This month I have for you an exclusive interview with Danielle Nelisse, an immigration attorney, private investigator, and – painter! Her Wildfires series, which was inspired by nine wildfires that surrounded her California art studio in May 2014, is on view at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain through July 2020. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
What inspired the Wildfires series?
My Wildfires series was first inspired in 2014 when nine wildfires simultaneously surrounded my art studio in Southern California. While I stood in my art studio creating the first Wildfires paintings on two canvases side-by-side, my family members checked in over the phone. I just kept painting. The sky became dark with charred ash.
The massive wildfires were fed for days by hot Santa Ana winds that blew in from the desert. To date I have completed nine wildfires paintings and luckily I haven’t been ordered to evacuate my art studio yet.
What led to the Wildfires series being shown at the US Embassy in Bahrain?
When Justin Siberell was appointed as Ambassador by the President, he sought artwork from a California artist to exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain. His staff contacted me and told me that he connected with my artwork because he is originally from California and as a former firefighter, he wanted to share his memory of the wildfires in California with the people of Bahrain.
What do you hope viewers will take away from Wildfires?
I often use art to depict imagery associated with climate change. I feel that a majority of people are overwhelmed with emotions regarding the negative impact of climate change, and the fact that solutions are too complex to implement quickly or easily by any one person or any one government or any one country.
I know when people feel they are not free to express their emotions, it compromises their emotional and physical health. By creating abstract paintings that address climate change, I invite viewers to vent their emotions about what is interpreted as a devastating and staggering problem for an international community to solve.
Many experts say that California’s wildfires are exacerbated by climate change. Do you think about climate change beyond what you paint in the studio?
I worry a lot about the negative impacts of climate change. Living in Southern California, I am exposed to the consequences of long term drought conditions and see lakes dry up, see mudslides take place after the fires, see lawns removed in favor of xeriscape landscapes, and see wildfires all year round.
These days wildfire firefighters are facing situations they have never encountered, such as a 100-foot wall of flames and triple digit heat for 25 consecutive days.
Eighty-nine large wildfires are currently burning in the United States, but I can’t help but notice that global warming has resulted in wildfires not only in California, but worldwide. Europe just suffered its deadliest fire season in more than a century.
According to Stanford University climate change scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, “We now have very strong evidence that global warming has already put a thumb on the scales, upping the odds of extremes like severe heat and heavy rainfall. We find that global warming has increased the odds of record-setting heat events over more than 80 percent of the planet.”
What role do you see art playing in our larger conversations about climate change and ecological disasters like wildfires?
For about ten years or more, artists like me have been expressing our concern by creating artwork about climate change and ecological disasters. Making my Wildfires painting series allows me to release anxiety and express my emotions about climate change. I can only hope that if my art is in the right place at the right time it might provide an opportunity to impact policymakers by sparking productive conversations.
Just a few days ago, the United Nations officially recognized climate change as a cause for migration, outlining ways for countries to cope with communities that are displaced by natural disasters as well as “slow onset events” like drought, desertification, and rising seas. I believe that artists can help keep this issue at the forefront by constantly reminding the public that climate change needs our immediate attention.
What’s next for you?
Within the next month I’m moving my art studio to the Hawaiian island of Maui. Rising temperatures, king tides, shifting precipitation patterns, warming and acidifying oceans and other climate change impacts are already affecting the islands in ways that will change them permanently. Given the rise in sea levels, it may be my last chance to experience and artistically record island life.
For more on Danielle Nelisse, see this interview published on Artists & Climate Change in 2014.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.