Breathing Through Masks, Art By Casey Clifford

Breathing Through Masks, Art By Casey Clifford

Tell us about Casey Clifford. Are you a scientist, an artist, or both? How did you get interested in the environmental humanities?

I am a painter and writer from Fairfield, Connecticut. I graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in environmental science and studio art, and always hoped I’d be able to combine these two passions. I applied to the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program at the University of Utah because it allowed to meto do just that; combine my love for science and art.  I am working on a thesis project called Breathing Through Masks to bring awareness to air quality in Salt Lake City.  My project includes both the science of the issue, as well as creative writing and paintings.  I recently received a scholarship for fundingfor my research project from the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah.


Can you please explain your project Breathing Through Masks?

My project Breathing Through Masks is a series of paintings that explores the issues surrounding Salt Lake City’s poor airquality. My project is both a critical lens on which to view air quality in Salt Lake City, and a form of outreach to get people involved in the issue. People have used art throughout history to bring awareness to important issues, and my project will build off of both these past activist artists.

My project explores a critical environmental issue in our local community and uses the arts to hopefully catalyze dialogue andaction. Every winter Salt Lake’s air quality takes up headlines in the newspapers. The smog surrounds us. We inhale it and taste it. And yet somehow, little progress has been made to address this critical issue. There is a need for creative work that inspires new dialogue about our air quality issues. I would like people to begin discussing air quality as an environmental justice issue, and how living in a lower socioeconomic bracket in the West valley creates more health problems than in downtown or in more affluent areas like the avenues.  Some people are literally trapped in the poor air, with no form of public transportation or way to escape the smog.  While everyone living in Salt Lake is affected by this issue, some have the opportunity to drive to the mountains.  Also, while it is easy to saythat the problem can be fixed by less driving, many people don’t have another means of transportation, especially the disabled or those with preexisting health issues.   

Poor air quality in Salt Lake City is an issue that needs more attention, and my paintings offer a way to open a dialogue withinthe community.  Air quality in Salt Lake is not getting any better, and people often move away to avoid the health problems associated with polluted air.  A study from the University of British Columbia estimate that over 1,000 people die a year in Utah from health issues related to unclean air.  Dr. Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment said that "If I were to tell you the Ebola virus was killing 1,000 to 2,000 Utahns every year, there would be panic in the streets." And yet somehow, this death toll is largely ignored or misunderstood. 

Through paintings I will contribute to the conversation around air quality in new ways, engaging people who might not have become involved through more common political dialogue and traditional forms of advocacy.  

What made you decide to focus onthe pollution in Salt Lake City?

I'm focusing on Salt Lake for a few reasons; first, because I live here, and second because SLC is ranked in the top 10 counties for worst air pollution inthe US.  This place has become my home, and pains me to watch the pollution descend on the city each winter.  I hope that my art can create a catalyst for change in this place that I have come to love, before it’s too late.  The population of Salt Lake is predicted to double by 2050, and that population increase could only make this problem worse.  If we don’t fix this problem soon, the city will disappear in the pollution, and people will get sick or beforced to leave.


Who are the top ten most polluted cities in the United States?

1-Fresno-Madera, Calif.
2-Bakersfield, Calif.
3-Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Calif.
4-Modesto-Merced, Calif.
5-Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
6-San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, Calif.
7-Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
8-Logan, Utah-Idaho Metropolitan Statistical Area
9-Fairbanks, Alaska
10-Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pa.-Ohio-W.Va.
(Washington Post)


Which areas are the least polluted? 

While I’m sure there are a lot of areas with good air quality, I found this article on the 10 U.S cities with the cleanest air:(,,20496048,00.html#places-you-can-breathe-easy--0)

1-Cheyenne, Wyo.
2-Santa Fe, N.M.
3-Bismark, N.D.,
4-Great Falls, Mont.
6-Anchorage, Alaska
7-Amarillo, Texas
8-Redding, California
9-Dulith, Minn.
10-Fargo, N.D.


What made you decide to use art as your form of outreach?

Art has always been a way to influence how people think and react to the world. It elevates truth, reflecting societies genuine interests and concerns. Where politics requires amore direct message, art explores deeper meanings and questions.  The combination of the two serves as a way for people to learn about and engage more deeply with political and social issues.

