Why artist, scientist, and environmental activist Barton Rubenstein ’81 is on a quest for permanence.
The “Mother Earth” sculpture is five meters tall and weighs 800 pounds. But when you encounter it walking along the Georgetown waterfront, it seems weightless—an elegant metallic ribbon unfurling ahead of you. Somehow the wind appears to ripple against the sculpture’s impregnable brushed stainless-steel surface. Then you turn a corner and come at the piece from a slightly different angle, and it comes to you: The ribbon coheres into the outline of a face. The sculpture is actually a portrait.
“Mother Earth” is also a deeply personal piece for artist Barton Rubenstein ’81. Rubenstein and his family launched their own nonprofit, the Mother Earth Project, in 2015 to combat climate change—and one of the many ways they do that is through art. Now there are “Mother Earth” sculptures in six more countries (Argentina, Cameroon, China, Germany, India, and Israel). Ultimately, Rubenstein would like to give one of the sculptures to all 175 nations that signed the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. Also known as the Symbol of Sustainability, the work acts as an international clarion call for the planet, recognizing countries that have submitted their environment-saving actions and timelines to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—and incentivizing other countries to do so as well.
But there is also a secret behind the sculpture that is less well-known: “Mother Earth” is a tribute to Rubenstein’s own mother, Daryl Reich Rubenstein. It is her face in the portrait.
Discovery and Loss
Art has always been a part of Rubenstein’s world. While he was a Lower School student, one of his works even made it into the Sidwell Friends calendar. “My art teacher loved what I was doing, and she actually submitted it for the school calendar, which was a big deal at the time,” he says. “That was my first adrenaline rush being an artist.”
Rubenstein’s father taught him how to use tools and work with his hands. His mother, a curator at the Smithsonian, took him to museums. “My family spent tons of dinner conversations talking about art and architecture,” he says. Rubenstein took art classes throughout his high school years, but he also excelled at math and science, which he calls “the language of nature.” Still, academic distinction does not mean high school was easy.
“I was in the Upper School when my mother was suffering from cancer,” Rubenstein says. “She finally succumbed to it when I was a senior.” She was just 43 years old. “It felt like my world was spiraling out of control,” he says. “That period of time set the stage for my own life. I was saddened by her unfulfilled dreams.” In the wake of her death, the family established the Daryl Reich Rubenstein Guest Artist program at Sidwell Friends to keep her passion for the arts alive; since then, the School has hosted more than 30 guest artists.
The loss transformed Rubenstein’s understanding of the world. “I was petrified that I might share that same fate,” he says—petrified but also determined. “I started down a path of just trying to focus on as many accomplishments and great adventures as I could for the fear that my tomorrow wouldn’t come.”
Rubenstein studied physics at Haverford College before embarking on a PhD in neuroscience at the renowned Weizmann Institute in Israel. “I was interested in artificial intelligence and robotics,” he says, but the universe intervened. “Instead, I got pulled into a laboratory that was focused on solving the problem of how the brain figures out vision and recognizing objects.” The “problem” was actually a 30-year-old scientific dilemma: How does the human visual system effortlessly discriminate between different types of textures, such as tree bark (or, say, metallic art). Rubenstein’s research focused on the visual brain, and he was published in Science and other peer- reviewed journals.
With six years at Weizmann and a PhD under his belt, Rubenstein returned to Washington to start a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health. MRI imaging had advanced rapidly and, with it, the ability to study the brain in new ways. “That research was about to explode,” Rubenstein says. “I was entering a new field where I could do my visual experiments with human observers and watch how the brain and what part of the brain was actually activated during that experiment.”
But the need to create art never abated, and even as he racked up scientific accomplishments, there was time for another adventure. So he deferred his postdoc. “I never intended to leave science,” he recalls. “I just wanted to take a year off.” He started by attending a course in welding at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. “I had done all different types of art, like lithography, clay, etching, woodblock, and charcoals,” he says. “But I never really felt like, ‘Wow this is my medium.’” Then came stainless steel and bronze. He describes his love of metals as a desire for permanence—contrasting it to the frustration of making something great out of snow only to watch it melt. But the permanence of metal also spoke to the part of him that lost his mother at age 18. Metalwork, of course, is as close to permanent as it gets. “Suddenly it came to me,” he says, “the idea of making sculpture was the confluence of all my interests.”
“I already felt accomplished as a scientist,” he says. Now that desire for accomplishment and adventure merged into a singular pursuit: art. He never looked back.
