Black and white headshot of Tobey Crockett

By Munyao Kilolo, Ph.D. student in comparative literature

Tobey Crockett, a 2006 graduate of the Ph.D. program in visual studies, has always approached environmental advocacy her own way. As a conceptual artist, writer and philosopher, Crockett takes a holistic view of our shared global problems and believes we must seek many, not just one, solutions to the looming environmental dangers facing us all. In a career spanning four decades, Tobey has used art, comedy and digital platforms to share her calls to save the environment. One of her favorite memories is from April 22, 1970: the first Earth Day. 

“I was a very young girl then, living in New York City where I was raised,” Crockett shares. “And right outside the Museum of Natural History, I witnessed the first-ever Earth Day. I walked over and collected some printed material, which I then brought back to my classmates, and we started discussing what was going on in the world.”

Fifty years later, Crockett continues a robust relationship with nature. She notes that in most indigenous cultures, people's relationships with nature are co-creative.

She advocates for a less human-centric view of the climate crisis. “It's distinct from the mainstream approach to dominating nature and bending it to our will. I certainly don't view things in that way.” 

Inspired by art

Crockett's unique perspective on nature and environmental activism was shaped by her exposure to the arts. At thirteen, she was captivated by an installation by German artist Joseph Beuys, whose social sculpture theory and public debates have inspired many to take action. His 1974 action, “I Like America and America Likes Me,” took place over three days and nights during which Beuys lived in an art gallery in New York’s Soho with a wild coyote. The coyote was returned to New Mexico and Beuys returned to Germany.

“Later, Beuys created a land art installation by marshaling a group of volunteers to plant 7,000 trees. This work was then presented in 1982 during Documenta 7. And interestingly, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai did similarly inspiring work by calling for the preservation of public parks and planting trees in the Karura Forest in Nairobi. She instigated much of what we now call the greenbelt movement. It was extremely interesting for me to see that conjunction between Beuys and Maathai,” Crockett notes. 

Crockett, a devoted fan of Beuys, attributes her entire career in the arts to that moment as a girl when she first saw his art installation, "I Like America and America Likes Me." While she did not entirely understand what it all meant, she felt certain that this kind of art activism was the path she wanted to take for the rest of her life. 

“The vow that I took then has turned into a great guiding structure,” she explains.

Return to school

As part of her graduate work at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, she created “Tobey Crockett’s Wild Frontier,” a 3D virtual world as self portrait. She received a NYFA grant for this work, and exhibited portions of that world, plus a documentary short, at UC Irvine’s Beall Center for the Art + Technology and the Künstlerhaus Bremen, among other venues. 

Crockett subsequently joined the Ph.D. program at UC Irvine as an older student. She developed excellent relationships with her professors, who were closer to her age than most of the other students. Since she had previously been an art critic for fifteen years before starting her graduate school experience, she had already published numerous articles, taught art history at the university level at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and had excellent recommendations. Upon graduation, however, she found it very challenging to get hired.

“Despite my excellent record and recommendations, it seemed that no one wanted to hire a tenure-track professor in their fifties.” 

Nonetheless, during her time in the visual studies program, Crockett worked on theorizing interactive 3D space, and the program allowed her to merge media that had previously been understood as falling either within the fields of film or art history.


After passing her oral exams, Crockett moved to rural San Luis Obispo County, where she has lived since. As a person with Native American heritage, she was delighted to connect with a Native American community there and learn more about shamanism, indigenous belief structures and indigenous values. At the same time, she became increasingly aware of just how overwhelmed people were by the amount of negative information and energy with which they are bombarded on a daily basis. She was determined to create engagement that would allow people to feel light enough to take action. 

“I added an element of comedy to my activism. My project, YES 2 EARTH NOW, is not just an art campaign. It is an art and comedy campaign, because it's very difficult to talk about these big problems when people are understandably so overwhelmed by the negative.” 

These elements will come to bear when Crockett participates in an exhibition at the gallery Memoire de l’Avenir in Paris next spring.

She explains, “‘Yes to Earth Now’ originally grew out of a Facebook group that I started when Donald Trump was elected. That original Facebook page is ‘Yes to Positive Social Change Now,’ and is an archive of about 10,000 news-based articles of things people are doing to make life better. That might be an ecological choice, or providing funding for women in science, LGBTQ rights or whatever it is. There's a wide range of active actions that people are taking to make the world a better place. We just need to know more about those actions.”

Having worked in the news industry and taught critical approaches to mass media at CSUN, Crockett is especially aware of how the news business is structured around making an audience anxious. People respond to advertising messages when they're in a state of heightened anxiety. According to Crockett, the 24-hour news cycle is geared to deliberately make people anxious so they'll be more receptive to advertising. 

“'Yes to Positive Social Change Now' is about saying, ‘You don't have to buy into that huge negativity. Some good things are going on. Don't be disheartened!’ I had a lot of people, especially in the early years of the Trump administration, who were very appreciative of something that was not incredibly dark because, you know, many of us were very, very frightened during that time, as we are now. It’s important to remember that not everything is bleak. There are actually a lot of great things happening – we just need to learn about that.” 

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Visual Studies