Activist Heidi Quante visits RCAH for second Wednesday Night Live

"To me, it’s almost the equivalent of ‘when did you first realize you were human?’” Heidi Quante, artist and director of the nonprofit Creative Catalysts said of becoming interested in the environment.

Quante visited the RCAH last week as a WNL guest to talk about starting the nonprofit and the various environmental projects she’s contributed to, including 350.org and HighWaterLine. “It was not one moment. It was a series of experiences in my life. It’s one of those things where I can’t not do it.”

Quante said Creative Catalysts offers communities and clients a mix of workshops, projects, and advice and networking opportunities. In creating the nonprofit, Quante said she wanted to carve her own path, rather than choosing one specific discipline. “I didn’t want to do one at the exclusion of the others, so I brought them all together.”

Artist and Creator of HighWaterLine Eve Mosher marked 70 miles of New York City coastline with a chalker (similar to the kind used to make lines on baseball fields) to show residents the devastating potential climate change could have on communities. Interested, Quante contacted Mosher in 2012 and the two turned their attention toward Miami, the city most vulnerable to storm damages and sea-level changes in the U.S.

“When you talk to the experts, it will make Katrina look like a cakewalk. It just will wipe out the city,” Quante said.  “It is working to make neighborhoods more resilient in identifying existing resources and getting people to talk to each other in advance.”

HighWaterLine is the perfect example of the work she does as a creative catalyst, Quante said, adding that her role was to bring together scientists, artists and community members to work on the project.  

“It was really important to us to do these projects where the people wanted us to. We didn’t want to be the outside do-gooders,” Quante said. With the intention of connecting the community, the artists partnered with Miami residents to start storytelling workshops that focused on resiliency. “And they said ‘We totally have a cultural knowledge of resiliency. We already know how to do this.’”

Quante noted the potential community projects have to lay the groundwork to tackle other kinds of issues. A local grassroots movement called Resilient Miami is endeavoring to fix the issues brought to light by HighWaterLine. The project has expanded to other cities as well, including Bristol, Philadelphia and Boston.

“It sparked something that was not happening before. It literally sparked a community movement that is now realizing these solutions,” Quante said. “It’s evidence of the power of art to create a new space to deal with some of the most pressing challenges of our time.”

Elizabeth Martin, RCAH sophomore, says she identifies with Quante’s work and could see herself in a similar role in the future. Currently, Martin is altering a set of images of the Red Cedar River to illustrate the potential environmental impacts of pollution and littering.

“I want to make at least the students and faculty and everyone that walks campus aware of what will happen if we don’t take the precautions of recycling our plastics or doing other conscious things,” Martin said. “We go across the bridge and we look at the river and it’s beautiful. I feel like it would really impact people if one day, all we see is trash and muck.”

Quante has some advice for young artists like Martin.

“I would say to people who are for social change, a lot of stuff can’t be learned in books. You just have to go out and do it and you have to do internships for fellowships,” Quante said. “It’s okay if you can’t explain what you do. I started using the term creative catalyst because it was honoring all the expertise I have and not relegating it to just one because it made other people more comfortable… The world probably needs it if it doesn’t exist.” 

Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block. Header image by Ian Siporin. "Families Chalking the Line in Miami" by Jayme Gershen. "Fairy Chalking the Line in England" courtesy of High Water Line. Video courtesy of Matthew Toro.

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