Making deep connections through the ‘art of conservation’


From the mouths (and eyes) of babes comes the most profound response to climate change I’ve seen in a while. This year’s annual exhibit, hosted by the Featherstone Center for the Arts at the Feldman Family Artspace of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, is a stunning show of the winners of “The Art of Conservation” — a contest coordinated by Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) to encourage Island high school students to deepen their connections with nature and the habitats that sustain it — and to show off their incredible talents.

The theme this year, “Hope and Climate Action,” coincides with the rollout of the Vineyard’s climate action plan. Samantha Look, director of advocacy and education for the VCS, says, “It is about the circular connection in which seeing action can, for some people, make you hopeful and for others, being hopeful may stir your energy to create action.”

Look worked with teachers at the high school. “The whole contest works because of the hard work of Chris Baer, Tiffiney Shoquist, and Brendan Coogan in the art department, and Christine Ferrone, Emily Cavanagh, and Katherine Hennigan from the English department,” Look says. “We could not do this without their feedback and enthusiasm.” She notes, too, the excellent judges who helped with the event: Hillary Noyes-Keene, Wenonah Madison, Ollie Becker, and Michael West.

Students were invited to submit a written or visual work, and the exhibit showcases about 20 visual pieces and 12 to 15 written works from the 84 artworks and over 50 written submissions. All are arresting, striking you with the depth of the young people’s responses. In just these few examples, you can see how the students’ images and words inspire us to do our part in making sure the world does not stay on its current trajectory.

Bryan Sornas’ photograph, “No Escape,” taken at ground level, stares through the ribcage of a deer skeleton lying where it fell. He writes in his accompanying description: “People are always killing them, rarely do deer die of old age … The title … represent[s] a cage and how there isn’t much escape from death as a deer, or death in general. Everything will die one day, so it is inevitable.”

About the photograph of twin delicate eggs in a nest, “Two Stories, One Ending,” Taz Strom describes coming upon a swan’s nest with one egg. Upon leaving, Taz then finds another nearby but decides to leave it; returning a week later to find both in the nest. “I realized that I had just assumed that the second swan egg was as good as dead,” Taz explains. “If I had moved the egg closer to the swan nest, there would have been no chance the mother would take her egg back, as well as possibly jeopardizing the other egg’s safety by disturbing the area. No situation has ever been improved with negative thinking. This moment of realization really made me think about how powerful of a thing hope is, and how powerful a thing hope can be.”

Ayla Strom’s photograph, “Lady of the Leaves,” is a magical self-portrait of her face plastered with foliage to represent hope. In Teagan Myers’ moody, desolate-looking landscape photograph, “The Hunt for Food,” a few birds fly above. Myers writes, “This hunt for food is a struggle that many more animals are facing now, because the climate is becoming worse and whole habitats and food webs are being destroyed.”

Emily Gilley’s “Keeping the Color” is a beautifully rendered image of deer drinking from a running brook depicted in full color in a landscape that bleeds into a stark, black-and-white line drawing. And there is Izzy Colon’s fabulous “Whale,” in which the magnificent creature is swimming surrounded by garbage that mars the beauty of the watercolor painting. Matthew King’s painting, “The World Is a Puzzle,” would make a perfect climate awareness logo, with four different-toned hands, each holding down a quarter of the world depicted with its water and land.

Among the many superb written pieces is “The Forbidden Coat,” in which Nick Merriam tells the story of Cedar, growing up on the Island, learning to be a lobster fisherman from his father, and then having a son of his own. But the oil rigs pollute our shores, and Merriam ends, “Cedar noticed something that stood out in the pools of oil. He got closer, noticing the shiny glint it gave off. He picked up none other than the blue lobster he had been searching for all those years, but it was dead and decaying, along with everything else on the beach …”

In “Summer,” Jack Gallagher conveys the glory of that season, to then warn us:

The beauty of summer is being lost,
Our poor choices, coming with a cost. 
Work to preserve its daylight,
Keep our planet upright. 

In “We Define Hope Differently,” Adriana Young begins by describing a bird’s carcass on shore, its esophagus filled to the brim with plastic. Then:

Where you see hope, I see a debt owed, 
A life sentence burned into every generation’s burdened soul,
If hope is the thing to move you to action I challenge you:
Dig your claws into it like the wild things we’ve killed —
It’s always been a skinny malnourished thing,
And you’ve always underestimated the negligible.

Seeing the students’ responses, Look shares, “The point of the contest is for us to hear those voices. It is humbling and inspiring and course-correcting listening to young people reflect back on any of our generations who are in the seat of power right now, and what we are and are not doing to better try and protect their future.”

The Vineyard Conservation Society’s “The Art of Conservation” at the Feldman Family Artspace at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center runs through June 19. For more information about the contest, visit