Danielle Nelisse is an abstract artist noted for painting large scale contemporary abstract art in oil on canvas. She also happens to be a private investigator and an immigration attorney, an unusual combination of skills and interests that gives her a unique perspective on the human condition. Her Urban Ecology | Climate Change Series was recently shown at the Encinitas Civic Center Gallery in Encinitas, California. A follow-up to her Transformative Geopolitics Series, which “was inspired by discussions in California and elsewhere about how to resolve international border issues, multiple identities, inequality, and the ways that exclusion of foreign nationals can dominate contemporary geopolitics,” Danielle’s Climate Change Series expresses “her inner reflections about the complexities in dealing with urbanization, climate change, and natural disasters.” Bold-colored, dynamic and complex, her work makes it impossible to intellectualize an issue we so easily (and sometimes, readily) like distance ourselves from. Instead, it invites us to deeply and courageously feel our feelings, and perhaps recognize that there is beauty even in sadness.
In addition to being an abstract painter, you are a private investigator and an immigration attorney. How do these different roles inform your work?
As a private investigator I am asked to obtain information from people in creative – but legal – ways. As an attorney I must also gather facts about a case, apply the law, and then edit the facts down to the most relevant. In other words, in my legal work there is a tension between facts, rules, and creativity.
As an artist, there is also a tension between structure and creativity. I express my emotions through color harmony, composition and line. Both my legal work and art work involve the same skills: creative discovery; strategic editing; thoughtful rule application; all while allowing passion and creativity.
What was the inspiration behind your Urban Ecology | Climate Change series?
I have always felt that I have a say in my destiny and that even though I am only one person, I can make a change. My past is filled with work where I was able to champion the rights of others. The issue of climate change looms large and I am getting nervous because it does not yet seem to be considered an important global issue.
Recently I moved to a new studio in Bonita, California, which is located down by the border of Mexico in a beautiful desert area – and year round my studio is atypically warm. My clients live all over the world and provide me with firsthand accounts about their struggles with uncommon weather events, which are reinforced by media reports. Recently one of my clients was separated from her husband due to the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines. Another was waiting for weeks in the summer of 2013 for a U.S. Consulate to issue his work visa during an abnormal intense heat wave in India that resulted in continued temperatures of 110 F. I may not always be directly impacted by every weather event, but I am indirectly impacted as I experience intense emotions after observing how climate change impacts people worldwide.
What is your process? What happens between the original idea and the finished painting?
I initially set parameters for myself, such as the size of the canvas and the palette. For this series I decided upon oil paint on large scale canvas. For the most part I am not looking to paint the literal equivalent of a figure or a landscape, but in a nonrepresentational way to gradually balance formal elements such as color, light and space with psychological and conceptual issues. I alternate between gestural action painting strokes done with a large brush or piece of charcoal, and careful thick oil paint applied with a palette knife. There are many stages of editing and layering until I feel satisfied that it is balanced in composition, color and movement.
What do you think is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?
I think that uncertainty about climate change is causing everyone increased anxiety as our concerns accumulate over time. The situation appears to be so overwhelming and effective solutions so complex that it is easier to either avoid thinking of how to deal with it or deny climate change is happening at all. It will take massive cooperation on a global level to make changes and that sounds daunting, if not impossible. Increased discussions about our emotions and how to adapt to the new climate may reduce worry, anxiety and stress and lead to creative solutions. If artists can inspire even a single conversation about emotions caused by climate change, I believe they have made a difference.
What gives you hope?
It is very encouraging to learn about artists of all types who are expressing themselves about climate change. For a long time it felt like I was the only person concerned about it and of course that was not true. I think, just like all unpleasant issues, the more we discuss the reality of climate change and how to adapt to it, the more people will not feel so helpless or sad about the issue. I believe that heightened awareness and a sense that we are all in this together will lead people to take responsibility and stop denying there is an issue as a psychological defense mechanism. Through my art I hope to inspire creative ideas about how to cope by inducing curiosity, concern, or even skepticism – anything to keep the conversation about climate change going.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.