Painting is the best way for me to express my love of this new place, and stress the urgency of protecting it.  Art is the best way that I can communicate my thoughts and ideas, and hopefully my paintings can help to create awareness and inspire change.  

What are some causes of air pollution?

Air pollution can be caused my many things, including the burning of fossil fuels, pollution emitted by vehicles (cars, trains, airplanes, etc.), agriculture, exhaust from industry, mining, and household objects such as chemical cleaners or paint.  In Salt Lake City, the main causes are vehicles (57%), buildings, such as homes, small businesses, restaurants, aerosol products, etc., (32%) and industry such as mines and refineries (11%).


Why is addressing pollution so important in the United States and the rest of the world?

By 2050, the population of Salt Lake City is predicted to double. That same year, 2.5 billion people will be added to urban areas worldwide. We have a dire need for ethical urbanization.  Without better public transit, that means that there will be twice the number of cars on the road, and twice the amount of pollution. The longer it takes to fix this problem, the more people will suffer from detrimental health effects. A dialogue needs to be opened so these issues are brought to the surface of the conversations in this city, and worldwide.  Without it, we will all sink under the veil of the inversion.


What are some steps that can be done on a large scale to improve pollution?

While driving less is something that could decrease air pollution worldwide, most of the steps that can be done to decrease pollution on a larger scale would have to be through industry and large corporations.  Industrial agriculture contributes to air pollution with the release of fumes from fertilizer and animal waste.  If the world (especially America) were to reduce its meat intake, the pollution from these centralized animal feeding operations could be reduced. 

Oil and gas industries are also a major cause of air pollution.  We need to stop relying on these resources for energy; they are not only hazardous to the air, but also create water pollution and ground contamination, and contribute to global warming.  We have the resources to increase our use of solar and wind energy, which are much cleaner and economically viable options for fueling our world. 

If things are truly going to change, we need policymakers to come up with ideas to fix the system as a whole.  Our capitalist system relies on production and consumption without ethicality, and there will continue to be pollution on a large scale without major changes to how we use the earth's resources.


On a small/individual scale?

Since the majority of the pollution in Salt Lake is caused by vehicles, an important step towards cleaner air is to drive less.  This includes walking and biking whenever possible, and taking public transit. 

Since agriculture is such a large contributor to pollution, eating less meat and eating locally is also a way to reduce your carbon footprint.  There is a tremendous amount of energy and emissions that go into the transportation of our food from around the world, and eating locally is a way to reduce that food transportation.  

Try and buy cars with good gas mileage, like a Prius.  Teslas and other electric cars are a great way to not contribute to emissions, however, it is important to note that if the electricity in your town/city is generated from oil extraction, it is not a fully clean source of energy.  

There is also a need for better (and cheaper) public transportation. Also, on days when air pollution is especially bad, public transportation should be free for everyone.  These small changes can be done by local policymakers and politicians, so call/email your local representatives and ask for these changes to be made!  Air quality is a part of the collective condition that we all live within, and only with shared knowledge and a broader dialogue can this issue ever be resolved.  

How far away do you think we are to needing masks in some parts of the country, knowing that people have to wear them in other parts of the world.

There are some areas of the country, including Salt Lake, where masks should be worn on certain days.  I constantly see people walking or biking wearing large air filtration masks during bad air days, which is helping filter some of the harmful pollutants from entering their bodies. Whenever the AQI (air quality index) of a city is in or higher than the red “unhealthy” zone, with an AQU of 151+, masks should be worn..


What organizations have you partnered with to fight pollution?

I have received a research scholarship from the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah to help fund my project.  I have not yet partnered with any other organizations, but will be looking into it in the coming months.


If someone wanted to volunteer or donate to an organization(s), who would you recommend?

HEAL Utah and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment are both great organizations! Sierra Club and Earth Justice are both good organizations that are more countrywide.  

To learn more about Casey Clifford please check out her website: and her Instagram: @caseycliffordartwork


Interview by Kira Bucca, Editor in Chief of Jejune Magazine

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