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'Solarpunk' event showcases art for a greener future

Pieces of art lie on a floor.
Solarpunk Future
Under construction: Fanciful spacecraft created by artist Ryder Henry await installation for May 11's Solarpunk Future event.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

If the term “solarpunk” reminds you of “cyberpunk,” it’s no accident. The former was coined to suggest an alternative to the latter: not a dystopian future ruled by malevolent robots and warped by ecological devastation, but one where humans have resourcefully harnessed green technologies to live in harmony with nature.

It’s a future that might need to be seen to be believed in, and that’s where Solar Punk Future! comes in. The Thu., May 11, event at the Hill District’s Energy Innovation Center brings together artists envisioning green tomorrows alongside the inventors, scientists and employers who could help make them happen.

The one-day festival has its roots in Geek Art / Green Innovators (GA/GI), an annual event created in 2010 by local artist and entrepreneur Christine Bethea. For 10 years, GA/GI took over — for one night every spring — the stretch of Penn Avenue where Bloomfield meets Garfield. The event highlighted everything from electric cars and sustainable fashion to flower sculptures that harvested renewable energy.

“Sustainability” was less of a buzzword in those days. “When I started [GA/GI], people weren’t even aware it was a movement,” said Bethea. “It was more of a tough sell back then.”

One of her goals was to show that “artists are good for other things than just drawing and painting.” In fact, she said, because of their “willingness to accept this new thought process,” artists are “good teachers and promoters of sustainability.”

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Contemporary images of a dystopian future are often traced to films like “Mad Max” (1979), while the term “cyberpunk” originated in a short story published in 1983. So “solarpunk” has had a few decades of catching up to do, whether in fiction or in visual art that often depicts not wasted landscapes and marauding hordes but clear skies, abundant fields and orchards, solar arrays and rooftop gardens. (Friendly hovercraft seem optional.)

Dystopias risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Solarpunk thinking complements that of environmentalists who believe that terrifying people with grim scenarios induces little but paralysis.

The solarpunk aesthetic “is how communities vision a path forward,” said Josephine Gingerich, of the Solarpunk Future! co-host Reimagine Jobs, a coalition of groups including the Climate Reality Project, the League of Women Voters, the Breathe Project, and others.

Bethea’s last GA/GI was in 2019. The artist, who’s a member of the City of Pittsburgh’s Art & Civic Design Commission, embraced this opportunity to reboot her festival with new partners like Reimagine Jobs and the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors of Pittsburgh, along with longtime collaborators like art collective BOOM Concepts.

Also contributing art on May 11 will be students of Passport Academy, Pittsburgh Glass Center, the We All Eat Initiative, Assemble, and artists Jason Sauer and Camo Nesbit, and Cory Bonnet.

Others among the 70 vendors and exhibitors are Landforce, Construction Junction, Ecotone Renewables, Catalyst Connection, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., Pittsburgh Regional Transit, Tech 25, BRITE Energy Innovators, and Green Mountain Energy.

“It’s imagining a positive future and view of the world — assuming we can get our act together and make things work,” said Bethea.

More information on Solarpunk Future! is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: