By Published: Feb. 4, 2020

Artist-in-residence argues that art and ecologically utopian thought can cultivate social change

Floating bookshelves, furniture made from wooden pallets and rows of small bottles of sand lined up on a wall. This is no carnival funhouse, but a new exhibition at the CU Art Museum. 

Two classes of undergraduate students in the Program in Environmental Design (ENVD) worked with Mary Mattingly, the CU Art Museum’s 2020 artist-in-residence, to design models for an ecotopian library of the future for the exhibition. 

Students used materials such as artifacts and specimens collected from the College of Engineering and Applied Science; the departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Geological Sciences; the Museum of Natural History; University Libraries and private lenders to build the pieces of artwork.  

The exhibition, titled Last Library: Reading Rooms, Bridges and Tools for Integrating Ecological Ethics into Practice, will run from Feb. 6 through March 21.

In her artwork, Mattingly combines Earth sciences, ecology and utopian ideas to communicate information about the Earth’s changing climate and explores the human response to the physical environment. Her art stems from her belief that art and ecologically utopian (or “ecotopian”) thought can cultivate social change.

“This exhibition started as an ecotopian library, and that’s still what I envision as it moves through the world in the future,” Mattingly said. 

Last Library image featuring jars of sand and rocks

Small bottles of sand lined up on a wall in the "Last Library" exhibit. At the top of the page, left to right, are eft is artist-in-residence Mary Mattingly, Cecilia Placidi and Brandon Pappas, both juniors in ENVD. CU Boulder Photos by Patrick Campbell.

“This library is someplace between utopia and dystopia. A lot of what you’ll find here is how people are dealing with climate change, whether it’s forestry, geology or art. When I told the ENVD students about this concept of making a library based on climate change through these different disciplines, I told them to think about the land, the water systems and the buildings. I wanted to add a feeling of wonder. Surreal with a purpose.”

The library has four sections: commons, “ecosophy” (a philosophy of ecological equilibrium), art and geology. It explores ideas about art, sustainability and ecology. Architects, artists, ecologists, farmers, indigenous knowledge holders, museum visitors and philosophers contributed their knowledge and stories to the students to enhance an understanding of “shared ecology.”

Cecilia Placidi and Brandon Pappas, both juniors studying architecture, were part of the environmental design group of students who worked on the exhibition. Placidi’s study emphasis is architecture at the human scale. Pappas is working on a certificate in lighting design. 

Architecture can be a work of art. Everyone can interpret it in their own way, but it requires you to observe it and be open to the ideas presented.​"

The inspiration for the exhibition came from Mattingly’s work on a barge-based ecosystem in New York City, what she describes as a floating food forest or a plant library. 

For her model for the exhibition, Placidi took a cultural approach and designed an abstract library of a spiral staircase of bookshelves made of wood with glass panels. 

“I saw the circular motion upward as a slow journey through culture and books,” Placidi said. 

“Architecture can be a work of art. Everyone can interpret it in their own way, but it requires you to observe it and be open to the ideas presented. There’s a quote I really like that says, ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ It explains well how everyone can have a different reaction to this exhibit.”

Pappas views the library as a bank of information that would provide people with what he says might be the last chance to work on environmental issues before the planet suffers irreversible damage. For the exhibition, he designed a model based on a library where people can find information on topics ranging from composting to rising sea levels. 

“I see the Last Library as the last chance before it’s too late to save ourselves and the planet,” Pappas said. 

“Instead of thinking about the Last Library as a piece to an exhibit, I thought about it as a physical eco-focused space made from recycled materials where people could find information around every corner. I also thought about how it could be portable and fit in the back of a truck. I hope people come to the exhibit and contemplate on the ecosophical mysteries in our world.”

Last Library
 Last Library will be on view at the CU Art Museum Feb. 6 to March 21. Opening reception is 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 6. 
Last Library exhibit
Last Library exhibit piece
An exhibit of art called the Last Library
Exhibit of rocks at the Last Library