A message in the art

Last semester, Haley Gray asked her classmates to try a different way of getting their morning coffee. Her instructions: Walk into a field of tree stumps, try not to slip on loose beans, grab your cup from the nearest stump and make your way out of the broken forest.

OK, so maybe not literally.

Gray instead invited her classmates to walk through her senior art project, a two-dimensional piece that shows how coffee has contributed to deforestation around the globe. Although it only took her classmates a step or two to reach the coffee cups, the interactive project made a powerful connection between deforestation in coffee-growing regions and a daily caffeine fix.

Gray first learned about the issue in her Earth and environmental science class. The Furman senior then decided to create her piece when visiting art professor Katya Cohen instructed Gray and her classmates to develop a project that would span five weeks.

“I wanted to combine what I was learning in both classes,” said Gray ‘13 (Eastman, Vt.). “I drink coffee multiple times a day and it’s interesting to think about how our daily rituals and habits have a greater impact on the world.”

When most people put a pot of coffee on in the morning, they’re usually just thinking about what they need to do to get ready for the day. But when you’re standing in the middle of Gray’s work, it’s hard not to imagine the destruction taking place for a fresh cup of joe.

For Gray, knowing the environmental effects of deforestation wasn’t enough to approach the issue visually. Gray had to research how different artists approach installation pieces and how they explore environmental issues in their art. One artist, Andy Goldsworthy, inspired her with his use of only natural and impermanent materials to create his art.

Projects like Gray’s demonstrate not only how art is interdisciplinary, but how it can be used to solve complex problems.

“People understand ideas that are visual,” said Ross McClain, chair of the art department. “You can start talking about some really sophisticated things and it opens up a dialogue.”

Gray’s project started off on small pieces of paper. But as she worked, she eventually decided on a large painter’s tarp for her canvas.

Even as it grew, it remained beautifully simple. Gray used coffee to paint tree stumps on the tarp, scattered tree bark and coffee beans around, and put cups of fresh coffee on some of the stumps.

The power of the piece was in the audience interaction. To get a cup of coffee, people would have to walk over the effects of deforestation.

“It was different because it wasn’t just an art project,” said Katie Guptill ‘13 (Berlin, Conn.). “It had meaning and research and pertained to everyday life.”

Going into the project, Gray knew a couple of ways deforestation was impacting the environment. On a local level, the soil will start to erode and the nearby waterways will become contaminated. Ironically, once that happens, the land that was cleared for agriculture is no longer fertile enough to be productive. The loss of trees will also impact biodiversity, and have potential ramifications on the atmosphere.

“It seems relatively trivial when you hear it, you’re just cutting down a couple of trees,” Earth and environment science professor Weston Dripps said. “But when you look at the scale of it being done, it has a much bigger impact than just on the plot of land where it happens.”

While Gray doesn’t currently have any plans to display the piece, she was able to use it to raise awareness among her classmates.

“The goal wasn’t to be on a soapbox,” Gray said.  “It was just meant to make people recognize there is a trade off.”

So will you see Gray’s work drawing attention to other big issues in the future?

“It’s something I’ve considered,” Gray said. “I think art is unique in that you can approach these larger issues visually and engage people in a different way.”