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NEAR THE REPUTED SITE of the Garden of Eden, an international team of environmental engineers, sewage treatment experts, and others are restoring historic marshlands in what has become a desert wasteland. They are creating a new Eden—not simply a public works project that will filter wastewater for the Ahwar region in southern Iraq, but also a place of astonishing beauty. This innovative project, twelve years in the making, has been created and led by Meridel Rubenstein, an American installation artist and photographer devoted to healing the environment.

Rubenstein is just one of thousands of contemporary artists focusing their practices on climate change and its effects. They are tackling the topic in every part of the world and in every medium, form, and style, head-on and obliquely, abstractly and directly—through photography, painting, opera, theater, film, dance, installation work, and more.

As artists seek new ways to comment on climate change, some—myself included—have turned to spiritual idioms. Just as artists have done for thousands of years, we are incorporating ancient stories into our work in ways that speak to the existential issues of our times.

For those of us engaging with Western audiences, narratives from the Bible have proved particularly useful, in part simply because they are familiar. When Rubenstein refers to the Garden of Eden, for example, the common story offers a pathway into the work. Furthermore, biblical stories offer a very definite viewpoint on the relationship between human beings and the natural world—one so distinct that it tends to attract and draw out alternative viewpoints, resulting in fruitful conversation. And biblical stories themselves are highly dramatic and open to a variety of interpretations—which makes them a rich territory for artists.

I’ll focus on just a few of the many contemporary works that draw on biblical stories and spiritual forms of expression to address climate change: my own thirty-nine-panel narrative painting, In the Beginning There Was Only Water; Meridel Rubenstein’s Eden in Iraq; the Water Women collective’s installation Flood 2.0; Joan Sullivan’s Solastalgia photographs; and Jaanika Peerna’s Glacier Elegy performances.

As ecological disaster stories fill the news, many people are experiencing what psychologists now describe as climate anxiety. Artists attempting to express that anxiety and offer some degree of solace are developing work that is spiritual in nature and serves as a type of prayer for the future of the planet.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water

I’ll begin with a creation story—my own reimagining of the biblical version. In contrast to the familiar creation myth in which man, as the climax of creation, is granted dominion over all the natural world, my story is nonhuman-centric.

Susan Hoffman Fishman. In the Beginning There Was Only Water, 2021. Panels 15–22 showing the evolution of multiple-cell and plant life. Acrylic, oil pigment stick, handmade paper, and mixed media on paper. 30-x-15-inch panels.

The abstract visual narrative begins billions of years ago, when the planet’s fiery mass cools and rains fall for centuries, creating the oceans from which life eventually develops. The story continues across thirty-nine panels as mountains and land masses form, single-cell organisms emerge, and plant and animal life evolves, providing background for the eventual appearance of human beings, who do not actually make an entrance in the piece. The 30-by-15-inch panels are hung contiguously and together measure 49 feet long.

My inspiration came from Kendra Pierre-Louis’s essay “Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs,” which I read in Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson’s anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. I read Pierre-Louis’s essay during the height of the pandemic with a group of artists who met regularly on Zoom to discuss the book. Pierre-Louise uses Wakanda, the fictional African country in the movie Black Panther, as an example of a story in which humans live in concert with their environment.

Pierre-Louis’s essay calls for new stories like Black Panther to counter the biblical creation myth, in which humans are portrayed as separate from, in control of, and superior to nature. According to Pierre-Louis, the worldview inherent in the biblical story she and millions of others learned as children condones abuse of the earth’s resources. Our sense of separateness and superiority has grown over time, and we’ve depleted and destroyed our environment without considering our dependence on it. My paintings are meant to emphasize the way creation unfolds over millennia, a permanent Eden, so to speak, with the human story as just one link in a vast chain.

Susan Hoffman Fishman. In the Beginning There Was Only Water, 2021. Panels 15–22 showing the evolution of multiple-cell and plant life. Acrylic, oil pigment stick, handmade paper, and mixed media on paper. 30-x-15-inch panels.

