WORDS: KATE WEINER
COLLAGES: GARRETT BLAD
Loam has brought a lot of goodness into my life— the opportunity to collaborate with the Brower Center, press passes to inspiring art festivals, the chance to share our story at community forums. But of the many perks this passion project has generated, my very favorite is that I get to connect with and learn from dynamic people who wholeheartedly embody hope. When I leave a conversation and feel flooded with that dizzying desire to do? That's golden. And it's exactly how I felt after talking to collage artist and climate change activist Garrett Blad. His succulent spirit and creative energy will spark a fire in your belly.
Growing up on a farm in Indiana, "I was sheltered from any issue at all, really," Garrett tells me. "I didn't have a passion or an issue I was focused on in high school." His awakening sunk in after graduation. Garrett was sailing on a pontoon boat in Lake Michigan when he first read "Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0" by Thomas Friedman. Reading a chapter that recounted the experiences of a woman in Saudia Arabia and the entanglement of oil oligarchies, feminism, and environmental exploitation encouraged Garrett to examine those linkages in his own life. He realized that even though he was a world away from Saudia Arabia, his life—and that of this woman—were deeply intertwined.
"I thought about my car," Garrett says, "and how I drove it every day to school, and didn't think about the broader, social, and environmental issues [that driving a car connected me to] all the way across the world. If I was connected to this woman through my car, I was connected to everything..."
Garrett found himself consumed by the resonances of his daily decisions. He thought about the ways in which his actions might contribute to "pain and suffering all over the world." He thought about what it would mean to take tangible steps that truly made a difference. And so he declined his arts scholarship to school and instead packed off to Notre Dame to study science. He knew that if he wanted to tackle climate change, it was imperative that he understand the nuts and bolts of what made water rise and ecosystems change and wind patterns shift.
At Notre Dame, however, Garrett grew disillusioned with the science classes he was in. Although he was grateful for his baseline education in environmental issues, he hungered for that human component. Hours spent sitting at a computer transferring data in the lab felt too far removed from what was happening in the world.
Searching for a way to dive in deep, Garrett spent the summer after his sophomore year with Climate Summer. He traveled across Maine by bicycle, collaborating with five collage-age students on a grassroots campaign against a pipeline project. His experiences working with frontline communities illuminated for Garrett the necessity of interpersonal connection. "I felt powerful for the first time," Garrett says. It was an opportunity to see the data that he studied in school at work in the real world. He spoke with people affected by the pipeline. He listened to their stories, absorbed their pain.
Climate Summer didn't just stoke Garrett's passion for grassroots organizing; it affirmed for him that the creative arts—his first real passion—had just as vital a place in the realm of environmental activism as statistic-driven science. "Art is a potentially powerful source of inspiration, healing, and hope for the climate movement," Garrett tells me. It's a way for us to connect with one another and to our earth through the kind of immersive experiences—music, movement, oral history—that emerge in every culture.
Art is a potentially powerful source of inspiration, healing, and hope for the climate movement.
Garrett's experience with Climate Summer laid the foundation for a new kind of activist work; one that melded making art with the physical act of movement. He joined Climate Journey in June of 2015 and made his way by bike—slowly, purposefully, and in alliance with a crew of incredible activists—to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Climate Journey was an exercise in storytelling. As the visual artist on the trip, Garrett sought out ways to convey the experiences of the people he encountered as he pedaled from New England to Eastern Europe. He collected collage samples too—faded postcards, images from old magazines—that would later give rise to Garrett's collage-a-day series.
It was through Garrett's series, in fact, that I first learned about his activist work. This is the beauty of art—it enables us to access what we might not otherwise have perceived. Scrolling through Garrett's beautifully crafted collages, I was struck by the juxtaposition of sex and suffering, of idyllic landscapes and idealistic images. A city floats above an undisturbed stretch of desert. A naked torso writhes across a sea of technological innovation. His work gets at the heart of the patriarchal and capitalist systems that have contributed so profoundly to the climate crisis. As Garrett tells me: "I love playing with ideas that are at the root of environmental crises. There are a lot of male bodies in my work. I like to work with ideas of gender, masculinity, the control of the natural world and resource extraction."
Collage has always been a beloved medium of expression at Loam. But it wasn't until I talked to Garrett that I felt like I finally understood why this scrappy mode of art has resonated deeply with the Loam crew. His words gave voice to what I have long felt without being able to express: that collage "enables you to connect ideas in a world where it's so easy to categorize and separate ideas." Collage is one of the truest ways to work with what you have. In a collage, disparate visual narratives interact with one another. Vintage magazines salvaged from the library speak with glossy advertisements from a tabloid. Old and new communicate; past and present collide. "The books [I use in my collages]" Garrett notes, "were going to go into a landfill. Collage is a way to give it new life."
I love collage because it enables you to connect ideas in a world where it's so easy to categorize and separate ideas.
Listening to Garrett, I am filled with the thirst to make art; to see what connections will come into being if I only open my heart to the possibility of what's already there—lying dormant in an old Life Magazine, embedded in a scratched Polaroid snapshot. As we wrap up our conversation, I ask him what activism means to him now. He's biked across the world; he's fought alongside frontline communities. He's made art in the eye of the storm.
Garrett laughs. "That's a tough one. I used to think that activism was just rallying the troops and protesting in those very visible ways—but I think it is a lot more that art can be a kind of activism. Growing food can be a form of activism. Resisting an industrial agriculture system [through the act of gardening]...that can be more powerful than having a protest. Building the world that we want to see—that's activism."
Garrett's words are a reminder that activism is accessible to each of us. We already have the tools we need to create something—be it a collage or community space—that carries the potential to reinvigorate our relationship to the natural world. And so we don't need to wait to start. We can begin this very day building the world we want to see. Because there are some things—creativity, a love for others, a reverence for the now—that will always be ours to give.