Getting Bombed: Carl Chaplin’s ‘Art Nuko’

Exhibit / January 9, 2019

Wishing on a Star in Fantasyland, 1983

Object Name: Art Nuko
Maker and Year: Carl Chaplin, circa 1973-1986
Object Type: Paintings/postcards
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

From the early ’70s through the early ’90s, Canadian artist and activist Carl Chaplin produced and exhibited a series of paintings depicting the atomic destruction of major cities from around the world “to point out the horror of what would happen to all of mankind in a nuclear war.” The series was called Art Nuko, and it became quite controversial, the locations “bombed” including Vancouver, his home, as well as Pakistan, China, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Moscow, and the White House. Although the original paintings were large canvases, Chaplin had the images transferred to postcards and gave them away for free, by the thousands, encouraging fellow activists and concerned citizens to distribute far and wide. Long before the Internet, it was Chaplin’s way of making art not only accessible and shareable, but participatory.

Born in Ontario, Chaplin moved to Vancouver in 1970 and enjoyed success as one of the region’s only airbrush artists, focusing mostly on nature and wildlife. Later that same year, fledgling environmental group Greenpeace staged a benefit concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, where Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Phil Ochs performed. The proceeds funded the group’s first campaign: a protest against the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s 1971 nuclear weapons tests at Amchitka, Alaska. Chaplin soon became involved with Greenpeace, and illustrated a poster for the 1976-1977 anti-seal hunt campaign called “Stop the Slaughter.” The poster showed a baby harp seal, the reflection of its soon-to-be killer looming in one of its eyes. The image was printed and sold on t-shirts in Canada and the US, with proceeds going to animal rights groups.

Chaplin starting touring with Art Nuko in 1976, where he made an appearance at Vancouver’s Habitat Conference on Human Settlements, and continued to do so throughout the ’80s, both locally and internationally. He made a trip to the Middle East in 1991 shortly after the Gulf War ended, intending to visit Baghdad and meet with Jordan’s chief scientific advisor: “I want to warn people and leaders of all nations of the madness of using nuclear weapons,” he told the press. His biggest brush with controversy, however, came in 1983, when thousands of postcards featuring an elaborately misshapen mushroom cloud over Disneyland started to circulate. The featured painting was called “Wishing on a Star in Fantasyland,” and showed Mickey Mouse, Tinkerbell, and a mouse-eared youth looking on in terror (Jiminy Cricket is seen fleeing the scene, an obviously futile gesture). Disney’s lawyers were not amused, and Chaplin was soon pressured to turn over all the postcards in his possession.

At least some of Chaplin’s pieces, in postcard form only, were shown at last year’s BOMBHEAD exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which explored “the emergence and impact of the nuclear age as represented by artists and their art.” (One eyewitness account insists that Chaplin was deliberately snubbed, his original Art Nuko paintings being readily available in nearby storage). Chaplin continues to live and paint in British Columbia, these days focusing on a theme he calls Art Eco, “An artistic genre during the end of the Industrial Era characterized by concern for the deteriorating environment of Planet Earth.”

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