Since 2011, when a tsunami originating off the coast of Japan traveled across the Pacific Ocean and touched our western shores, all my mixed-media paintings, public art projects, and installations have focused on water in the context of climate change. For me, the tsunami was a stark reminder of how connected we all are by our collective need for water, our vulnerability to water events around the world, and our mutual responsibility to protect this vital resource.

My use of water in each panel of In the Beginning acknowledges the fundamental importance of water, as portrayed in the very first verse in Genesis, and as one element over which human beings have no dominion. The adage that “water goes where it wants to go” has particular relevance now, as we face increasing extreme water events and previously unseen levels of flooding.

Eden in Iraq

The Ahwar, the verdant marshland at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, was the birthplace of civilization. For thousands of years, it was home to the Ahwaris, or Marsh Arabs, whose lives and culture were closely entwined with the wetlands and their natural resources. In the 1990s, the Ahwar was drained by Saddam Hussein’s regime in order to destroy Shia rebels hiding there. During this period, Saddam’s army murdered thousands of Marsh Arabs and forced a mass exodus of survivors. Saddam’s actions transformed the area into a desert wasteland and created a population of climate refugees who could no longer maintain their livelihoods—a modern-day expulsion from Eden, but with a different ending.

Since 2003, when Saddam was removed from power, over two hundred thousand Marsh Arabs have returned to their native land, where they have faced a critical environmental problem: without any water treatment in the region, untreated sewage is discharged into the Euphrates, endangering the health of the community.

Meridel Rubenstein. Eden in Iraq, 2011–present. Design for wastewater treatment garden in El Chibaish, Iraq.

In 2011, Meridel Rubenstein learned about efforts being undertaken by Nature Iraq, the country’s only environmental NGO, to address this problem. A New Mexico–based environmental artist and photographer with decades of work exploring the intersection of nature, art and culture, Rubenstein’s photographs and installations exude her deep relationship with the natural world and her overriding belief that nature as a force will heal itself if we let it.

Rubenstein assembled an international team to undertake the creation of a
wastewater treatment garden, including Jassim Al-Asadi, managing director of Nature Iraq, environmental engineers Davide Tocchetto and Mark Nelson, and numerous sponsors and project partners both inside and outside Iraq.

Rubenstein sees Eden in Iraq as a “re-genesis” of a once flourishing environment. On her first visit to the area, she felt a spiritual connection to the land where some of her own ancestors once lived. For Rubenstein, “Eden” is a metaphor for abundance and new beginnings. Her concept was to develop a beautiful oasis, a new Eden in the desert that would help to restore what had been destroyed, clean wastewater in a sustainable way, and establish a flourishing green space near the site of the mythical paradise of pleasure and plenty.

The Eden in Iraq team has faced enormous obstacles, including a severe drought,
five changes in regime, economic collapse, the proximity of ISIS, and the repeated loss of government funding. Finally, after twelve years, phase one of the first demonstration wastewater garden has been completed: on the El Chibaish site, marsh plants are beginning to clean and purify waste and absorb its smell. So successful has the project been that the Iraqi minister of water resources has agreed to sponsor eight more constructed wetlands throughout Iraq with the help of the Eden in Iraq team.

As Eden in Iraq was slowly progressing, Rubenstein was also developing a major body of work titled Eden Turned on Its Side. Composed of three separate series—Photosynthesis, Volcano Cycle, and Eden in Iraq—the work explores the “human relationships to the environment, and considers a natural world transformed by human industry, carbon emissions, and war.” Pushing the boundaries of photography with her use of multiple processes and substrates, Rubenstein examines three separate time scales: human, geologic, and mythical.

