Thirty years ago, not long after graduating Minneapolis College of Art and Design, artist Nancy Waller created her first environmentalist art piece — a polar bear screaming into the void. This year, just in time for the holidays, Waller’s latest installation can be seen in the storefront of her Wasteland Mfg. Co. art gallery, just around the corner from the Royal Grounds Coffee shop in Kingfield.
“I’m an environmentalist artist, and I wanted to have a storefront studio-retail spot so that I could have a take on the world and have the interaction and feedback from people right away about what I’m doing,” said Waller, sitting at her desk inside Wasteland, surrounded by her art. “So it’s been a 30-year interactive performance installation, ongoing for the earth and the environment.
“I’ve tried every angle. I’m a recycler and a master scrap-crafter, redoing and repurposing. I’ve started with every environmental disaster, starting with the Exxon Valdez [oil spill], and they just keep coming. [Japanese filmmaker] Akira Kurosawa says that an artist’s duty is to not avert one’s eyes. So to look boldly at the landscape and see it in destruction, we’re doing it, and now we see the science is clear with climate crisis. I’ve been saying it for 30 years, but nobody listens because I’m an artist and nutty. But science isn’t enough. You have to win the hearts and minds, so I’m trying to come up with any angle I can.”
When we last left Waller, she’d gained international fame for her “Twin Peaks” installation at Wasteland.
After series star Kyle MacLachlan tweeted about it, Waller and Wasteland went viral and CBS shut her down with a copyright infringement and a cease-and-desist order. Out of the limelight but always working, Waller currently has a new viral-worthy exhibit in “#OccupyXmas,” a challenge to her fellow bipeds to rethink how Christmas consumerism impacts the climate.
“I got in a great state of despair about the climate crisis last year, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go crazy if I don’t come up with a method of dealing with it,’” she said. “What’s the carbon footprint of Christmas? It’s obscene what people do in the name of holidays. It’s all got to stop — traveling, shopping, buying crap for each other that gets thrown out.
“We don’t even think about the true cost of the production of the things we buy and the disposal of it. OK boomers, what have we done? I heard a great quote: ‘We are the first generation to know the scale and the scope of the destruction, and we are the last generation that can do anything about it.’ David Bowie said, ‘We can be heroes,’ and I don’t know what to fight with but my storefront. I have my window display here that’s like a 3-D billboard 24-7. I’m not out on the street, but I put my toys in there and they protest by proxy.”
It’s been a busy year at Wasteland. Last winter, the gallery hosted a Toy Strike for Climate protest, with tiny trolls holding “Fridays For Future” signs. In the summer, Waller hosted a month-long bed-in for the climate crisis, with her playing Yoko Ono to a life-size John Lennon puppet she created. Not long after, Waller created a mannequin of environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose message to neighbors strolling past on West 42nd Street was, “Can you hear me?”
The answer is yes. South Minneapolis is currently a hotbed of more and more environmental activism, including the artist/singer/songwriter Camille Gage-led Act On Climate weekly vigil that launches Dec. 5 on the 36th Street bridge over I-35W. And at the moment, the Wasteland window overflows with toys, nutcrackers and dolls holding “Climate Emergency” signs while, inside, an empty chair sits with a dormant Santa hat and a sign proclaiming, “Santa On Strike.”
“You can have your picture taken without Santa, because he can’t make it,” said Waller. “The permafrost in the Arctic is melting. This is the first year there hasn’t been Arctic sea ice for the walruses and polar bears, so my premise is that Santa can’t get the reindeer off. They’re stuck in the mud, so he sent the word down from the North Pole — coming here first to Wasteland, because we’re open to it — that if we want Christmas, we have to do it right. We have to do it DIY. Let’s wrestle it back from Coca-Cola, who took the original Christmas and made it into this commercial nightmare that we all hate so much.
“Here’s the slogan: I’m going to wish people ‘a carbon-free Christmas and a net-zero New Year-o.’ Carbon-free Christmas? Can we do that? Just think about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. If the human species is to survive, we’ve got to flip the script.”
How do we do that?
“Don’t go anywhere. Stay home. Be nice to your neighbors. Don’t buy anything. Stop shopping. And if you want to give gifts, hand-make them,” she said. “We have a crisis in our culture now of not being nice to each other. Isn’t that the stupid message of Christmas, that we’re all supposed to come together? We’re supposed to be nice to our neighbors, and that doesn’t cost anything. It’s carbon-free.
“All the information is out there how to live a carbon-neutral life. You know, turn down the heat and put on your sweater. But everyone’s flying everywhere, what a devastating crazy thing to do, and stupid gifts. I’m a dreamer. That’s why I’m broke. But I’m rich in social capital, because I do know my neighbors, but it’s getting harder and harder.”
Thus far, #OccupyXmas may be a movement unto itself and not exactly trending. But that doesn’t deter Waller, who’s used to going it alone.
“This is my space,” she said. “One hundred and ten square feet—it’s nothing! But I’ve got a window, where the people walk by, so look out corporate America, no holds-barred. I have nothing else to fight with, and there’s nothing else to lose if this is the end, as I’m hearing the scientists say it is.
“I’m here almost every afternoon, and I have one-on-one conversations with people as they come by. It’s not like therapy, it’s like a reality check. It’s the Greta effect. I do this to talk to my neighbors and look ’em in the eye and say, ‘Is this happening? Is this real?’ What is that freaky psychology of, ‘Let’s just not deal with this’?
“I’ve seen this coming my whole life. I’ve been studying about it and fussing about it and worrying about it. I can’t believe I’ve been here for 30 years like Chicken Little. … What on earth? I know people don’t take me seriously, but what the heck.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].