Multi-media artist and educator Itty Neuhaus has spent a great deal of time observing and interpreting environmental changes in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and in Iceland and Greenland. Since 2000, when she took her first trip to Iceland, her drawings, photographs, sculptures, and videos have addressed the degradation of glaciers and the nature of icebergs.
Neuhaus’ initial interest in the region was piqued by John McPhee’ description in The Control of Nature (1989) of an Icelandic physicist’s effort to divert the flow of a volcano by directing voluminous jets of water at it. She was fascinated by the notion of attempting to re-sculpt the Earth, as the scientist had done, and decided that she wanted to see Iceland for herself. On the flight there, Neuhaus observed a line of icebergs calving off a glacier and felt a sense of intense loss. In her attempt to process these feelings, she discovered a working method and subject area that would dominate her practice over the following years.
During that first visit to Iceland, Neuhaus began a postcard series in which she removed areas of pretty tourist scenes by scratching away at the surface of the postcards with a stylus and superimposing ice melts and other environmental losses onto the idyllic imagery. She also observed the deep crevasses that existed in the glaciers and heard stories about individuals who had fallen to their deaths within them. As a result of the experience, she began to imagine that the Earth itself has a conscious volition and is luring us into its center – a notion that later led her to create a body of work on human bodies and crevasses.
With funding from the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she has taught since 2000, Neuhaus continued to travel to locations where she could observe icebergs and glaciers. In 2011, she spent four months on a research and lecture fellowship as a Fulbright Scholar in Newfoundland and Labrador that included three months as an artist in residence at the Gros Morne National Park through Parks Canada. Her experiences helped her to understand how artists have an opportunity to educate the public on the climate crisis by translating big issues like habitat loss and environmental degradation into provocative imagery.
During that time, Neuhaus continued to create what she refers to as “scratch works,” taking photographs of icebergs and scratching into the surfaces to show melting ice and other environmental impacts of climate change. For one particular piece, she sat on a rock waiting for an iceberg to flip over as the waves increased and changed. While she was waiting, she considered her hours-long observation to be a metaphor for how we are all simply waiting for the Earth to change in radical ways without implementing effective interventions. The underside of icebergs and their actual movements filmed over a period of four hours from a bluff in Twillingate, Newfoundland is reflected in a 2008 video entitled Dance of the Three-Pronged Wonder. In order to emphasize the mystery of what lies beneath the surface of the water, Neuhaus digitally altered these portions of the iceberg so that they appear to grow as the icebergs dance to a waltz by P.I. Tchaikovsky.
In 2015-2016, as a Fulbright Scholar on an Arctic Initiative, Neuhaus was the only artist among a cohort of physical and social scientists, economists, and others who were studying the degradation of icebergs in Greenland. Using a hydro-robot designed for the task, they were measuring the size, salinity, and other aspects of the icebergs while she was drawing and videotaping them. The work she began there culminated in a 2018 solo exhibition titled Sublimation: An Iceberg’s Story, which was held at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, New York. The show included a scratched composite photograph taken in Greenland, printed to a size of 27’ x 4,’ backlit, and hanging loosely over two gallery walls. It also included a video written and filmed by Neuhaus called Icylla, An Iceberg’s Story. Told in the voice of Icylla, the last existing iceberg in a world without ice, the piece incorporates a watery soundtrack, a gritty narration, animation, and stunning imagery of Greenland and Iceland.
Neuhaus completed Arctic Magnetism, a “scratch work” based on a photograph of the Russell Glacier in Greenland, in 2019 (see detail at the top). A large-scale photograph printed on film in two pieces as mirror images, it was created, as much of her work is, by removing portions of the photograph with scratch nibs and steel wool. Almost nine feet in length, the Russell Glacier looms over us as if sucking us in and pushing us away at the same time. With its dramatic imagery and frenetic motion, Arctic Magnetism exudes a sense of foreboding and serves as a metaphor for our own impending demise.
During the extraordinary 2020-2021 pandemic year, Neuhaus decided to pause from her usual subject matter and address the way in which the virus has imbued us all with a fear of touch. Instructed not to shake hands, hug, or conduct any normal actions that necessitate physical contact with other human being outside of our “pods,” we washed our hands constantly to prevent infection. Her series of monoprints and paintings, each 18” x 24,” consists of hands rendered in black and white in the process of washing. Shown together, the Wall of Hands emphasizes the redemptive and regenerative nature of water, which both cleans and heals.
Neuhaus’ inventive works cleverly imitate the melting and disappearance of icebergs and glaciers. As she goes through the process of scratching at the surface of her photographs, she can viscerally feel how the ice is melting away and how the landscape she witnessed at one particular moment in time is changing before her eyes. It is imperative in viewing these frozen moments in time not only to serve as witnesses to this change but to do everything in our power to prevent further environmental loss.
(Top image: Arctic Magnetism, photograph of Russell Glacier, Greenland. Printed on backlit film. Drawing by removal with scratch nibs, steel wool with water-based crayons, 106” x 44,” 2019.)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.