The Science of Art
Rubenstein’s work is like an extension of nature. It rises out of the earth, glinting in the sun, in shapes that are familiar and yet still abstractions: One may evoke birds, another blades of grass. And often, his work is not static. Rubenstein uses the elements to engender movement and depth.
“I create water- and wind-kinetic sculpture,” he says. “That by itself is a major scientific and engineering endeavor.” Water is an incredibly fickle and complicated medium to work with. “I do a lot of thought experiments, imagining experiments and then seeing the outcome in your mind.” He ponders how water might move in a given scenario, what the effect of wind on steel might be, how to maintain the sculptures, and even where leaves would get stuck. It’s that kind of practiced knowledge that has led him to be a consultant on a lot of public art installations. He has worked with designers on the National Mall to avert “splashing all over the place” at the American Indian Museum and to tweak flows at the FDR Memorial.
It’s the same with wind. Rubenstein can create works that move in the slightest breeze but that don’t get tossed about during big gusts. Take “Carpe Diem,” the sculpture that sits on the Sidwell Friends campus outside the Upper School and Kogod Arts Center. “It moves even when you don’t feel the wind on your face,” he says proudly. “That’s the ultimate. It gives me a really good feeling that I’ve actually engineered it so well that it doesn’t need any wind to move.” (“Carpe Diem” was also Rubenstein’s motto when he left Sidwell Friends.)
With both water and wind, Rubenstein does a lot of math, especially geometry. He also designs all of his sculptures using computer- aided design, which helps him predict how water and wind will affect a given piece. There’s no doubt his facility with math and engineering is indispensable to his art. Rubenstein is one of few artists around the world who regularly create sculptures that incorporate water. “My background in science has given me a unique niche in the art world,” he says.
The niche was still something he had to work hard to get right. In the beginning, there was a lot of experimentation (both in his mind and in the studio). “All of my sculptures are one of a kind,” Rubenstein says. “At first, I had to create them and just hope that they worked.” In fact, one of his first sculptures—one that took six months to make— wasn’t very kinetic. “I brought it outside the studio and discovered that it barely moved in the wind,” he says. “I remember being extremely disappointed.” But serendipity intervened: A client asked him for a sculpture for her blustery beach house—something that wouldn’t move too much. “She didn’t want the thing going crazy,” he says. “She just wanted little, gentle movements, back and forth.” His sculpture was perfect for her. “That’s the universe giving you a nudge in the right direction.”
The Art of Science
In 2006, Rubenstein attended a luncheon with former Vice President Al Gore, who at the time was about to release his groundbreaking documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s message—and his detailed grasp of climate science— resonated with Rubenstein. He immediately jumped up and asked what he could do to help. Gore’s response? “Get involved.”
It was an inflection point. For the next nine years, Rubenstein and his family threw themselves into environmentalism. They actively recycled, installed LED lights, composted, used solar energy, and even became vegetarians. But it wasn’t quite enough, Rubenstein thought, to really answer Gore’s call to action. “I realized I needed to transition from using my art to enrich communities to using my art to empower communities,” Rubenstein says. “That was a big moment.” So, in 2015, the Rubensteins formalized the idea and launched the Mother Earth Project, a nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of the climate emergency and demanding better climate laws.
The Mother Earth Project has several core initiatives. The Parachutes for the Planet program, inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, helps people, communities, and schools around the world create tapestries on parachute fabric that include a message about climate change. “Parachutes are a metaphor for bringing the planet back to a safe place,” Rubenstein says. At the 2019 Global Climate Strike on the Mall, the Mother Earth Project brought a 100-foot-diameter parachute along with other parachutes flown in from all over the world. (Rubenstein’s son, Ari ’21, spoke at the event as a student activist.) So far, the project has inspired more than 4,000 bespoke parachutes in more than 80 countries.
Next, the Mother Earth Project helps communities and schools worldwide create murals that act as a constant visual reminder of the need for a more sustainable future. And, finally, there are the “Mother Earth” sculptures, the Symbols of Sustainability, that are being given to signatories of the UN’s Paris Agreement—a major undertaking that involves unraveling layers of bureaucracy around public art in various countries, and then the work of physically erecting the sculptures. But the effort is worth it: Once the sculptures and murals are complete, the sites become important gathering points for activists.
In a world where mothers can die young and where the life of the planet itself is at stake, the Mother Earth Project and Barton Rubenstein reach for the everlasting. “Having lost my mom, I always need things to have a sense of permanence,” he says. “I create this art and I feel great gratitude that it is not going to disappear. His climate activism, too, represents equal doses of humility and of hope. “I want to create a world for my children that, hopefully, will be a little bit similar to the one I grew up in.”
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