San Francisco photographer Robert Dawson, for example, turns a lens on the planet's water shortages and politics. He captures vivid images of dams, dried-up rivers, homeless people huddled around a water pipe.
In Palo Alto, Linda Gass explores water matters in her stitched silk paintings. The rippling, detailed map-quilts include "Wetlands Dream Revisited," in which Gass imagines what Bair Island near Redwood City would look like if its salt ponds were restored to wetlands.
Sometimes decision-makers call in artistic eyes. Last year, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission held a design competition for new ideas on shoreline design in the face of sea-level rise, a result of global warming.
The creativity in the 130 entries included building floating structures and "putting a temporary inflatable curtain across the Golden Gate to stop high tides," BCDC executive director Will Travis said. One proposal included using lasers to illustrate for the public where sea levels could rise to.
"It's so often hard to conceptualize an idea," Travis said. "When we say we need sustainable development, what does that mean? ... Once you see something, you can riff off that."
On Sept. 16, Dawson, Gass and Travis will meet at the Palo Alto Art Center for an evening of discussion on how their worlds intertwine. The free talk is titled "San Francisco Bay: Where Environment, Art and Science Meet."
The event is the first in a new speakers' series organized by the Cubberley Artists, who rent studios from the city of Palo Alto at Cubberley Community Center. The old classrooms have been transformed into havens for painters, sculptors and other artists. Gass painted her walls and floor in bright blues and greens that set off her art as though they're part of it.
It's rare that a city provides studio space at reasonable rents, Gass said, and so she and other Cubberley artists started the series to give back to the community. They planned interdisciplinary panels that could spark talks about links: between art and science, between different types of artists, and between different ways of storytelling.
The Oct. 14 panel discussion, for instance, focuses on different techniques of animation. Cubberley artist Patricia Hannaway, who was senior animator for the character of Gollum in film's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," will share the podium with fellow animator James Buckhouse.
"We're really trying to get a younger audience in," said Gass, optimistic that students might be drawn to a talk on animation.
The Oct. 21 talk, "Synergy: Artists Collaborating Across Disciplines," focuses on artists doing interdisciplinary projects in such media as sound design, painting and film. Artists set to speak are Guillermo Galindo, Fernando Hernandez, Robin Lasser, Adrienne Pao and Nora Raggio.
The series concludes on Nov. 18 with "Transformed: Turning Found Objects into Fine Art." Six Cubberley artists will speak: Peter Foley, Inge Infante, Marianne Lettieri, Julia Nelson-Gal, Michael Pauker and Christina Velazquez.
While the BCDC's Will Travis has never spoken on a panel with artists before, he's used to working with architects and other creative people who bring ideas to visual life. And Gass has been an environmentalist for as long as she can remember, drawing inspiration from her love of the land and scientific curiosity.
On Sept. 16, she'll most likely speak about her latest trio of art quilts: "Treatment?", an aerial view of the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant; "Sanitary?", a view from above of Newby Island Sanitary Landfill in Milpitas; and "Refined?" an aerial view of the Chevron Refinery in Richmond.
Gass got inspired by a talk given by the poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder, in which he asked the audience where their water comes from and goes.
"I realized that although I'm an environmentalist I don't know," Gass said. Pointing to each of her three new artworks in turn, the Los Altos resident said: "This is where my sewage goes. This is where my garbage goes. This is where my gasoline gets refined." She laughed. "I got very personal and I got dirty."
In accompanying artist's statements, Gass pondered issues that came up while she was researching — and in some cases, touring — the sites. After water is treated, how does discharging it into the Bay affect the salinity? How vulnerable is groundwater to contamination by landfills? How is the Bay's water quality affected by having a refinery next to it?
When people view her art, Gass says she always tries to leave them with positive suggestions, such as ideas for personal water conservation. "I try to do it in this appealing, gentle way," she said with a smile.
Nearby, animator Patricia Hannaway is also thinking ahead to her upcoming panel talk. In her Cubberley studio, she's surrounded by her drawings of people who step and sway on the paper. Some lend themselves to animation; others become fine-art paintings. Either way, "everything is about composing and energy and movement," she said.
Hannaway, a contractor who also teaches as a visiting professor at Stanford University, is quick to say that for her animation is not fueled by the computer. The machine is a tool; it's the artistic skill and deep-down character creation that counts, she said.
In Hannaway's talk, she'll have plenty of characters to draw upon: Besides working on J.R.R. Tolkien's literary character of Gollum, the Disney-trained artist also worked on the film "Mulan" and is now creating a short film called "The Storm." She points to a storyboard from the film, and emotional "expression sketches" for the character of Flame.
"It's a love story between a dancing candle (Flame) and a raindrop on a window pane," Hannaway said. "She paints with wax and he paints with raindrops." The two communicate without voices, connecting through art. Ultimately, Hannaway plans to submit "The Storm" to film festivals.
When creating a character, Hannaway feels like an actor, studying gestures, expressions and idiosyncracies, she says. With Gollum, she and the other animators also had a real actor. Andy Serkis voiced Gollum, and his movements were recorded through motion-capture technology, then combined with animation.
The character of Gollum is so obsessed with the ring that Hannaway saw him as an addict. "I spent time in a hospital watching people detox, and ... I read about addiction," she said. "That showed in his gestures, his moments of desperation."
She added: "You have to know a character's background. ... You're creating a performance."
What: "Connecting Art," a new panel series by Cubberley Artists and other speakers
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
When: Thursdays at 7 p.m.: Sept. 16, Oct. 14 and 21, Nov. 18
Info: No reservations are required. For more information, call the art center at 650-329-2366 or go to http://cubberleyartists.com .