20 Conscious Artists Who Go Beyond the Canvas

A conscious artist uses his or her craft to help and to heal, as a full expression of the rights, the wrongs, and the comedy of our everyday.

Consciousness means a great many things to many different people. For the artists featured in our roundup of a mere twenty, their work signifies something beyond the canvas: a living force. Their work transcends the material and “the self” connecting us to the highest purpose of art. That purpose? Well, it’s in the eye of the beholder and the collector. Certainly their work has aesthetic value as well as monetary; but above all else, its cultural value is priceless.

Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most famous contemporary artists. ArtReview magazine hailed him as number one in their Power 100 list.

His mediums range from sculpture and installation to cultural and political criticism. He’s outspoken on the social and cultural implications of China as a superpower, has been put under house arrest, and is constantly under surveillance. But he has a sense of humor about it, though that, too, has been oppressed.

Scottish artist Katie Paterson sonic boomed her way into the art scene when she displayed her mobile phone number in neon on a gallery wall, inviting visitors to dial it. On the other end: Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Her work encompasses installation, sculpture, transmission, and sound. Paterson exhibits her work all over the world and is now the first Artist in Residence with the Astrophysics Group in the UCL Physics & Astronomy department. She investigates ideas of “Ancient Darkness and Early Light in the Universe, Dark Energy, Dark Matter, and very distant objects,” creating a new body of work based on her findings.

Kim Abeles is a multi-discipline and media artist who explores the urban environment and social issues. The Smog Collector series brought her work to national and international attention.

Seattle, Washington-based Chris Jordan is considered the “It” green artist. His large (and small) scale works depict mass consumption and waste.

Terike Haapoja is a visual artist who works and lives in Helsinki, Finland. Her mediums include video, installation and stage projects, which uses the innovations of new media and technology to address our interactions (both human and technological) with the natural world.

For more than three decades, Roy Staab has created art from materials as natural as reeds, grasses, twine, hand-woven ropes of hemp, stone, stray, snow and the earth itself. His work leaves little to no impact on the planet and last only as long as the materials do themselves.

Mary Mattingly creates photographs and sculptures depicting futuristic landscapes. She also creates wearable sculptures (e.g., her wearable homes series) and is also well-known for her ecological installations, including Waterpod.

Award-winning photographer Camille Seaman‘s work has been published in National Geographic Magazine, Outside, Seed and more. In 2008, she exhibited “The Last Iceberg” at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, which highlights the fragile environment of the Polar Regions.

Adriane Colburn says of her work: “I have developed a series of installations that investigate the complex relationships between human infrastructure, earth systems, technology and the natural world. These constructions, comprised primarily of layers of hand cut paper, digital prints, video and projected light, reimagine maps and photographs of places that are obscured by geography, scale or the passing of time.”

Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira creates recycled wood installations that seem to burst out of gallery walls and ceilings. He sources his weathered plywood from the streets of Sao Paulo.

Riva Weinstein works with found and reclaimed natural and industrial materials. Weinstein further explains, “[these] sacred works of art…document my daily life, and comment on our cultural material obsessions. I strive to open your eyes and your heart to new possibilties, hoping to inspire renewed connections to nature, and human nature.”

George Boorujy was a fisherman, carpenter, potter and hitch-hiker before he became a painter, known for his incredibly detailed ink paintings of North American birds and other animals.

Controversial and fabulously wealthy, he may be. Damien Hirst is also one of the most influential artists of his generation and creator of the iconic shark suspended in formaldehyde entitled: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. 

Peter Coffin references art history as a springboard for humorous re-renderings that bridge contemporary art and everyday life – for example his “Spiral Staircase,” a rendering of Escher’s “Infinite Staircase” in dizzying logic. Additionally, his “Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art” print, an everyman’s ode to Bruce Nauman’s famous neon sign. He also bases projects on aura photography and plant communication, including a greenhouse performance space for musicians and sound artists to communicate with greenery.

Through performance-based paintings, Ana Teresa Fernandez explores the boundaries of gender stereotypes.

Tony Matelli‘s hyper-realistic sculptures often depict primates and objects just “getting by.” Almost dead; perilously unwanted. Via Leo Koenig Inc, “these sculptures serve as metaphors for our own social malaise and our general struggle for survival…mimic[ing our own] conditions associated with trying to locate ones self within our social world.”

Artist Troy Gua says of his series, Pop Hybrids: [it’s] about the reduction of personality into logo, the reduction of individuality into the collective, the reduction of photography into design. They are a subtraction of images: the recycling, re-using and reducing of two or more images into one iconographic collection of shapes.”

Miru Kim is not an animal rights activist, she is an artist who dared to fuse her gaze with that of an animal considered most beastly. “Pig eyes are remarkable,” she said. “They see right into the eyes of a human being….There was no language to bridge that disparity – the mysterious gap between the gaze of a pig and that of mine. But when I mingled with them with my skin, the gap momentarily closed in, as if I had forgotten my own language. My words were lost, and I felt the swinish grunts resonate inside me.”

Julia Fullerton-Batten is known for focusing our gaze on the multifaceted world of women.

Wolfgang Laib‘s installations cast an intrinsic natural beauty and minimalist appearance on the ritual of nourishment.

Editor’s note: For more on the conscious art scene, read Dominique Pacheco’s weekly column heARTbeat.