The Flowers Are Burning

Details from ‘Prairie Fire II’ by Helen Klebesadel , and ‘Lover of the Light,’ by Mary Kay Neumann

As an artist I spend plenty of time alone in my studio working on my watercolors, but in recent years I have also found it very fulfilling to work in collaboration with other artists.  Now I consider myself to be a serial collaborator.   Some of those collaborations I have written about here, describing: the 2011  Places In Between: Transitions and Transformations project with Leslee Nelson and 33 Paintings in 33 Days project with Nikki Kinne, and the 2012 and ongoing Exquisite Uterus Art of Resistance Project with Alison Gates (more is coming about this project in the next few months).

In July and August this year, artist Mary Kay Neumann and I are sharing our collaborative The Flowers Are Burning Exhibition and Environmental Project with the Madison Community.  We started thinking and planning this collaboration two years ago and are delighted to have it come to fruition. Ultimately our intentions in this project grew from our shared concerns for the negative effect of climate change on the creatures we share the planet with, and by extension, for ourselves and other humans.   It is an exhibition we hope to travel, and a website of resources suggesting what we can do to finally come together to meaningfully address climate change issues.  Our goal is to lure you with the beauty of our art and then to engage you to stay with us in shared purpose.

First the art:

Our collaborative exhibition is currently on displayed in Madison, Wisconsin at the Overture Center Playhouse Gallery, from July 3-September 2, 2015.  The exhibition reception is scheduled for July 12, 2015 from 1-4.  Join us if you are in Madison for Art Fairs on or off the Square, and then keep coming back and bringing others to see the exhibition and explore the website.


The Last Waltz–Melting Seastar Series, Mary Kay Neumann, 30x 40, Watercolor

“The Flowers are Burning” exhibition currently has 15 paintings ranging in size from  30×22 to 30×40.  They are all transparent watercolors on paper and demonstrated a shared love of intense color.

From the beginning of our work together Mary Kay and I knew we would embrace the potential of flower as metaphor.  It was natural for us to explore the poetic, symbolic and political representations flowers offer in exploring both human nature and the natural world.   We recognize and celebrate cultural association of flowers with the feminine, at the same time that we both  render our paintings with strong color palettes, implied emotional content, and complex compositions. With our large expressive ‘flower paintings’ we are intending to  create environments of saturated color and texture that belies the assumed fragility of flowers and their feminine associations.

Silent Spring. Mary Kay Neumann & Helen Klebesadel, 22x30, watercolor

Silent Spring. Mary Kay Neumann & Helen Klebesadel, 22×30, watercolor

We consciously work to shift the historical stereotype of the female ‘flower painter’ from something to be avoided by the serious woman artist.  Rather we embrace flowers as creative and critical metaphors that are an inspiration for breaking through the paralysis of overwhelming despair that is necessary for us to come together with shared purpose.


Besides collaborating on the idea of the exhibit, and in the creation of the website, we also made art together.  Three of the paintings were created collaboratively by passing the watercolors back and forth until we decided they were done.

The act of collaboration is a powerful metaphor in and of itself.  We are all going to have to learn to work collaboratively and cooperatively to address the climate issues that inspire this project.  Mary Kay and I know from our own collaboration that the product of shared work contains the participants but creates something larger than the sum of its parts, that could never be achieved by one person alone.

The remaining paintings include six individually created works by each of the artists inspired by the plight of creatures we have personal attachments to.  We have come to recognize the threats they face due to damaged and declining habitat as the consequence of larger climate change issues that are all connected and due to human activities.  The good part of that recognition is that it is within our abilities to change human activities.  It means what each of us does matters.  It means what you do matters… despite the  many messages we get to the contrary.


Paradise Lost, Collaborative Watercolor by Helen Klebesadel and Mary Kay Neumann, 22×30

Within the exhibition Mary Kay and I are seeking to both evoke a sense of alarm at our immediate need to address urgent environmental concerns and to hold up the vision of the positive possibility of rising from the ashes of restorative prairie burn if we can push through our denial, our sense of being overwhelmed, and the larger narratives we hear telling us we cannot do anything about it.

In her paintings, Mary Kay’s sunflower fields have looming fires that evoke the ominous droughts in California, and her tide pool studies hint at the current ocean crises of sea star wasting syndrome, where the starfish are literally melting away.

My themes tend toward the birds and the bees, and other pollinators that are vital parts of our food systems, as well as beautiful living gifts that teach us about the cycles of life.  At the same time, I am fascinated by the destructive force coupled with necessity of prairie fires that preserve habitat and restore balance to the eco system.


