Future Bear to the Rescue

A polar bear with a jetpack, Future Bear is fighting to prevent environmental disaster.

When the world can no longer rely on humans to save the planet, it’s Future Bear to the rescue.

The creation of two Rollins faculty members, Future Bear is part superhero to appeal to kids and part innovative storytelling to engage adults who appreciate the visual details and allusions to comic-book heroes and environmental themes.

The world of Future Bear is just one of many exhibitions on display at the 2014 Rollins Faculty Exhibition. The show at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum runs from March 22 through August 31 and highlights faculty work in a variety of artistic media.

The environmentally aware bear started as the brainchild of Professor of Art Rachel Simmons, who didn’t like the way polar bears were being portrayed in the mainstream media as helpless victims of melting ice or in commercials as cuddly toy-like creatures.

“I was just tired of people feeling sorry for polar bears,” Simmons says. “They always seemed passive victims. I thought, ‘What if the bears became empowered?’”

So she drew a bear with a jetpack. Things took off from there. After discussing her work with Associate Professor of History Julian Chambliss as the two practiced their separate TEDx Talks in 2010, the historian-writer asked if the artist had a story to go with her art. Simmons said no and told him to see what he could do. With that, it became a collaboration. And soon, the bear with a jet pack was a bear from the future who arrived to try to stave off environmental disaster.

Chambliss said he wanted to introduce the ideas of environmental awareness in a way that engaged youngsters in problem-solving activities. His story drew on the changing ways people have interacted with their natural surroundings in the United States since the Gilded Age. But he wanted to avoid scaring the grade-schoolers into a sort of helplessness they might feel after hearing news reports of devastating droughts, melting glaciers, and shrinking habitats. The bear seemed like a good place to start.

“Kids are really sensitive to the question of animals and oceans, the health and safety of animals, and the cleanliness of water,” Chambliss says.

In addition to a large wall-mounted display with digital print, text, 3-D boxes, and images, Chambliss and Simmons have also produced a comic-style workbook for young students. They tried it out on a group of fifth-graders from Ridgewood Elementary School recently during a Rollins Pathways to College event. It was a hit.

“We whipped out those comic books and their eyes lit up,” Simmons says. “We want them to understand that what they do does matter. We gave them concrete and doable examples. Turn out the lights when you leave a room. Turn off the water while brushing your teeth. Turn off the TV when you’re not watching it.”

They wanted to make sure students realize that small acts add up to large, helpful changes. “We want to give them tools to think about the environment,” Chambliss says.

Chambliss and Simmons also introduced the elementary school children to their large piece of artwork with a Future Bear theme. Simmons wants students to realize art can be more than a painting or a sculpture. “It can be objects, space, sound, or an experience.” Or as they pointed out, it can be something perceived as a “wall-mounted, 3-D comic book.”

The Future Bear: Mission Book lets kids engage in the story with activities and puzzles. And although the professors are working on the next chapter of the saga, the children’s book provides space for kids to write their own next chapter.

Chambliss says, “This lets them begin to think about the issues in a different way.”