Using Art to Inspire Action

Painting of sloth

Panda Ambassadors work to inspire people who wouldn't necessarily call themselves environmental activists. You look for ways to help them understand, care about, and take action on environmental issues. How you accomplish this goal will be unique to each Ambassador, based on his or her skill set, perspective, and interests. While having experience in directly related fields—renewable energy, environmental science, urban planning—can be helpful, it's not a requirement. In fact, one of the best ways to connect with would-be environmentalists is by approaching issues indirectly, through the lens of another activity, interest, or medium. One way some Panda Ambassadors are facilitating a personal connection to nature is through art.

"Art and nature are closely connected," says Panda Ambassador Autumn Ashley. "It is because of nature, and the world around us, and everything in it that we have art and are inspired to create." Autumn is an illustrator of "sweet and lively" pieces that she creates to help give others hope—"Like a small light I can share with the world," she says.

Autumn has put her artistic skills to good use on a number of her Panda Ambassador projects, including creating a set of coloring book sheets for other Panda Ambassadors to use. "The response has been really encouraging," she says. "When I see people smile, or ask questions, or say 'it feels like they're alive' when referring to an animal that I've drawn, I know I'm stewarding my talents the way I should, and I feel so lucky."

© WWF-US/Autumn Ashley

Autumn says she joined the Panda Ambassador program specifically because she "wants to give back using whatever gifts I have to raise awareness about endangered species and protecting our environment." Her artistic ability has helped her do just that.

Studies have shown that art is a particularly effective way to raise awareness. Viewing art can elicit emotional reactions, such as self-reflection. As we take in artwork, our brains look for patterns and search through our own memories for context. This means many of us will find a way to empathize with the subject of the art without making a conscious effort to do so.

Matt Ballen, a photographer and one of the first Panda Ambassadors, has experienced this phenomenon firsthand. "I think human beings in general have a difficult time grasping facets of life that are far away from them. You hear about tragedy every single day," he explains.

Matt cites the deforestation—much of it for oil palm plantations—in Borneo and Sumatra as an example. "The forests have been decimated," he explains, "and orangutans and other animals are losing their homes and lives at alarming rates." But, he continues, even though people may be concerned when they hear this, there's a disconnect between that concern and taking an action, such as committing to avoid all products containing palm oil.

Matt believes art and photography can help bridge that disconnect. "If you show someone a picture of a displaced orangutan in the middle of a slash-and-burn forest, that's going to create an emotional connection and definitely increase the likelihood of them changing their lifestyle.

"The whole point of sharing art is to create that emotional connection," Matt says. As a photographer, he's always looking to share his perspective on the world and foster a connection to nature. "Hopefully that will inspire action, or even just an awareness or a desire to learn more."

"Art taps directly into our mind and our heart," Autumn explains. "It is out of our heart that all of our desires and motivations come. If you can reach the mind and heart, you can make a difference."

Matt and Autumn have had great success using their artistic skills to engage people on environmental issues. Other Panda Ambassadors have used their love of film, music, and athletics to foster a similar connection to nature. No matter what your unique talents, interests, or experiences are, you can employ them to make an impact for the planet.