Telling the Climate Change Story

There are many ways to tell the climate change story. It can be told in numbers organized in charts or graphs – the tools preferred by scientists. Or it can be told in a myriad of artistic ways as evidenced by the categories on this blog. For painter and photographer Diane Burko, the climate change story is best told in large-scale images that capture both the majesty of the depicted subject, and the poignancy of its potential demise. Inspired by the science of climate change, Burko’s paintings and photographs invite us to revere what we have, and to understand that despite its magnitude and seemingly unlimited resources, our earth is at risk and requires as much nurturing from us as we do from it. The merging of the aesthetic and the rational in a single experience invites us to confront our own understanding of, and response to, climate change.

In the interview below, Burko talks about her two current projects: Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations. For more on these projects, see also this excellent post on the World Policy Institute Blog.

You have had a long and successful career as a landscape painter but recently, you shifted your focus. Can you talk about your Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations projects?

That shift happened in 2006 while giving a talk about my exhibition at the Michener Museum. The curator, Amy Schlegel, included a piece from 1976 about the French Alps ice amongst recent paintings of volcanoes and Iceland waterfalls. Seeing that large acrylic painting was my epiphany…

Grandes Jorasses
Grandes Jorasses, 64” x 108”, 1976

Was the snow was still there, I wondered… This was the same year Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Field Notes From A Catastrophe came out. Issues of climate change were in the air. I began seriously learning how the landscape (my lifelong subject) was being impacted by fossil fuels. There was no turning back – I no longer was satisfied with just creating images about the beauty of our environment. The more I researched, the more I realized I had to do something about it.

My project Politics of Snow was the answer. I began developing visual strategies to tell the climate change story. For about the first three years, I made paintings based on geological source material like repeat photography and recessional maps contributed by scientists from around the world. My practice prior to this was always based on personal engagement with an environment. However, with this body of work, my sources were primarily historical as I created large canvases tracking glacial degradation.

Qori Kalis
Qori Kalis, Peru, 1983-2009, after Henry Brecher, 60”x108”, 2009

Polar Investigations began in 2013 when I finally was able to witness first hand the impact of climate change. I have participated in expeditions to both the South and North Poles, thus again engaging personally with the landscape. In January 2013, I traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula, Elephant Island and South Georgia. In September/October, I joined 25 other artists on a residency in the Arctic Circle, sailing around Svalbard, 10 degrees below the North Pole and 400 miles north of Norway. I also joined a team of glaciologists in Ny-Alesund flying to Kronebreen and Kongsvegen Glaciers. This past August, I witnessed the fastest moving glacier in the Northern hemisphere: Ilulissat in Greenland. I plan to be back in Antarctica and Argentina’s southern Patagonia ice field this December through January 2015.

Ilulissat Fjord
At Ilulissat Fjord this August, 2014

How does the world of science inspire your art practice? 

I have always been “science curious.” I love to understand how and why things happen, particularly when it comes to the earth. I have realized in retrospect that most of the monumental landscapes I have sought throughout my career – like the Grand Canyon, volcanoes and now glaciers – are dramatically impacted by some geological phenomena. The stark difference, however, with my Polar Investigations project, is that glaciers like those in Glacier National Park are not naturally receding the way they have for thousands of years. Now the melt is so accelerated that the 150 glaciers counted in 1850 have been reduced to barely 25!

Grinnell Mt. Gould
Grinnell Mt. Gould, 1938, 1981, 1998, 2006, 88” x 200”, 2009

It is no longer Nature but Human Nature impacting our planet. Our use of fossil fuels has altered the balance…. Unprecedented extreme weather, droughts, floods and extinctions are the hallmarks of our Anthropocene era.

I have been fortunate over the years to connect with a number of scientists who appreciate how my work communicates science. Those relationships have led to my participation on panels at the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America, the National Academy of Sciences and an affiliation with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, where I am headed in two weeks to meet with a number of glaciologists, collect more visual data and lead a seminar.

Aside from all the personal conversations and data research, being in the field is the ultimate inspiration. The act of bearing witness to the vastness and magic of the polar regions is so special, but the privilege to observe scientists in the act of actually gathering their data is absolutely priceless!

What do you hope to communicate to viewers who encounter your work?

The alarm I feel about the future of our planet, the urgency to act. But it has to first be communicated through the actual painting and photography about the landscape. I want to seduce the audience with the inherent beauty I am depicting as well as remind them of its possible demise. The challenge is to meld those two goals. I never want the narrative to dominate – I want it implied.

What is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?

They have to find a way to address their concerns in the most honest and authentic voice possible through their practice.

It’s not always an easy task….

Of course, aside from our studio work, I believe it is incumbent upon us to be socially engaged. I was elated to participate with some 400,000 other concerned citizens last month as we joined in the People’s Climate March in Manhattan, New York. I also think, if one is able to, that we should participate in outreach activities, and speak out as concerned artists for the preservation of our planet Earth.

What gives you hope?

The march on September 21 was an incredibly inspiring experience for me. Being there with 400,00 people all saying its time, the debate is over, we need our leaders to finally make concrete policy decisions.

I also find it hopeful that this is a central issue for many artists working in many different mediums – there are increasing numbers of exhibitions, plays, and poems about our environment. I see a growing number of newspaper and magazine articles (I clip them), and a general increase on the topic in all media outlets – including this very active blog you have created. Thank you for that!