Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell is perhaps one of the most terrifying with its population of the damned who have committed violent acts to others and property. Vicious, dark, but so visible, this theme is woven into the work of three artists that are drawing attention to something beautiful, fragile, and on the brink of destruction at the hands of those that inhabit it; Earth. Environmentally and socially, man’s violence makes a lasting statement that begs the question, “What have we done?” Janet Culbertson, Anna Jurinich, and Paula Ocampo endeavor to expose these actions through their joint exhibition, The Seventh Circle, organized by the East End Arts Council and Southampton Cultural Center with powerful works addressing the relationship between man, himself, and the planet.
Mankind’s clash with nature resonated with Culbertson from a young age. Canoeing with her family in Pennsylvania, she witnessed the cool, clear river begin to swirl with orange and sulfur as rocks from a nearby mine polluted the water. It was then she became an environmentalist before she even knew the word.
“Man’s impact on the environment has all too often been one of greed,” says Culbertson. “We develop and discard without awareness for the future environment or other species. I often paint these eco and social disasters — juicy and horrific — oil spills, nuclear disasters, the killing of our own citizens, and violent climate changes.”
Culbertson expresses her views on these issues through paint, stimulating a necessary awareness. Art still has to be exciting, tactile, compelling, ugly and beautiful, she says, to warrant appreciation and to inspire. Outside of art she does her part as well, recycling, reusing, limiting her consumption, and encouraging others to embrace a consciousness of how our actions impact the earth.
“Our exhibit deals with issues of mankind’s aggressions on our planet and ourselves,” Culbertson explains, adding her newest piece is a memorial to accident victims seen in roadside alters, appreciating the simple, anonymous devotion for just one human after devastating effects of violence. “We each work on issues through our art that we care about deeply and hope that our audience will care about as well.”
Aggression is a central theme in this exhibition. Jurinich was born in what was once Yugoslavia, a communist country its citizens were not permitted to leave. But she did, at the age of 11 with her mother and siblings, travelling to Italy to make their way to the United States. “We had to pretend we were coming back,” she recalls, saying they left behind their land, their home, friends, and even her grandmother to keep up appearances. “We ended up in Italy where we had other family, but the Italian government wanted us to go to a refugee camp. There were three families in one room. We made the most of it and made some good memories.”
This story is not unique, though its understanding is lost in today’s culture. Jurinich aims to push the topic to forefront through her artwork. Paintings like “Your Country, My Planet,” depict a girl trying to leave behind danger, uncertainty, and the fire of her home land, attempting to cross an invisible border to reach the beautiful landscape ahead. She has “do not cross” tape and paint on her face. She knows she cannot cross and looks into the eyes of the viewer to tell them so.
“People say they’re criminals, why don’t these people stay in their country,” Jurinich says about the population today in regards to the refugee crisis taking place across the globe. “But when you look at these people; babies, grandmothers, pregnant women, they’ve never known anything else. It’s just heart wrenching. That’s the way I’m trying to speak.”
The South African Apartheid, Soviet Union, and even Ocampo’s native Argentina have long histories of abuse by those in power. Citing this and the example the United States was once known to set for the rest of the world, the artist describes the American criminal justice system as a shameful one that has experienced a 500-percent increase in incarceration in the last 30 years. This is no subject for art, Ocampo says, but in her work, it comes from the heart.
“We have to change this, approach it, and think about it,” she says, adding her son’s challenging and tiring career with the Institute of Justice also inspires her work. “It’s a new system of slavery where the majority of the population is African American. It’s a very lucrative business. Private jails are no better than the public ones. They’re filthier, more costly, and less accountable.”
Despair, shock, and rage are translated through art, a bold expression aimed to evoke these same feelings in the viewer. While she has larger pieces in the exhibit, Ocampo says the smaller ones are intimate and more powerful. Fighting hopelessness, she raises her voice in her work and hopes it will inspire others to take action. “All of the proceeds from my work are being donated to organizations that address these issues,” Ocampo says. “If nothing else, I hope the [viewers] donate to those organizations.”
“If it’s not the time now, I don’t know when is,” Jurinich recalled Culbertson saying six months ago when she first shared the concept for this type of exhibition. “Let’s do something.” Together with Ocampo, they are continuing the conversation of violence and the human impact on the planet through art.
The opening reception takes place on Saturday, April 14 at 5 p.m. and will be on view through April 30 at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. For more information, visit scc-arts.org.