First you see birch trees, their slender, white and black trunks standing tall against the sunlit landscape. But look again, and other parts of the picture catch your eye - like smoke spewing out of the trees' leafless tops or the man on a ladder, encircling the middle birch with chimney bricks. Soon you realize this is no natural forest.
Titled "Birch Smokestacks," this painting by Olga Zubrilova is just one of 24 pieces in "The World Through the Eyes of Our Children," an exhibit of Russian children's art now touring the United States.
Currently on display in the Ethel H. Blum Gallery at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, the paintings reflect the young artists' hopes and concerns about life in their industrial - and heavily polluted - city of Nizhny Tagil, an industrial metropolis east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains. Creative and colorful, the images also convey powerful environmental messages that these children want to share with people everywhere.
"I painted the big smokestack releasing its gas directly into the sun," says young Sveta Mysovskikh in describing her drawing "Crying Sun." "Of course, the sun doesn't like this to happen, so it is crying. People should see this and understand that we need to take care of nature."
Other paintings, which were originally created for an ecological poster contest to which over 400 children, ages 8-to-16, contributed, have similar themes. In one painting, for example, Alyosha Ivanov drew a giant boot walking across the planet "to show people that we must somehow prevent this continual destruction of nature."
Already the exhibit, which is being sponsored in the US by the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), is making a strong impression. Here at College of the Atlantic, a school that specializes in environmental studies, observers say they are struck not only by the children's moving messages, but also by the sophistication and vision of many of the paintings.
"I think we can all learn a tremendous amount by looking through the eyes of these children," says Carl Little, the college's director of public affairs. "These images are so strong they will be difficult for adults and policymakers to ignore."
The artwork also seems to speak profoundly to other children. Jackie Calabrese, a seventh-grader from Conner/Emerson School in Bar Harbor says she can see from the paintings that the artists live in a very pretty place, but that all the city's factories are making it look "awful." And, adds student Rebecca Gaynor, the Russian children "let people know it's not just their problem, but it's everyone's and we all need to do something about it."
Most interesting to Joanne Carpenter, College of the Atlantic art historian and painter , is that despite the subject matter, the paintings are artistic and beautiful. Some, she points out, use simple, bold shapes and colors, while others are more fantastical or use Christian images. Either way, she says, "there is a sense that the children are drawing out of deep artistic and cultural traditions."
And while the drawings' messages may seem ominous, many of the artists' written comments express their optimism for a cleaner future. Rich in natural resources such as iron, gold, and platinum, this city has been an industrial center for over 200 years. Today, six large factories manufacture steel, coke, plastics, and chemicals, and according to the ISC, emit over 141 pollutants.
But that could be changing. In a joint US-Russian project begun two years ago, citizens, government, and environmental organizations are working with groups such as the ISC and the US Environmental Protection Agency to develop a way to clean up pollution in the city. Through community projects such as the ecological poster contest and the subsequent art exhibit, they have succeeded in rallying public support for cleanup initiatives.
Now more people are feeling that by getting involved, they can really make a difference. As young artist Tanya Zubova puts it, "I think our situation could be better if everyone pitched in and tried to help. When we hope for the best, our dreams can come true."
One inspiring example for the people of Nizhny Tagil is their sister city, Chattanooga, Tenn. Formerly one of America's most polluted urban centers, Chattanooga succeeded in a drastic cleanup effort and was recently recognized as a model clean city by the President's Council on Sustainable Development.
It is also where the children's art exhibit will head once it leaves Bar Harbor April 12. Having the exhibit in in Chattanooga will build support for joint US-Russian efforts to help Nizhny Tagil follow Chattanooga's example, says Barbara Felitti, the ISC's Eurasia program director.
The exhibit will remain in the art gallery at the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building in downtown Chattanooga until the end of June. It will then travel to undetermined venues in New York and Boston, and other cities around the country for the rest of the year.