Science is a network of complex ideas, hypotheses, and truths about the world around us. And while it’s not always easy to grasp, it’s imperative that we do.
Christian Kasperkovitz, an artist who draws under the name Elkpen, has built a career making climate science accessible to all.
“I’m interested in how to tell the story about the environment and conservation in a way that is inclusive and talks to as many people as possible,” she said. This has gone through many iterations over the last 15 years — from drawing on fabric to illustrating entire walls — but it all comes down to the same source material.
“I’m just always interested in environmental news. I’ve got a background script going all the time that keeps my radar on. A lot of the time, it’s very locally focused. In Los Angeles, it’s the river and water conservation, and that naturally brings in larger conservation issues.”
Christian is naturally intrigued by the world around her: “the news, things I’m reading, things I see. I’ll be reading about something and I’ll go down a rabbit hole with it, or there’s an idea I’ve been trying to unpack for a long time and I have at it again.”
Trashcomic, one of her latest projects, is a series of short graphic stories that began in 2018 for Geosphere. It covers a range of environmental subjects, anchored by a sense of wonder and positivity. Ultimately, it aims to address the notion that, as Christian noted, “Climate change is such a present reality and yet so absent from our consciousness, given the size of it.”
As she’s realized over the course of her career as a graphic artist and devoted naturalist, these subjects can often be too big to contain. The beauty of nature, though, is that it’s all ultimately connected. “It’s hard to always keep comics focused on specific issues around regeneration and the new economy,” she said, “because those topics are so connected to stories about our wellbeing. It’s instructive that every time it starts to go far afield, it always comes full circle.”
Where Trash Comic and Geosphere marry is this nexus between the regenerative economy, regenerative relationships, and regeneration of soil — and how this is essential to every conversation, “whether it’s about human equality or fresh air or wildlife conservation.”
“Trashcomic has been a great union of a whole bunch of threads that I’ve been pursuing for years,” Christian said. Since childhood, she has always been drawing and spending her days outdoors. It was only a matter of time until the two interests came together. “I grew up in New York and Nova Scotia — my parents were divorced — and I think that city-country split actually had quite a big impact on the way I look at things,” she said. “I began thinking about stories in an urban context that have to do with open spaces.”
When she was ten, her stepmother gave her a book of Saul Steinberg illustrations. “Before, I’d always been drawing horses and hearts. That book opened a huge door in my mind.” At that point, she began honing her wildlife art, inspired by the images in field guides. To this day, she finds glimmers of Steinberg’s inspiration in her work.
A one-time job for the Bronx Zoo a couple of decades ago turned a hobby into potential for a career. “That really turned my head towards thinking about conservation issues. When I moved back to LA, I got involved with projects around the Los Angeles River. LA is such a unique city in the way that its natural history intersect with the built environment. Being primed by those experiences in New York, I came here and got really invested in how community and nature relate.”
“Now I love science. It’s sort of taken over — I don’t think about a lot of other things.”
This holistic approach is what makes Christian’s work singular. Take, for example, two commercial projects she completed in Santa Barbara and Mexico. In Mexico, a company wanted her to sketch a gold course. “The golf course is right next to the Sea of Cortez, which is basically the eighth wonder of the world. So why don’t we include the golf course, but make it about the natural history here?” Similarly, for a Santa Barbara winery, “we were able to beautifully weave together the story of what people do and the place in which they do it, which includes the animals and the geography and the weather.”
And then there’s Elkology, a project where Christian illustrated neighborhoods’ natural surroundings and displayed them in innovative ways, like on fences, telephone poles, and subway signs. “In getting that underway, my husband continually reminded me to focus on a sense of wonder. The idea of working in public spaces and with a very large, diverse audiences really focused my thinking on how to express ideas. Trying to take this back door of wonder or humor just carries the ball a lot further down the field.”
Christian’s husband has been an inspiration and sounding board for decades. He also helped her come up with the name Elkpen. “When I first met him, I adopted an elk as a kind of proxy in all my letters and drawings to him. And as I started to get more interested in trying to draw for a living, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you just add pen to it? it’s what you’re always doing.’”
Then came Trashcomic, where Christian transferred the messages from her wall drawings and bus benches to the Internet, with the same nuanced perspective, holistic approach, and acute awareness of her audience.
“Probably the greatest challenge in Trashcomic is trying to find a tone for topics that’s inviting and inclusive and ignites joy and curiosity, and is open-ended,” she said.
“I hope to motivate people ultimately through something positive and not discourage them through a restatement of the facts.”
“Since then, I’ve just tried to keep on that path,” she added. “It’s a great place to go — it’s a great kind of refuge from the relentlessness to the bad news.”
And while her work is a refuge of sorts, it also implores us to see the beauty in the world around us—and to preserve it. “Individual awareness and individual action is worth it. And not only worth it, but meaningful. It just enriches a life. It’s just a wonder, the miraculousness of the natural world and the stunning reality of how connected we are to it despite doing everything we can to ignore and overlook that connection.”
With much of the world on lock-down during this coronavirus pandemic, Christian continues drawing and looking for those inspiring stories. She’s currently working on a set of four murals (or as she calls them, wall drawings) for a school yard about the natural history of LA.
“I was so depressed the first few weeks of stay-at-home because I just worried about how much we wouldn’t change,” she said. “But there are a lot of great people doing great work out there right now, and everybody’s thinking that same thing: let’s press the restart button and get going. Now I’m invigorated. I’m doubling down and I’m excited about what happens when we emerge.”
Despite her sometimes outsized canvases, Christian works simply, with a small sketch pad and a black ink pen. She picks a topic — “It’s like a heap of things I can blindly pull the index card from each week and say, ‘let’s start here.’” — and begins doodling.
“Then I go back in and try to cast about for what is the most rhythmic, simple way to tell the story. Did it hit all the little side threads that are related to keep it rich? It’s really just a lot of trial and error, but a lot of hope. It’s redrawing and rewriting over and over until it works.”
These days, she also looks for ways to maintain a sense of joy and peace, without feeling the need to constantly keep busy. Although, given all the ideas bubbling up in her mind, she probably could.
“There are a million things I ought to be making comics about every single day, but I think I’ve spent a lot more time just being preoccupied with thinking about things. I hope that I can find a way to process all of that material and get it out there because I have so very much to say.”
Instead, her focus has shifted to what the world looks like on the other side. “We’re here because of what we’ve been doing — and we know what we’re doing. We know how we have violated the stasis with reckless development in wild spaces and we know how we’re abusing our fresh waterways and our air and our animals. We know all that. And we also know how to change. We have the tools.”
It goes back to the sense of contemplation beneath every one of her drawings, whether it’s on a city wall or on the Internet.
“We are just so hellbent and busy on being productive and convenient and looking great and having everything. And we overlook that the only things we need are clean air, clean water, and each other. So I think it’s important to reflect on how you can simplify your life — what can you do with that?”
Maybe we ought to approach our world and our future a bit like Christian approaches her work: with a lot of trial and error, but a whole lot of hope.
You can find more of Elkpen’s Trashcomics here.