Future Bear wants to save the world

Rollins professors Rachel Simmons and Julian Chambliss create an environmental superhero

Changes in nature aren’t confined to Florida, but if you get outside the state, you get a better perspective on what is happening around here. Rollins College art professor Rachel Simmons took the search for perspective to the extreme by visiting both poles, and as an artist she is documenting what she

Future Bear, a sort of ursine superhero, arose from Simmons’ Arctic/Antarctic experiences, and now that Simmons has begun collaborating with other professors at Rollins, this symbolic character is taking on a life of her own around Central Florida. She may just be getting ready to go on a rampage. If watching our Florida aquifer drain away causes you moral discomfort, just wait till Future Bear shows up.

When Future Bear first popped up in Simmons’ sketchbook in 2008, she says in her artist’s statement, she was preparing for her first trip to Antarctica by reading the epic adventures of explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott, “enthralled with the grand narratives and heroic figures of their life-or-death experiences. … I immediately liked the idea of a similar type of hero, one that seemed to be lifted from the pages of an adventure/sci-fi comic.” After giving a 2010 TEDxOrlando talk in which she described the polar bear as a symbol of global climate change, Simmons decided that Future Bear was here “to save our planet from the ravages of climate change.” And so Future Bear became Future Bear, a multimedia project encompassing visual, social and environmental practice.

Simmons collaborated with Rollins associate professor of history Julian Chambliss on Future Bear: Past Imperfect, which can be viewed at Rollins’ Cornell Fine Arts Museum as a part of this year’s faculty exhibit. In the current installment of her story – the one you’ll see at CFAM – Future Bear is sent from future Norway, where there is no longer an ozone layer, to our day by United Nations Scientists in the hopes her superpowers will enable her to prevent the damage being done to the planet. Unfortunately, she ends up in a Florida swamp.

The big white avenger has her own website – a few, in fact: futurebear.net, thefuturebear.blogspot.com and bearwithjetpack.tumblr.com – and her own downloadable “mission book”; Simmons has spread the environmental message by passing out the comic-book-style mission book to groups of local schoolchildren. Future Bear’s present has blossomed in this collaboration, and in a recent interview, both artists spoke about Future Bear’s message and their collaboration.

“Chambliss and I moved Future Bear from a symbol to a fully fledged female character with young cubs, self-doubts and one heck of a difficult work life,” Simmons says, musing that she is “practical and calming, like most mothers, but she’d also have a ferocious growl when threatened – she is a polar bear, after all.”

Chambliss, a comic book expert who explores the deeper social meanings of superheroes in his urban history classes, emphasizes Future Bear’s abilities: “Empathic telepathy – she projects her thoughts to people and gets their thoughts and feelings; strength – she is a freaking bear! And bio-enhancement, which in the future will be common.” This story will play out in several issues, and they’re planning still more. The unusual combination of science and superhero gets to the heart with an accessible message, reaching people otherwise unaffected by science-centric news stories.

“When I travel, I’m keenly aware of the impact I will make on the place I’m visiting,” said Simmons in her TED talk, “and that is a tension that comes up in my artwork a lot.” Artists, by nature, sensitize themselves to their surroundings to better document and create. Future Bear’s accidental displacement gets to the root of our current exquisite discomfort; we are too big, influencing the entire planet, yet we feel too small, with no power to halt the process. Future Bear shares her moral capital with humans and invites us to do the same. That is the only way we can hope to slow this devilish juggernaut of man-made planetary change.


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