When I witnessed massive forest and home fires rampaging through my Northern California community and saw the devastation they wrought, I woke up to the reality of global warming. I wanted to respond in my own creative way. We are living through the Anthropocene, this era of geologic history in which humans are the primary environmental force. As a painter and a visual journalist, I feel an urgency to share these dire messages through my art.
In my new painting, The Deluge (detail above), I tackle the subject of sea level rise, which not only affects coastal cities but also presents an existential threat to our culture. Unlike with the California fires, I have no direct experience of rising seas, but I am no less moved to make art about this phenomenon.
The Deluge is an apocalyptic vision that builds upon my interest in human-influenced ecology, which is bringing discord to our planet. I show the white, hot sun bearing down through a depleted atmosphere and icebergs set adrift from our melting polar ice caps. While these ancient icebergs don’t cause sea levels to rise, they do provide an invaluable record of our planet’s climate history through the study of their ice cores. Iconic artifacts of our culture have come unmoored, like beach balls and sea mines, U-boats and polar bears. We see a freighter run aground, a sinking Titanic, and a half-submerged Chrysler Building. Container ships toss their containers. Plastic bottles float in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Kraken, a mythic peril of the sea, devours ships. Noah’s Ark offers a possible means of survival.
Two particular historic paintings inspired me during my work on The Deluge: Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa.
Impression, Sunrise, painted in the spring of 1873, depicts the urban-industrial landscape at the port of Le Havre, France, with small rowboats in the foreground, smokestacks and steamships in the middle ground, and a red sun in the far distance. Monet found beauty in the picturesque atmospheric effects in the commingling of mist, steam, fog, and smoke. I wanted to make a similarly sublime observation on the effects of the pollution that Monet saw.
Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa shows desperate yet romanticized figures adrift on turbulent seas. It was infamous for its brutal depiction of an actual event. It was also scandalous, given the political implications and ambiguity of whether the men on the raft were to be rescued or not. These sailors are unable to see their survival on the horizon. We are also confronted with an unknowable beyond. Can we be rescued from climate change? Will we take the actions necessary to change our own foreboding future?
While The Deluge is my latest reflection on human-induced climate change, back in 2015, my artwork reflected the sadness I felt seeing the Valley Fire destroy homes and displace members of the Lake County, California community. I drew on location among the detritus and made paintings of the devastation. It motivated me to produce art that captured that feeling. I wanted to understand how it happened. As it’s understood now, the origin of that fire was a human error, but fires have and will intensify – the result of warmer, drier conditions. These are, in large part, the product of global warming.
A warming planet means a warming ocean. Rising water temperatures can trigger coral reefs to expel the colorful algae living in their tissue, which turns them sickly white. In Coral Bleaching Diptych, I wanted to show the before-and-after views of this effect and to draw focus to this mostly unseen ruination.
Global climate change has become a substantive subject matter in my paintings. It brings a depth of meaning to my work. I educate myself in the research. Through my creative practice, I become more aware and engaged. But more importantly, these stories need to be told. Our planet faces serious, pressing challenges that are only getting worse. Look to the artists and their work to illuminate, educate, and activate.
(Top image: Bill Russell, The Deluge (detail), 36” x 36”, acrylic on canvas, 2020)
Bill Russell is a painter, illustrator and designer based in Marin County, California. He earned his degree from Parsons School of Design in New York and was an Adjunct Professor of Illustration at the California School of the Arts in San Francisco, as well as a staff artist at the San Francisco Chronicle. He has completed artist residencies at Recology and the Kala Art Institute. You can see more of his paintings at Bill Russell Fine Art and see his reportage at Russell Reportage.