WARREN, R.I. — For the past few years, Josie Morway has struggled with how her ideas around combatting climate change have been “too simplistic.”
A painter and self-described climate activist, Morway has long infused her passion for wildlife and the environment into her art, but at 46 years old, is realizing that individual behaviors won’t be enough.
“There’s been a lot of ‘greenwashing,’” said Morway, who now lives in the Greater Boston area, on a recent call. “I worry that some of the environmentally-based art that I’m creating is a way for people like me to sleep well at night.
“We’re not at that moment in history anymore. We need giant systemic changes,” she said.
For the last week, Morway has been working on a large-scale mural on Child Street in Warren, R.I. She was commissioned by the Warren Arts & Cultural Commission and The Avenue Concept, a public art nonprofit based in the Upper South neighborhood of Providence. When she was approached about possibly being commissioned for this mural, she had some of the same concerns and was “wondering if people thought art could fix things.”
Instead, she said the town impressed her with its conversations about managed retreat by communities in the path of sea level rise and how to respond and be resilient ahead of the eventual inundation.
The town sent her a copy of “Rising — Dispatches from the New American Shore,” by Rhode Island-based author Elizabeth Rush for inspiration. A 2019 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, the book opens at Jacob’s Point in Warren, a salt marsh.
The mural features a saltmarsh sparrow as that section of Warren is known as the bird’s native breeding grounds. Saltgrass, native phragmites, and maritime marsh-elder are also prominent, all of which are important parts of the ecosystem at Jacob’s Point.
In large capital letters, the phrase, “The seas are rising and so are we” is written across the top. Morway said she read this line in Rush’s book and felt it fit the theme of the installation, which she hopes will spark others to rise to the challenge of climate change.
Warren’s average elevation is seven feet above sea level, with projections that the area could realize nine feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, according to Bob Rulli, Warren’s director of planning and community development.
“We must be very vigilant about what those impacts could be to the town and our residents,” Rulli said. “Conveying awareness about climate change and sea level rise through art is an alternative means of communication, which we can utilize to raise awareness of the inevitable.”
The Avenue Concept and town will commission a new artist each year to paint the mural over. Yarrow Thorne, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, said the intention behind the mural is to continue raising awareness of climate change and rising sea levels in each design.
Morway got her start in art in Providence after receiving a degree in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design but has held numerous jobs from data and web development to urban planning and geographic information system mapping over the years. Growing up on Cape Cod, her parents were both artists, so being creative was encouraged. While she tried “everything else,” she always reverted back to art — like skipping classes or stealing time on the clock at a job to paint.
At one point, she wanted to be a writer or journalist. “And then I read a book that said you shouldn’t become a writer unless you absolutely can’t avoid it,” said Morway, whose art has been featured around the world. “Well that’s how I feel about art.”
Morway’s work has been displayed in museums and galleries across the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Mexico. She has also worked with organizations, such as Pangeaseed and ”Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” to improve awareness about climate change while raising funds for conservation.
“What is sufficient enough to combat climate change? It’s complicated and beyond me,” Morway said. “It takes towns and national governments and corporations. It’s so much bigger than individuals. Consumer behaviors isn’t enough. You biking to work won’t stop rising seas.
“It’s something I struggle with every day. Like how could a piece of art possibly help the world? I don’t think it can,” she said. “It might not be my mural that directly impacts one individual who can make a change. But if the mural works as a tool for these other, bigger players than me, then I am glad to be part of it.”