Smile Politely

Brett Ashley Kaplan and Deke Weaver discuss making art about climate change

On a chilly evening in early December an enthusiastic crowd of friends and book-lovers met at The Literary in what Brett Ashley Kaplan called “a wonderful confluence of whale-y-ness.”

Brett Ashley Kaplan — whom Smile Politely’s own Jessica Hammie interviewed in July about her first novel Rare Stuff — is a novelist, Professor and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the Comparative and World Literature program at the University of Illinois. She also directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies. Deke Weaver is a writer, performer, video, and graphic artist as well as Professor of New Media with the U of I’s School of Art and Design, and had been featured regularly in Smile Politely’s arts coverage for portions of his Unreliable Bestiary, “an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit.”

The climate change-themed evening included readings from the artists’ current work, some structured questioning of the artists by each other about their work, and an open forum for audience questions. 

Weaver’s current work, CETACEAN, is the latest in a string of animal-themed projects, including: ELEPHANT (2010), WOLF (2013), BEAR (2017), and TIGER (2019). CETACEAN is about climate change and connection, specifically how seemingly far-away things like whales and oceans connect to us in Central Illinois. While it remains art as activism, it seems to be art with a theme of climate change instead of climate change information and awareness in the form of art — ”not beating people over the head with it,” as he describes, but still keeping the urgency of the climate crisis at center-stage. In a world where a lot of climate anxiety is presented as data and reports, presenting it in sculpture, video, and sound takes an important and often-overlooked approach.

Kaplan’s recent novel, Rare Stuff, is much more of a departure from her previous academic work. She jokingly opened her answer by saying, “I’m a novelist trapped in the body of a professor.” The project of writing a novel arose after she was promoted to full professor — a process that famously comes with a lot of academic and professional writing — and after she was promoted she had a well-established habit of writing and a desire for a new project. There are clear influences from her work in comparative literature and in Jewish Studies (the whales in Rare Stuff speak Yiddish), but also from personal experience, magical realism, and memory. 

She is donating the proceeds from the novel to Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Weaver’s CETACEAN project began when he was fresh off of touring TIGER in New Orleans (the last show was March 6, 2020) and reading Fathoms: The World Inside the Whale by Rebecca Giggs during quarantine. It also has some obvious correlations and connections with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, but adds whale and oceanic folklore from across the world and whale information throughout. His reading displayed the literary and narrative strengths of the project. When he was young (the summer of 1980) he was part of a youth NOLS adventure program in the Alaska. On one of the days that they were out they misread the tide and spent the day paddling upstream to find a passage that wasn’t there. Maps and compasses were broken out, and while the leaders were weighing the merits of portaging to to try to regain their course, backtracking to try to find a new way, or changing their target destination — Weaver says that it was great to not be a leader at a time like that — they realized their map was published in 1960. Was the world really that different? In their case, yes. On March 27, 1964 there was a 9.2 earthquake that had erased the passage the crew had expected to find, and the map could give them no way to find it that was much more trustworthy than luck.

CETACEAN is brimming with these kinds of narrative metaphors. While they were finding new course, they saw a group of men in the stream “fishing,” by kicking the fish while the salmon were migrating. For every fish they “caught” they likely injured four more beyond survival. He also includes a description of the cultural conservatism of killer whales; for some, salmon is the only dietary staple. The steady death of the salmon creates a void that fundamentally changes the ecosystem, and will likely starve the whales that have not learned to eat anything else. He doesn’t need to connect the dots to humans’ effects on climate change — they connect themselves. Lest we forget that this is mixed-media performance art and not a published book, Weaver described the 100-foot blue whale marionette sculpture in progress, constructed out of repurposed plastic bottles. 

Kaplan’s novel, on the other hand, grew from being a young adult/middle-grade novel into an adult one. Weaver described it as having a “Russian nesting doll feel” (a feature he particularly enjoyed); Kaplan replied that this is a mixture of literary influence and the kinds of novels that she likes to read. The Overstory by Richard Powers and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss both figured significantly in how she constructed the book alongside her love of the “textured novel,” a novel told through other forms of writing, like letters, diaries, interviews, book reviews, and other ephemera. Novels with this kind of texture, she says, really open up opportunities for playing with how events and ideas come together.

When the conversation turned to the process of writing a novel like that she asked the audience: “There are a lot of writers here. How many of you write in a linear way?” One [friend’s] hand went up, and she responded, “Okay, but you’re a physicist,” to a general laugh. 

This seemed to take the Q & A into where the audience really wanted it to go, after hearing the readings and details of the artists’ work. “It was really hard to just take off 20 years of literary scholarship,” Kaplan admitted, to sympathetic nods, “but now when I read fiction I read like a writer instead of like a literary critic.” Weaver’s description of how “projects like these never come in orderly,” and that the best thing you can do is write like you don’t have a page or time limit (i.e., leaving nothing out in the beginning, and then editing or moving parts around later) resonated particularly well. There’s so much in it, and so much left out.

It’s often not the answer the audience hopes to hear—that so much of the work of making art is, in fact, work, but it comes off particularly well with two interdisciplinary artists. 

Recommended Reading from this Q & A

  • Rare Stuff, by Brett Ashley Kaplan
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs
  • If, on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  • The Overstory, by Richard Powers
  • The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  • The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Top image by Jessica Hammie.