Glacier Portraits: Documenting a Vanishing Landscape
Project Origin & Description
The damp page slumped in my hands and watercolor pigment swirled in puddles of water. Rain soaked our team at 6,000 feet on the flanks of Mount Baker and I turned my back to the wind in a vain attempt to keep the painting dry. This moment was in 2010, and it was the first painting I ever created outside. In the splotchy brown forms of rocks that marked the recession of a glacier climate change became something very, very personal. It was impacting a landscape I cared deeply about, and was suddenly impossible to ignore. As an artist I strive to inspire others to feel this personal connection, too. Because that is how environmental stewardship arises- when we feel something deeply enough to spur us into action.
The mountain landscapes that many of us call home are endangered. The impacts of climate change are clear – if we know where to look – but the problem is that global warming is a big, abstract concept that is hard to conceptualize and often seems very far away from our daily lives and local environments. The goal of this project is to bring the impacts of climate change to life in paintings that increase awareness and inspire environmental stewardship.
I focus on glaciers because they are “canaries in a coal mine” providing visible and dramatic evidence of global warming’s impact on mountain ecosystems. In the last 18 years glaciers in western north America lost around 117 billion tons of ice, mirroring a melting trend seen across the world. This melting impacts not only the surrounding environment but also local industry, other species, and even our ability to recreate in alpine areas. Through art I strive to make this rate of change accessible, understandable, and personally relatable. Our environment does not have a voice or a seat at the negotiation table. I aim to be that voice, because when we lose these landscapes I believe we also lose part of ourselves.
The pieces in the series include plein air (outside and on-site) paintings of melting glaciers and comparative paintings created using historical documents and crowd-sourced imagery. The primary project location is Washington State, with additional pieces created in Greenland and the Alps.
Above Image: Three paintings created in Chamonix by hiking to three glaciers: the Le Tour Glacier, Bossons Glacier, and Argentiere Glacier. Each painting was created on-site sitting beside the ice and reflect both the environmental conditions of the day as well as the larger melt patterns observed over my four weeks in Chamonix.
Above Image: Carrying the painting of the Bossons Glacier down from the high point halfway up Mont Blanc. The painting was created at La Jonction, a point where two glaciers meet before flowing down toward the Chamonix valley.
Press & Publication
Paintings from this project were included in my ten-page artist feature in issue 67 of Alpinist magazine and elements of the story explored in a feature interview for Issue 21 of Stay Wild magazine. In addition, I presented parts of the project at a Patagonia Seattle & Topophilia podcast event, as a lecturer on the 450 passenger Seabourn Quest ship, at a Documenting Adventure workshop in Oregon, and as a guest artist for Inspiring Girls Expeditions.
Project partners have included: CREA Mont Blanc (Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems in Chamonix, France), Seabourn Cruises, and Run the Alps. My experience as a participant, volunteer, and guest instructor for Inspiring Girls Expeditions is what catalyzed the entire project.
Nisqually Glacier Portrait
For the comparative paintings each glacier is painted twice, showing its size at least fifty years ago compared to 2018. The historical images are sourced from records shared online such as a National Park pamphlet or a book on Mount Rainier published in 1911. I create the contemporary glacier paintings by crowd sourcing imagery from large social media groups, which not only provides current imagery but also increases awareness of the changing landscape.
After my first post in the groups with a potential reach of over 100k dozens of people shared images and their observations of the landscape. Many commented that prior to seeing these paintings they had never thought of their photos as records of change, and now understand how rapidly the glaciers are receding. By sharing this series online and in public venues I hope to inspire awareness and an understanding of our role as both witnesses to change and agents in its cause.
Quote from an individual who sent me reference imagery: “Until seeing your paintings I had no idea how much the glaciers I hiked beside for decades have changed, and how my photos also capture the loss of ice in so little time.”
Additional Project Images
Above Image: Painting of the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland while a guest lecturer and artist in residence with Seabourn Cruises. Many of the icebergs in the painting are over ten stories tall.
Above Image: One of my primary motivations to paint outside is the opportunity for interaction with the public. While creating this large paining of Mount Rainier in July 2018 four young girls gathered to watch me paint and ask questions. Through the medium of my painting I was able to share basic concepts of glacial recession in an engaging and exciting way that they could understand. The finished painting also has a few fingerprints from the extra-curious kids.