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See 'The Shape of the Environment' before it's too late

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There’s a sense of urgency and last chances in any discussion of the environment today. So with only a few weeks left to see “The Shape of the Environment,” a multi-artist exhibition at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, seize an opportunity.

Curated by Madison-based artist Lelia Byron and open Tuesdays through Saturdays through Nov. 4, “The Shape of the Environment” includes artwork in media ranging from documentary photographs to neon to textiles to twigs. The 13 artists who produced work for the show come mostly from across the Midwest, many of them from Madison, and delve into the past and future in imaginative and often stirring ways.

"Cloud Palace" by Nirmal Raja

Lelia Byron, curator of “The Shape of the Environment” exhibition at the Arts + Literature Laboratory through Nov. 4, explores “Cloud Palace” by Milwaukee-based artist Nirmal Raja.

“One of the ideas was to bring together all these artists who didn’t know each other necessarily and are at different points in their careers,” said Byron, who recruited both longtime established artists and recent UW-Madison graduate students to think about how they considered the “shape” of the physical world.

“I wanted to bring a diverse group of voices,” she said. “As you can see, there’s lots of ways that different artists are approaching this topic, with different areas of focus. The idea was to get all these artists together, talking to one another, maybe collaborating in the future.”

Light sculpture by Sparker

The Chicago artist Sparker created a sculpture on-site at the Arts + Literature Laboratory using neon lights and donated items. The artwork greets visitors to “The Shape of the Environment.”

“The Shape of the Environment” has also included a series of workshops, panels and films. It closes with a night of special performances and a chance to experience the artwork in person one more time.

Artist statements and eloquent essays were compiled in a zine, which proved so popular that print copies had been snatched up by early October. The zine remains online via a link at

Roberto Torres Mata artwork in "The Shape of the Environment"

Works by Madison-based artist artist Roberto Torres Mata are part of “The Shape of the Environment” at the Arts + Literature Laboratory.

But many works in “The Shape of the Environment” justify a first-person look.

Madison artist Patrizia Ferreira’s lush textile “The Tree of Life,” for example, hangs across the gallery from the artwork “Big Horn” by Rina Yoon, a professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, who incorporated photography, sticks and meticulously rolled paper to reflect on the devastation from wildfires in Arizona.

Walking sticks in "The Shape of the Environment"

A series of walking sticks by artist Roberto Torres Mata reflect the impact of climate change on migration.

Daylight from the vast windows of ALL’s largest gallery illuminates work such as a series of painted walking sticks by Madison artist Roberto Torres Mata, which evoke the relationship between migration and climate change. Visitors can also walk through the sheer tapestries of “Cloud Palace” by Milwaukee artist Nirmal Raja, then ascend the stairs to see more artwork along an atrium walkway, including circular paintings by Madison artist Beth Racette, part of a yearslong project focused on Earth. 

Work by artist Hattie Lee in "The Shape of the Environment"

Acrylic on ceramic works by artist Hattie Lee are part of “The Shape of the Environment” exhibit.

Curator Byron, a full-time artist who works both across the U.S. and abroad, often incorporates research and experience into her own work.

“I’m very interested in narrative and I do a lot of investigative work in my own practice, so I’ll go out and interview a lot of people, collect those stories, and then think about how I can translate that into imagery or an installation that people will want to experience,” she said.

Work by Nirmal Raja

Artist Nirmal Raja created these works, whose characters are formed by actual air pollution.

“That’s what art can do  approach complicated topics in new and interesting ways,” she said, “and get people to think in new and interesting ways  and just get people engaged.”

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