Flood 2.0

Flood 2.0, a multidisciplinary installation created by the three-person artist collaborative Water Women, offers a dire warning of what we will face if we do not take immediate action on climate change. The collaborative consists of Maine-based multimedia ecological artist and educator Krisanne Baker; myself, a Connecticut-based mixed-media painter, environmental artist, and arts writer; and Michigan-based mixed-media environmental artist Leslie Sobel. We are each established artists whose individual practices focus on water in the context of climate change, including rising seas, water pollution, coral bleaching, desertification, and glacial melt.

Flood 2.0 links present-day apocalyptic flood predictions to the ancient flood of Noah, the world’s original apocalyptic inundation. In the Genesis story, the earth was flooded because of human greed, selfishness, and immorality. Similarly, modern flooding results from the same human behaviors, which have now caused significant damage to the earth itself.

Water Women. Flood 2.0, 2023. Detail of installation at Five Points Gallery. Indigo and acrylic on kozo, video, wooden lathes, papier-mâché, rope, oar, and rudder.

Flood 2.0 consists of three video projections of modern flooding, over forty-five scrolls painted to evoke the motions of floodwaters, a makeshift boat with sails, rope, mast, and rudder, and a recorded Greek chorus. The chorus—and the entire installation—tell the story of Noa, the fictional female survivor of this second apocalyptic flood. Her name, which in Hebrew means “action,” represents the artists’ goal in creating the installation: to use art, flood mythology, and history to inspire community dialogue and action on local water issues.

Flood 2.0 was first installed in the spring of 2023 at the Five Points Gallery in Torrington, Connecticut, a small inland city with a centuries-long history of catastrophic flooding. Images of Torrington floods over the last hundred years from the collection of the Torrington Historical Society are woven into the first video projection.

Visitors entering the gallery space walked under the multiple scrolls and boat elements, which were suspended from the ceiling under a horizontal grid of transparent monofilament, creating the effect of being under water. At the same time, they experienced the sounds and video images projected onto the walls that cycled every three minutes. The soundtrack of the first video includes a chorus with five verses describing Noa’s experience in the flood, with the repeated words:

We were warned. Decades and decades ago.
There was inaction everywhere.
I saw it coming. I built a boat.
I painted it red.
For my own anger.
For courage.
For life.
For the blood of millions who perished.
I gave it my name. Noa.
Meaning action.
The chanting and noise of floodwaters filled the gallery, making it impossible to escape the message of coming danger.

In the spring of 2024, Flood 2.0 will travel to New Haven on Long Island Sound, which, like many coastal cities, has a major risk of flooding over the next thirty years.


Some climate art is meant to inform, warn, or invoke action. Joan Sullivan is after something more radical: a new spiritual language that allows us to release our grief over climate change and connect with the nonhuman world.

Joan Sullivan. Untitled from Becoming River, 2023, Digital photo. 20 x 30 inches each.

A Canadian photographer, organic farmer, and environmental artist, Sullivan’s practice from 2009 to 2020 consisted of documenting North American wind and solar farms. Two pivotal events transformed her photography from ultra-realism to abstraction. First, Australia’s catastrophic fires of 2019–20 and the resulting environmental disaster, especially the death of so much wildlife, shook her to the core. Second, that winter, as she was walking along the Saint Lawrence River, she was gripped with an intense sadness. In years past, the river was covered with a thick layer of ice, but now it flowed freely. Both thousands of miles away and right before her eyes was dramatic evidence that the world she had known would never be the same. In recent years, a new term has come to define what Sullivan was feeling: solastalgia, the intense existential distress caused by climate change.

When Sullivan changed her artistic approach, she did so to express her anxiety about the future of the planet in a nonnarrative, spiritual way—to give voice to the nonhuman world and how it is experiencing climate change. In 2020, she began to experiment with moving her body as she took long-exposure photographs in sync with the flowing waters of the Saint Lawrence through a process called intentional camera movement (ICM). Her recent ICM works include Solastalgia, Becoming River, and If I Were a Tree.

Joan Sullivan. Untitled from If I Were a Tree, 2023. Digital photo. 20 x 30 inches each.

