this worksheet that my mom had saved from my preschool. It said, “What is something that you think is most important?” I responded that the most important thing is Earth. “It has life. It is big. It is green and blue. And it makes us live,” I wrote. 

LO: What changes did you notice happening in the natural world around you as you grew up?

AT: I noticed that it was getting warmer and the winters were getting less cold. I remember in my early childhood, there was always so much snow in the winter in Northern Virginia. I remember around 2015 there was a huge snow dump and school was canceled for a week and a half. I asked my parents to get me this sled. But the sled just ended up sitting, collecting dust under my bed because it never snowed that much again. 

And then in sixth grade, I was at the National Collegiate school in Washington, D.C. My class was taken on a multi-day field trip to Fox Island on the Chesapeake Bay. That was a really transformative experience, because it was my first time away from traffic, just out in the wilderness. And I saw for the first time that humans are not the center of the world. That sometimes nature's so absurd and incomprehensible, but strange and wonderful at the same time. 

And years later, I found out that only a year after my class went on that trip, the program had to be closed down, because rising sea levels and soil erosion made it unsafe to continue taking kids there. That was pretty shocking and pretty heartbreaking. That just showed that climate change isn’t far away — it affects everyone and it comes close to home.

I think it's really important to stay hopeful. A lot of young people think that the future is doomed. But I think it's harmful to say definitively that the future is doomed, because the future is unwritten.

LO: So as a student looking toward your future, how would you characterize the emotions you feel about the future of our climate?

AT:  It's really hard not to feel depressed about it. I've been taking a lot of environment-related electives my senior year, and during my full term at school, I took this history class called Humans in the Environment where we read A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn. The whole book is about these biological laws, and how humans have not been following these biological laws, and we've paid the price for it. Laws like, diversity is strength and reduces risk. But instead we've been reducing biodiversity. 

And there's the fact that as the climate gets warmer, and there are more extreme disasters, there are going to be more climate refugees. That will mean a lot of social and political instability. It's pretty scary, because as a kid, you have this  idealistic vision of the future. And then you get punched in the gut with the harder reality. 

But I think it's really important to stay hopeful. A lot of young people think that the future is doomed. But I think it's harmful to say definitively that the future is doomed, because the future is unwritten. No social, political, or environmental movement has ever succeeded because people said this will never work. 

LO: And how do you see your art as climate activism?

AT: When I make art, I'm reminded of a quote by bell hooks that said something along the lines of: “The purpose of art is not only to say it like it is, it's to imagine what is possible.” Art has connected with my love of writing, also, in the way that depicting fictions and illustrating realities can spread awareness of what could be, what is, what was, and what we should do going forward. 

I made a piece called “Of the People, by the People, for the People,” which is  based on a real event, but it's a picture from my imagination. In December of 2021, there was a hunger strike that was led by these youth activists from the Sunrise Movement in front of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., and they were protesting the gridlock that was happening with Biden's Build Back Better bill, and especially Joe Manchin’s opposition to it. But there wasn't a lot of coverage on it, which I thought was kind of disheartening, so I wanted to give more coverage to it through my art. And that's why I depicted this hunger striker in a wheelchair. Protesting as politicians just walk by them, ignoring them, because that's really what happened in real life. 

I was following live updates on the news, and I saw a girl in a wheelchair because when you go on a hunger strike, your ability to move deteriorates. She confronted Joe Manchin as he was walking past. But he just completely ignored her and dismissed her and just got into a car and was driven away. And the hunger striker was yelling, “Young people want to live.” You know, it's like we're born into a world that seems headed in a very wrong direction. And people are surprised when young people say we want to live and we want to make things better. Is it really so surprising that we don't want to do things the way they've always been? Because obviously, that hasn't been working.

LO: Could you tell me a little bit about the multimedia piece “Looming Threat”?

AT: That was a really fun one to do. I wanted to convey the idea of plastic being interwoven into our society. So I took this wooden canvas frame that I had in my garage, and my mom donated some of her old scarves for me to cut up. I basically weaved these traditional fabric strips with plastic strips that I cut from grocery bags into this pattern. And I also stuffed these plastic mesh bags with more plastic to symbolize how, over time, plastic has been building up in our society and now it's rearing its ugly head like a cancerous threat.

LO: Is there a particular piece of yours that is really meaningful to you? 

AT: What comes to mind is my piece “Mother,” which I did in 2019. I was really curious about what Mother Earth would feel if she saw how things are going today. So I drew this portrait of a woman with an expression that is very nuanced. It conveys disappointment, a little bit of frustration, or anger, or waiting, like a dare. Like, what will you do? 

Her hair is very long, and it expands as it goes toward the bottom of the page. And it's filled with scenes of environmental destruction, like pollution. Of the air pollution of the water. Animals being trapped in plastic. There's scenes of overconsumption. But my art teacher said I should also put in some scenes of hope, so there’s an image of people holding hands, looking toward the ocean, and the words “We can save Earth.” My teacher said to foster a hopeful message, I should use the color teal. That was when I learned that a hopeful message is powerful.

LO: Do you have any vision or any hopes for where you want to take either your climate activism or your art in the future?

AT: I care a lot about climate communication, because for my classes, I've done a lot of research about how even though climate science has been so strong and decisive for decades, public understanding and political will have not caught up. That's largely due to the extensive disinformation campaign that the fossil fuel industry waged in the 1990s. We're still dealing with the ramifications of that. 

So a really important sector that I see right now is translating climate science into effective public policy decisions. That means connecting with people of all different backgrounds. It's pretty silly to think that one partisan group can solve it all. I also think it's really important to galvanize people in the middle of the political spectrum. 

LO: How does creating art help you process the climate crisis? 

AT: I think when you hear so much news about the climate crisis, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes you don't want to deal with it anymore. And I feel like art gives us a way to consolidate some things together, forging a new narrative out of every day. Sometimes pictures can be more impactful than words in news stories, and I think art can be even more powerful because it can show what isn’t there yet.

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Lily Olsen
Lily Olsen
Lily is a Reporter and Associate Editor with Bluedot Living, contributing from California and France.
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