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.

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