Sullivan’s latest project, La Voix Des Glaces (Ice Voices), is an interactive, multisensory installation in collaboration with sound artist Robin Servant. The work consists of eight triangular, sculptural triptychs containing twenty-four of her ICM images of the Saint Lawrence River. Each of the photographic sculptures is embossed with braille text. By touching the text, visitors set off audio recordings of ice blocks moving and breaking on the river, filling the gallery with dramatic, eerie “ice voices.” Using sight, sound, and touch, Sullivan is begging us to pay attention to our own blindness around climate change and listen to what the ice has to say.

“I don’t photograph the river or the trees,” Sullivan says. “I become the river or the trees through sustained concentration and mimicry.” She has stopped taking photographs from the perspective of human beings and is trying to channel what the water and trees would tell us if they could. The process she now uses is a form of ritual, a set of actions performed, like prayer, to communicate with the voiceless.

Glacier Elegies

Glacier Elegies is also an ode to ice, a lament for vanishing glaciers around the world. Created by Estonian-born New York–based artist Jaanika Peerna, it is an ongoing, interactive performance project. At each indoor or outdoor performance site, Peerna, dressed in a black leotard and hat, clasps a block of ice in her hands and moves through the space gracefully, like a dancer. In complete silence, she uses her body to express the preciousness of the ice, then offers it gently to members of the audience to stroke or hold, as if it were the last piece of ice on earth.

Jaanika Peerna. Glacier Elegy Brooklyn, 2020. Participatory performances with melting ice. Photos: Annette Solakoglu.

In some performances, Peerna also incorporates rolls of Mylar, a transparent, durable, smooth material that, to her, imitates the qualities of ice. Through body language alone, audience members are invited to draw on the Mylar with water-soluble black crayons, then asked—again silently—to rub the lines with the melting ice, erasing what they have drawn, just as the ice itself is being erased. Peerna often interacts with pieces of Mylar hung from the wall, moving around and under them, shaking them to create a whipping, crashing sound, or draping them around herself.

As part of the Glacier Elegy project, Peerna has also completed numerous drawings on Mylar and paper, marking the surfaces with black lines that swirl and cross much like the lines carved into lakes and rivers by the blades of ice skates. As a child in Soviet-controlled Estonia, she felt an enormous sense of freedom skating on her own for hours and often recalls the impression these lines made on her as a developing artist.

Like Joan Sullivan’s ritualistic camera motions that give voice to ice, Peerna’s silent movements in Glacier Elegies are prayer-like. At times she holds the melting block of ice to her chest and raises it with straight arms to the sky or ceiling, appealing to the cosmos for solace and for relief from our collective guilt over the devastation we have caused to an irreplaceable natural resource.

Jaanika Peerna. Intimate Glacier Elegy Tallinn, 2021. Participatory performances with melting ice. Photo: Loit Lõekalda.

So what does happen when artists like Rubenstein, Sobel, Baker, Sullivan, Peerna, and myself contemporize biblical stories and use spiritual forms of expression to address the most pressing existential crisis of our time? For one thing, our new stories and gestures model how we might construct respectful relationships with the nonhuman world so that we can serve as equal partners in repairing the environment and creating a healthier way of living on earth.

By using beauty rather than a more confrontational strategy as a way to speak about climate change, we are reminding our audiences how very much we are losing: In the Beginning There Was Only Water shows the inherent beauty of our planet and all of its living beings; Eden in Iraq is bringing beauty back to a devastated marshland; Flood 2.0 reveals the beauty in even the most destructive aspects of nature; Solastalgia and Glacier Elegies embody the beauty of and reverence toward water and ice.

While data are important to establishing the undeniable truth of climate change, appealing to viewers through their senses and emotions offers us ways to to heal our grief and guilt so that we can then act to heal our dying planet.



Susan Hoffman Fishman is an environmental artist and arts writer whose work has been exhibited widely throughout the US. Since 2011, her practice has focused on water in the context of climate change. For five years she published a monthly column at Artists and Climate Change.




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