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Though her paintings are as lovingly rendered as any museum piece, Ashley Cecil sees herself as an illustrator first, or even a kind of photojournalist—someone whose art serves a broader purpose.
"Yes, these are oils on canvas," she says. "But I hardly ever create anything without a story behind it."
Cecil, a 27-year-old resident of Louisville, Kentucky, graduated from the University of Dayton in 2003 with a degree in fine arts and an ongoing passion for volunteering in her community. Three years later, she began combining these two interests, using each of her paintings to document a social issue like women and children's rights, education, and the environment. And as the artist for Oxfam America's "Climate Change on Canvas" project, she's now using her skills to depict the human face of climate change.
The painting activist
With clear, expressive brushstrokes, Cecil has portrayed domestic violence survivors, refugees, foster parents, and homeless kids. She's painted endangered fish, sustainable gardens, and sweeping New York skylines. And the paintings aren't just for show: when each is sold, Cecil donates a portion of the proceeds to a local or national nonprofit organization.
She also promotes these nonprofit groups on her website, The Painting Activist, which functions as an important showcase for her work. Part personal journal, part virtual artist's studio, Cecil's site hosts a faithful community of online readers. She says the website has helped not only to draw attention to the issues she works on, but also to identify new painting opportunities.
It was through this website that Oxfam America staff first contacted Cecil and asked her to submit a proposal for Climate Change on Canvas. Though juggling many other commitments—including her day job as a program manager at the Louisville Visual Arts Association—Cecil says she quickly threw together a sketch for the project, wanting to seize the opportunity even if the chances of selection were slim.
It came as a surprise, then, when Oxfam contacted her a few weeks later to tell her that her proposal had been selected out of a national pool of submissions. Cecil's canvas will be displayed alongside those of other emerging global artists at the next big UN climate change meeting in Poznan, Poland.
"I was flattered and honored, but I also thought, oh my gosh, now I have to find a way to do this!" Cecil recalls with a laugh. "But it turned out that it fit into my schedule after all... And some [website] subscribers even said it's the best piece I've ever done."
Capturing climate change
To begin her painting of two brightly robed women in a barren landscape, Cecil first juxtaposed several different visual elements. "It's like putting a puzzle together," she explains. "I make a collage of photos and sketches, and I glance at it while I'm painting. For this piece, I had everything from swatches of fabric, to women's profiles, to women holding bowls, to my favorite sunsets."
She also researched the effects of climate change on agriculture in poor communities. "I realized that farming is hard these days because of changing temperatures, but it's often the sole survival for people in rural areas," says Cecil. "It's hard to feed a family when you can't farm."
This struggle inspired one of the painting's most striking elements: the long trail of dust that streams from one woman's empty bowl. "I wanted to show that the women are not harvesting crops the way they had hoped," Cecil explains. "They're holding a bowl of dust, because this is what they're left with—burnt, dry dust, dry branches... In other words, what we'd expect to see is not there." (To learn more about Cecil's techniques, view a slideshow of the painting in progress.)
Cecil says she considers climate change one of the most pressing problems of our time. "The [US presidential] elections are bringing attention to it right now—the urgency is absolutely critical," she says. "And for people in developing countries, it is devastating."
She believes that Americans need to do more to tackle the crisis, even if it's just by making small changes to their lifestyle. "The first piece is education," she says. "Whether it's though statistics, words, or images—whatever turns on that light bulb for someone, and makes them act."