Oakland artist Terri Loewenthal’s kaleidoscopic images of California mountain scenes create a kind of magic with their psychedelic colors, evoking the disorienting elation viewers may feel in high places. In contrast, Brooks Shane Salzwedel’s mostly black-and-white landscape drawings are muted, with a hazy quality that elicits a sense of nostalgia and fading memory. When paired together, as they were in Round Weather gallery’s inaugural exhibition Creative Reverence, the two artists create stark contrast, an emotional tug-of-war between grandeur and melancholy and an apt analogy for the way many of us feel about the lands we cherish. This is by design: at Round Weather, land and the environment are not just themes for art-making but the source of a deeper purpose.
Poet Chris Kerr, who was previously the chair of the Literary Arts program at the Oakland School for the Arts, founded Round Weather nearby in December 2020. Addressing climate change has long been a top concern of his; he is a volunteer for the Sunrise Movement aiming to combat climate change and a member of the advisory panel that guides the Democratic National Committee’s environment platform. But he had the nagging suspicion that there was more he could be doing. He decided to use the power he saw in the contemporary art world to further a new aim—to, as he says, “redirect some of what’s happening there to help turn the climatic tides.”
Kerr’s idea was simple: set up a North Oakland nonprofit gallery to direct funds from the sale of art to environmental organizations. Traditionally, a gallery keeps 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of art it exhibits, and the artist keeps the other half. At Round Weather, the artists still get their traditional cut. But Kerr’s goal, he says, is “to take as little percentage as possible.” For now, Round Weather is only keeping 10 percent of sales to cover overhead, though he acknowledges that as this experiment evolves the model may have to change.
Kerr has assembled an advisory council of experts to help him make informed decisions about how to use the funds Round Weather raises. The most notable member is Bill McKibben, the author and environmental activist, and the council also includes poets and scientists. This year’s Round Weather beneficiaries include Dogwood Alliance, which protects forests in the southern U.S. from industrial logging; Friends of the Earth, a San Francisco–based activist organization; and Indigenous Environmental Network, which in recent years has campaigned against projects such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
While Kerr is using the gallery’s access to capital to support environmental action, he feels strongly that the arts have a greater role to play in the environmental justice movement. Take the near-constant deluge of studies documenting ongoing (or predicting future) environmental crises. These studies are critical to public discourse, but they can also provoke despair and a sense of futility. Arts can contribute vitally to the conversation by making visible the extent of the emergency—through, for example, photographs of industrial sites or clear-cut forests—but they can also nurture hope, remind us of our values, and help us imagine different futures.
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“When people are strapped and suffering, they often make important, restorative work,” Kerr points out. Round Weather’s second exhibition, After the Fire, took recent California wildfires as its starting point to consider regeneration, as in Ashwini Bhat’s sculptures, inspired by post-fire forests and evoking both loss and rebirth. Similarly, a new exhibition in March and April will feature, among the work of other artists, Jenny Kendler’s sculptures of imaginatively reconceived birds and Rachelle Reichert’s photo-realistic graphite drawings of lithium-mining sites, respectively reminding viewers of the creatures we value and documenting the extent of our peril. In these exhibitions, no antagonism exists between science and the arts. They’re not opposites but instead are reciprocal, fields that speak to the gamut of emotions and actions that we’ll need to combat environmental destruction.
Opening in extraordinary times, Round Weather is accommodating visitors while taking Covid-19 precautions seriously. The gallery is only open by appointment (but at no cost) to pods of three or fewer people. Events such as a reading series and workshops on writing and drawing from nature have been postponed, to be rescheduled when health and safety permit.