While we are both haunted by the phenomenon of destructive climate change, the we intend to use our art to counter the denial and despair in favor of encouraging actions that could make a difference.  It is important to us to share a vision of hope and not contribute to the narratives of hopelessness that do not serve us well.  We seek to hold up the same vision that organizations like and Earth Guardians-Youth in Action and many others do, choosing to believe that we can come together to make and demand of our leaders the changes we know are necessary.


A personal relationship with nature can lead to appreciation and even love for those varied but important parts that make up the whole of our ecosystems. The Flowers Are Burning Project is  designed around the belief that we will act to save that which we love.  It is a collaborative visibility project urging each of us to take immediate action in whatever way we are able to alleviate the damage of climate change.  Throughout our time working together we found ourselves grappling with key questions:

  • What are we missing that used to be abundant, or what are we concerned will be lost if we don’t make the necessary changes?
  • Are we willing to take positive actions to contribute to making a real difference?
  • How can we find ways to work together to create the world we want to live in?”

Thorn Birds, Helen Klebesadel 30×22, watercolor, (Photo by Lori Ushman)

It became increasingly apparent throughout our work together that we would need to move beyond the exhibition to share our questions, inspirations,  and the results of  own research to find potential answers, for what we could do to make a difference, in  the work that so many people and organizations are already doing.

Hence The Flowers Are Burning website was born.  There we share background for the exhibition (which we would like to travel), as well as sources, resources, and perspectives on the many ways we can take action to make a difference.  We are asking individuals to enjoy the exhibition, think about where they are already or will soon engage with the issues for themselves.  We also are asking those already engaged in this work to share information about other organizations, projects or efforts that we should add to the website.

This project is especially timely as the world prepares for  the November/December United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as Paris 2015. This event has the stated purpose of achieving a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.  Global negotiations on climate change have been carrying on for more than 20 years, but now push has come to shove as the UN urges nations to develop clear sustainable development goals. Climate Justice groups around the world are coming together to plan and network for actions impressing governments with the importance of achieving a viable agreement leading up to the Paris COP21* UN climate talks.  If nations can meet and agree equitable goals on the climate, on economic development, on social and environmental issues, and do so in a spirit of cooperation we just might have a chance.

So this is huge!  How can we be a part of the conversation and bring attention to the issues in the best way we know how?  Since Mary Kay and I are artists it made sense to use that we would look to the visual art as the place to start.  Our art, what we do best,  is the nexus for bringing people together and introducing them to the website and the vast web of others thinking about and working on the issues.  The website shares information about other artists, arts-based environmental projects, and arts/science collaborative opportunities.  It also makes available other thinkers and philosophers that share the perspective that we do our best work when we are engaging from the heart and working on behalf of those things we care most deeply about. These things are what will sustain us as we face the issues before us.


“Whispers In The Dark” Mary Kay Neumann, 22×30, Watercolor

The project started by using the love of art, and art making, as a way to mitigate the distress and denial that may overwhelm us at the idea of the unthinkable losses we are experiencing in the natural world. The project goes on to ask all of  us to think about how we can learn to resist that which separates us and come together to make the changes we need to create and maintain the world we want to live in. Beyond these first steps we must recognize that the costs of climate change are not borne equally by all people, often affecting those with the fewest resources. If we seek a world that is sustainable for all its inhabitants we are going to have to learn to cooperate and work together.  How better to reach out than through our arts and culture.

We have been astounded at the very positive response we have received so far.  The exhibit has received mention in Madison Magazine and Brava, and the  Isthmus, Madison’s weekly newspaper, has published a wonderful  article by Brian Rieselman about the exhibition and project aptly entitled Flower Power.

We have many people to thank for supporting us in this project.  It would not have happened without the support of our friends, family, science sources, climate activists,  and other supporters of the arts.

Please look at the website and the organizations, artists and projects we are gathering.   Please share information about art/science collaborations, and organizations working to mitigate the effects on climate change, pollution, overuse, and habitat destruction that you know of that we should include. We especially seek connections to larger efforts related to building coalitions aimed at working to change state, national, and international environmental policies, especially those advocating to stop the rise of CO2.

Mary Kay and I invite you to engage with our paintings and website to witness the energy of flowers burning with power AND beauty.  More of our art can be seen at the Yahara River Gallery in Madison or on our personal websites: Helen Klebesadel  or Mary Kay Neumann.


Prairie Fire I, Helen Klebesadel, 30×40, watercolor. (Photo by Lori Ushman)

If you are interested in using our exhibition as a way to start or continue a conversation in your community or organization, please contact either of us through our websites.  If you are interested in purchasing artworks you can see the pricelist in our shared gallery here.  We have both committed to tithing 10% of sales to organizations working to mitigate the consequence of climate change.