History, Art, and Social Science Professors Join Forces to Promote Discussion About Climate Change in Alabama

Image showing numerous train cars in a railroad yard.Dr. Teresa Cribelli is part of a team that has been awarded a  Joint Pilot for Arts Research Grant from the Collaborative Arts Research Initiative, along with Professor Allison Grant of the Department of Art and Art History and Dr. Joan Barth of UA’s Institute for Social Science Research. Their joint project “Dangerous Landscapes: Legacies of Nineteenth Century Progress in the Age of Climate Change,” examines the legacy of nineteenth-century industrialization on the U.S. landscape. Pairing the environmental photography of Professor Grant with the historical analysis of Dr. Cribelli, the project will culminate in a public art exhibition in downtown Tuscaloosa.

“Dangerous Landscapes” situates Grant’s contemporary portrayals of environmental change alongside nineteenth-century paintings and prints that bring to life past visions of industrialization and the environment in the U.S. Dr. Cribelli’s historical analysis draws from her research on the history of visual representations of progress and the natural world. The project aims to encourage conversations within Alabama about the environmental impact of the nineteenth-century, especially its relationship to climate change. The Deep South is a region expected to experience profound climatic shifts over the coming decades as sea levels and temperatures rise. Dr. Barth will survey the audience to assess public understandings of visual depictions of the environment both in historical and contemporary terms.

The inspiration for this project began in the classroom. “The seed for Dangerous Landscapes started in my Environmental History of the Americas course in 2016,” Dr. Cribelli explains. “Before it closed in 2018, I took the class to the Tuscaloosa Art Museum each semester to show students the phenomenal collection of frontier and landscape art housed there. Students examined how paintings of expansive U.S. landscapes represented nineteenth-century views of the environment as a vast, unspoiled, and seemingly endless resource that was just beginning to come under the spell of industrial expansion.”

When Dr. Cribelli first came across the photography of Allison Grant during the 2019 Faculty Biennial Exhibition at the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art, she was struck by the contrast to the museum’s paintings; Grant’s photographs depicted a very different relationship between the environment and industrialization 150 years later. The comparison was immediate and exciting: “It came to me that putting Grant’s photographs in juxtaposition with nineteenth-century visions of the environment had the potential to initiate conversations about the historical legacy of the nineteenth-century and how it has shaped the climate change that we are now experiencing,” Dr. Cribelli said.

The grant is funded through the Collaborative Arts Research Initiative, Alabama Life Research Institute, and the Office of Research and Economic Development.