Arts & Ideas discuss sustainability and healing through art
By Ryan O’Connell
Arts & Features Editor
Zahra Tohidinia and Jennifer Dowling gave two presentations - one on sustainability and green marketing, one on using art to cope with trauma - as part of the Arts & Ideas Linda Vaden-Goad Authors and Artists series event March 21.
Tohidinia, a professor of marketing, presented data recently collected by her and her sister regarding sustainability, corporate trends some marketers call “greenwashing,” and the frustration this has caused consumers.
She said the research was initially inspired due to a conversation she had with her sister which ended in her sister being discouraged from going to a thrift store by her friends.
She said, “She was telling me she was wanting to go to a thrift store and her friends told her ‘Aren’t you afraid of germs?’
“So these kinds of notions we have in our society, despite sustainability efforts, still [make] it feel like we have a long road to go,” she said.
Tohidinia said the green movement has always been a form of consumer activism, beginning in 19th century England with the creation of cooperative stores, which combatted local monopolies by involving the community who paid in and bought from it.
She said the green movement eventually began discussing alternative - sometimes called ethical - consumption, which involves different “shades” about how ethical it is to consume products in a capitalist society.
Tohidinia added that to some ethical consumption is impossible, while to others it might mean avoiding purchasing products from a company with illegal or poor working conditions, like sweatshops.
She said that green consumers are often considered strong consumers. She said they are “depicted as people who are risk takers. They’re dedicated, they have strong moral values, and they show resistance to power.”
She added this was supported by her and her sister’s research, and shared some recent photographs of green consumers protesting taken by NPR and The Guardian - one depicting a man blocking a tanker truck from entering a refinery by using his body as a blockade.
Tohidinia said this might be expecting too much, however, and surveys support the idea not everyone is willing to protest in the streets. She said most people are engaging with green activism in their private lives, or through their purchasing power.
She added these consumers are in the minority, however, as most corporations disregard the environment and most consumers prioritize luxury and variety over environmental protection.
She said this demoralizing reality is the focus of her and her sister’s recent research.
Tohidinia and her sister called the demoralization and irritation “relational frustrations,” which are frustrations stemming from relationships or environments unsupportive of green activism.
She said they scraped data from Reddit’s “r/zerowaste” community to find posts made by frustrated consumers, and found four common themes that discouraged green activists: admonishment, lack of agency, futility, and alienation.
Tohidinia said these manifest when people are openly critical of green activism, discouraged by the small impact individuals have in comparison to corporations, convinced the environment is doomed regardless of their efforts, or when people are excluded due to their environmentally-conscious efforts.
She added many of the negative feelings created by these four themes can be resolved by venting, and by taking different approaches to coping in the case of futility or lack of agency-related feelings.
Tohidinia added two effective methods are the ontological approach, where one could say “you’re doing the right thing, just stick to that,” and the consequential approach, where someone might find encouragement by convincing themselves if they help 10 people reduce waste, and those 10 convince 10 more, change can occur.
She closed by saying the research is ongoing, but that a clear path has formed to her, in the form of disappointment turning into validation, and validation turning into strategies to cope and continue performing green activism.
Jennifer Dowling, a professor of art, then gave a presentation involving her artwork and struggles, and how being creative is one of the most effective ways she has been able to cope with tough news.
Dowling said her primary premise was that “art is therapeutic and provides resilience when facing difficult challenges.”
She added her presentation was not a lecture on therapy or scientific research, and was only a glimpse into her work and how it helped her.
Dowling said she’s used her artwork to cope with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, her mother’s memory degrading due to dementia, and several miscarriages when she was attempting to conceive her children.
She said people can heal by creating or even reflecting on art, and it isn’t limited to visual mediums.
“One can benefit from creating art as a therapeutic process, but also from looking at art and immersing oneself within it,” she said. “This can be the visual arts, or other forms such as music and singing, performance, dance and acting, or writing and journaling.”
Dowling said finding the flow of creation is especially helpful in tying emotion to artwork. She said her prepared work mostly reflected “the plight of women.”
She then displayed her first collection, called her breast cancer journal, which she said was a collection of 30 daily drawings. She added these were quickly done, and expressed a “release of feeling without restrictions.”
Dowling said the journal was “an emotional dump” for her, and the uncertainty of her diagnosis led to dark times. To combat this, she said she began writing and journaling, improving her diet and sleep, and participating in mindfulness and self-kindness courses.
She added this reflected in her journal as darker pieces, in opposition to the brighter drawings she had done earlier in the month.
She said it might feel like creating art is superfluous, especially in difficult times like she faced with her cancer diagnosis, but that any release of tension through art makes creation worth it.
Dowling then introduced the next set, titled “Broken Women Collages,” which involved taking a range of public domain images of women and tearing or bending them.
She added she wanted the women to look different and have different clothes, facial features, expressions and poses.
“The overall demeanor is sadness and showing a rawness and pain,” she said.
Dowling then shared her “Doors & Windows” set, which involved her late mother’s struggle with dementia. She said it was a slow death and difficult for the family to endure, and took away her mother’s “lucid memories and lively conversations” which made her herself.
She then shared a series related to the struggles she had with miscarriages in her 30s, and a set consisting of mosaic work she made for the New England Mosaic Society’s “Art in the Orchard” event series.
Dowling said her lifelong passion for mosaics even led her to creating wall art displayed in the Department of Children & Families lobby, where difficult decisions and circumstances are handled.
“So, by helping others we can help ourselves, and that’s part of the healing process,” she said.