The Human Epoch: Living in the Anthropocene with the Benton

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The newest exhibit at the Benton Museum of Art centers around what the world is now compared to what it was prior to 1950. In this painting, the three men painted on such a small scale is to show how vast and expansive the landscape is. Photo provided by author

On Thursday evening, the William Benton Museum of Art hosted Professor Robert Thorson to discuss the newest exhibition, The Human Epoch: Living in the Anthropocene. Professor Thorson is the Department Head of Geoscience here at the University of Connecticut and has spent his entire life studying environmental related topics.  

The Anthropocene is centered around the notion of what the world is now, compared to what it was prior to 1950. Scholars have decided on the year 1950 to mark the beginning of industrialization, new chemicals, new plastics and much more.  

“It’s an official block of geological time that has been proposed and dated for twenty years, and we’re near the end of certifying it globally,” said Professor Thorson.  

The concept of Anthropocene is based around the notion of before and after: earth prior to industrialization, and earth post industrialization. The world began as an ice sheet and then eventually transformed into civilization. However, the biggest moment was the creation and discovery of entities such as fossil fuels and petroleum. Technology is currently changing our planet, and not only the oceans and lands—It’s remaking the entire earth, including the atmosphere that is keeping us warm.  

“What we are doing is using energy beyond our existence to reshape our planet in whatever way we want,” said Professor Thorson.  

The course, titled GSCI 100E The Human Epoche: Living in the Anthropocene, works as an introductory course to inform students and give them basic background knowledge. According to its description it “provides a novel frame for contemporary environmental issues such as climate change, sustainability, mass extinctions, land use and waste disposal” and analyzes the “interaction between earthly processes and human affairs.”  

This oil painting viewed through an environmentalist lens reveals the true meaning, the empty background symbolizing deforestation and the rock wall showing man-made excavation. Photo provided by author

Professor Thorson finds students to have a sense of relief after finishing the course, stating that he believes it helps their anxiety surrounding such topics. Because students are getting more informed and are becoming more knowledgeable, they are able to understand their impact on the planet and what they can do to help.  

Assistant Curator of the Benton and Academic Liaison Amanda Douberley chose numerous pieces to display this concept of anthropocene. Her goal for this exhibition was to support the teaching of this course and give students, as well as the larger community, a point of entrance into the course.  

The first piece she displayed was an oil painting by William Louis Sonntag titled “Blue Ridge Wilderness.” Through his piece, Sonntag reveals various attitudes about nature. The three tiny men that are included in the painting work to highlight how truly vast and enormous the landscape is. He purposefully created an imaginary land, one that does not actually exist in the real world.  

Another image that Douberely showed is an oil painting titled “Old New England” by Wilson Henry Irvine that depicts a house surrounded by landscape. At first glance, it seems like a regular painting. However, when looked at through an environmentalist lens we see the true meaning. The empty background symbolizes deforestation, and the rock wall showcases man made excavation.  

Professor Thorson holds a Master’s from the University of Alaska and a PhD from the University of Washington, which he earned while working as a geologist. He has held teaching appointments at numerous universities, including but not limited to, Harvard University, Yale University and Dartmouth College. He has taught at UConn since 1984 and is an award-winning author, among other things.  

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