Artist and Biochemist Explored the Beauty of Water and Danger of Pollutants at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed two global advocates for the oceans, artist Arica Hilton and biochemist Dr. Janet Angel Welch, to the 37th Annual Smith Nature Symposium.

The panel, part of a seven-part live-streamed series exploring current environmental issues, was moderated by Gail Sturm (Chair of Brushwood Center’s Board of Directors) and dove into threats facing the world’s oceans and water sources. This program also featured a special musical performance, “Reflections on Earth – Oceans,” created by Sibylle Szaggars Redford, The Way of the Rain Artistic Director, with music by Tim Janis, and spoken word by Robert Redford.

From ubiquitous plastic pollution to devastating oil spills, Hilton and Dr. Welch told their underwater stories, shared thoughts on the current state of aquatic environments, and illuminated solutions to today’s marine challenges. Though these advocates took very different approaches to preserving the world of water, they share the same ambition for restoring it and work to inspire people to be better stewards of this precious resource.

“If we can inform and educate people, and convince them to modify their harmful behaviors, that would be a great step toward protecting the co-inhabitants of our earth,” said Hilton.

Hilton, a Mediterranean-born artist, uses fine art to capture the beauty and vulnerability of the watery world. She feels moving people to the plight of the oceans is something art is uniquely equipped to do.  Some of her most touching pieces are works from I Flow Like Water, a series of paintings incorporating recycled plastics. She was invited to participate in a scientific expedition with Ocean Geographic Magazine to Raja Ampat, an Indonesian archipelago and part of the Coral Triangle. This hot-spot for biodiversity is endangered by illegal fishing, climate change, and most visibly – plastic pollution.

Upon her return, she created a series of multi-media paintings incorporating microplastics – small fragments of plastic that float in the ocean, leach toxins, are eaten by marine life, and ultimately, end up in our bodies when we consume marine food. These works of art are whimsical and calming, with fairy-tale colors revealing a sunrise, waterfall, or drops of rain rippling a pool of water. Upon closer examination, the shimmering layers embedded in the paintings turn out to be thousands of pieces of plastic, some, recycled, and some of which were pulled directly from Raja Ampat’s waters. Hilton’s works are a reminder that even the waters of paradise cannot escape the effects of human carelessness and they will continue to be degraded unless we take action.

Dr. Janet Angel Welch has responded to marine degradation with a scientific approach: EcoBioClean®, her revolutionary green technology that rapidly removes oil contaminants from the environment. She was inspired to develop EcoBioClean® after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest oil spill in the history of marine oil drilling operations, which emptied four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“As I considered what happened to the ocean following the Deepwater spill, I thought, ‘why not remove toxins from the ocean the way microorganisms and enzymes break down substances in nature?’” explained Welch.

EcoBioClean® works by breaking down crude oil into tiny particles in seconds, which allows indigenous microbes to more easily biodegrade them. It is safe for use on water, land, vegetation, and around wildlife. EcoBioClean® was nominated for the prestigious 2017 United States Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award and was approved by the EPA in 2019. It is now listed on the National Contingency Plan as an effective and safe method to remediate crude oil spills if a disaster should occur in USA navigable waters. Additionally, EcoBioClean® was one of just three US Companies chosen from around the globe to present to the United Nations Environmental Program alongside dozens of internationally known chemists and Nobel Prize Laureates. Dr. Welch was also the only US company executive and inventor invited to represent the US at a similar conference in Vienna, Austria, and her company was the only bioremediation company chosen to participate in the Canadian Government’s new Environmental Lakes Area freshwater research project.

“Hilton and Welch are global leaders for their work in preserving the marine world and inspiring others to take responsibility for its care. We were honored to welcome these two advocates at the Smith Nature Symposium and appreciated the opportunity to learn how we can better steward precious aquatic ecosystems,” said Gail Sturm, Chair of the Board of Brushwood Center.

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

All funds raised from the Symposium directly support Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations are available in English and Spanish.

To learn more about the series, visit www.smithnaturesymposium.org.

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods Opened Smith Nature Symposium with Our Future Speaks, Featuring Local Young Leaders

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed youth of the distinguished nature and community-based program, Cool Learning Experience (CLE), for the opening of this year’s Smith Nature Symposium.

Brushwood Center believes it was important to start the Symposium, a seven-part live-streamed series exploring current environmental issues, with these voices of the future. CLE (partner of Brushwood Center) is based in Waukegan, IL and nurtures children’s well-being through innovative learning programs that foster healthy relationships between families, the community, and the natural world. These talented nature buddies collaborated both virtually and live to create structural art and spoken word that reflected their life experiences. Their collective presentation, titled Black, Brown, and Green, explored their visions and actions for a more just and sustainable future.

“CLE was honored to be the first to bring youth voices to a Smith Nature Symposium. Their thoughtful art and powerful poetry spoke to the realities of our changing world. We know those who joined us were inspired by their bravery, creativity, joy, and resilience!” shared CLE Executive Director Barbara “Coyote” Waller.

For over a decade, CLE has helped students grow a love of the outdoors through eco-excursions to local treasures like Lake Michigan. While CLE youth typically create work connected to outdoor experiences and environmental stewardship, these expressions spoke to the challenges of connecting to themselves, one another, and the natural word amidst a landscape marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The innovative instructional strategies of their coaches, Jackie “Frog” Lopez, Angye “Bumble Bee” Zamudio, and Deeksha “Flourite” Pagar were on full display as the youth showed how they brought the “Outdoors, Indoors.” The students also revealed their secrets to building community, celebrating nature, and inspiring well-being through a digital platform. For this special event, the 6th through 9th grade students joined forces to bring Smith Nature Symposium attendees a peek into their inquisitive minds and a deeper understanding of how CLE serves families, educates children, and cares for the world around us.

The 6th and 7th grade Planet Protectors earned their moniker from their serious study of environmental, food, and social justice issues that cross national and international borders. This summer’s deep dive into the life cycle of plastics empowered students to be vocal environmental stewards at home and in their community. Although digital, students connected to nature through experiments with local water sources, independent time outdoors, and growing plants. Their online blog was a safe space to exchange ideas, share feelings, and give tips on everything from recipes for food scraps to how to reduce landfill waste. When not posting on their blog, these budding activists were learning healthy ways to communicate across cultures about the tough topics in today’s headlines.

CLE’s eldest group, the Future Champions, was made up of 8th and 9th graders poised to make their mark on the world. Like their namesake says, these nature buddies engaged in forward-thinking activities related to future career choices. Along with designing their own websites, they led an ongoing oral history project, Talking the Wauk, that centers on the Waukegan lakefront and its surrounding community. Through interviews and research, these students amplified a diverse cadre of voices that re-imagined their city and their place within it. The Future Champions truly became ambassadors for nature and are ready to continue their journeys exploring the world and diverse career pathways with confidence, creativity, and critical thinking. 

“Brushwood Center was proud to partner with these future leaders and share their visions. We know that CLE’s work is life-changing and inspires the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.

CLE has been positively impacting lives since 2008 when two First Baptist pastors hosted the first CLE summer learning program to link children and their families to nature with the belief that what one cares about, one cares for through actions and words.  Brushwood could not have seen a more fitting group to commence the Smith Nature Symposium, which was created to celebrate nature, the arts, and individuals who have connected their communities to the environment and deepened understanding of the natural world. 

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

All funds raised from the Symposium directly support Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations are available in English and Spanish.

To learn more about the series visit www.smithnaturesymposium.org.