Bringing the data of climate change to life through visual arts
An Alaskan artist provides windows into a complex world.
For this month’s Imagination issue, CC is thrilled to interview artist Klara Maisch. Klara captures change in the landscapes of Alaska on canvas, allowing viewers to experience geological data in a new way. Here, we chat with Klara about her art and the place of imagination in science and climate change.
CC: You grew up in Fairbanks and received your BFA in Printmaking and Painting from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. When did you discover the intersection of science and art?
Maisch: When I attended university in 2009, I was torn between studying geology and art. My mom encouraged me to try pursuing art first, and it stuck! My current work as an artist is a natural progression of my interests in the outdoors and having the support to follow them.
I painted outside for the first time in 2012. I was sitting on the muddy banks of the Yukon River, painting a rather large canvas, oblivious to the rain, chill, my hunger and bedtime. Looking back, I think I was in a state of euphoria. The realization that I could make art while directly experiencing the environment was transformative. I still get shaky and excited working up to the moment of setting up a fresh canvas outside.
I got involved as an instructor for the Girls on Ice (GOI) program in 2013. GOI looks at a glacial environment from the perspectives of science, art and mountaineering. GOI [has given me] a series of firsthand experiences with the Gulkana Glacier from year to year. I see its change through the amount of exposed rock, receding ice and shifting locations of moulins and crevasses. This past summer, I set up two painting sites where I will return to produce a series of repeat paintings in the Fall using a GPS to set up the sites. Art adds layers of translation and emotion and I’m curious to see how this might shift over time as well.
Can you tell us more about your field painting trips?
I try to paint in the field as much as possible. Starting mid-May, I will be in the Wrangells field painting for two weeks on, two weeks off through the end of August. Initially it took me days to get packed for an art-centric outdoor trip, but now I have a reliable checklist of gear and art supplies for every season and style of trip. Art is often treated as hands-off and fragile, but I have learned that paintings can go through quite a lot of packing, weather, moving around and re-packing. I use oil paint in thin layers, so although I tend to get paint all over my gear, the painting’s surface is very well protected when I take it off the stretcher bars and roll it up for transport.
A typical art trip is flexible and open ended. I tend to pick a location, pack my gear, and then hike, ski or sometimes fly into a remote area. I never know what I will paint until I get there! I often spend hours feeling a place out through sketches and open-ended wandering. Being immersed in a dynamic landscape requires constant adjustment and adaptation, and art has become a way to further explore and respond to the immensity of this experience.
When I paint outside, the landscape works itself into the marks being made, whether I am aware of it or not. A brushstroke painted with cold hands is different than a one painted in the studio. Working in a three-dimensional world that is constantly shifting is different from working from sketches and photographs indoors. Both methods are important parts of my practice, but nothing beats getting to paint a subject through close observation and direct experiences.
Can you tell us about the use of lines in your paintings?
Lines are an element of visual language that show direction and flow. In mathematical terms a line is a “point on the move.” I see movement everywhere in a landscape, mostly in the rocks, snow, ice and weather. I tend to interpret this movement as an implied or continuous line in my work. Sometimes lines are obvious and sometimes they get buried under layers of paint, but I tend to think of lines as the building blocks or bones of a landscape.
What are the advantages of bringing art and science together? What do you hope will come of the interaction viewers have with your art?
Science reveals truths through data, repeatability and wider scientific consensus. Art is powerful because it is free to take great leaps of imagination. Art and science both require creative thinking, observation, experimentation and questioning. When art and science are combined, there are more tools to convey change over time. I strive to create paintings that are “truthful” to the place, while recognizing the power of subjective creative decisions. Good storytelling relies on elements of truth and imagination, and unlike a scientific research paper, paintings more easily provide a place for a person to enter the narrative. There is power in sharing emotive experiences of place. Art highlights the intricate beauty inherent in remote landscapes and brings the data of climate change to life.
Everyone brings their own experiences and interpretations to a work of art, so my main hope is to connect people with a place. Painting is a way to translate a sense of what it feels like to be surrounded by a landscape in flux. I spend a lot of time trying to find visuals that convey the rhythm and tempo of vast geophysical processes. My biggest hope is that art can help people experience awe, curiosity and empathy for the natural world.
What role does imagination have in our response to climate change?
Imagination allows us to envision our planet’s future. Climate change is relatively abstract and often involves events that are far-flung and hard to comprehend. Art provides a window into this complex world. By amplifying subtle changes in a landscape, imagining future scenarios, or bringing emotion to overlooked impacts, art allows us to really “see” climate change. Art is a resource for hope, transformation and an appreciation of how deeply interconnected we all are. Ultimately we need the diverse perspectives of science, art, technology and so many other equally important ways of knowing to creatively and collectively address the vast, systemic problems of the 21st century.
What is at stake if people don’t pay attention to their surroundings?
Humans are actively altering our shared climate without a wider understanding of the context of our actions. Intended or not, our decisions and actions can cascade beyond our comprehension, often outliving us. At first, it can be difficult and scary to accept this, but when I feel helpless or insignificant, the incredible interactions of the natural world remind me that I have an individual impact within the wider systems we all share, and that is empowering. When we pay closer attention to our surroundings, we begin to see the small ways we can have a positive impact. This work is rooted in humility, empathy, and goodwill.
One simple and enjoyable way to connect and find new perspectives in a familiar environment is to “zoom in” and take a sustained look at the details of bark, a rock’s surface, or the path of an insect. Make note of seasonal changes. Go check out an outdoor area that’s close to home and new to you. I have essentially lived in the same neighborhood my whole life and I still get lost when I am following my wonder and curiosity. It’s important to note, these activities work in any location, be it deep in the city or in the woods. Signals of climate change are everywhere once we start to pay attention.
What projects are you most excited about right now?
I am currently very excited to be working on a series of larger paintings started on site in glacial ice caves in the Alaska Range. Glacial ice has the most incredible colors and forms– it’s essentially frozen yet flowing layers of time. I have so many projects on the back burner that I am excited about, but I think the common thread is that I really want to start working larger. Painting huge canvases is a much bigger commitment in time, finances and materials, but I always crave more canvas space. I would love to someday be able to paint in polar areas outside of Alaska such as Antarctica, Greenland and Northern Canada, but those are far off dreams at this point!
Klara’s finished artwork can be found at klaramaisch.com. Klara shares her creative process on Instagram and Facebook @paintprintplay.
Are you a music lover? John Luther Adams is an American composer who is also deeply attentive to our surroundings. His musical pieces are musical transliterations of scientific data of place. What Klara does in visuals, Adams does in sound. We encourage you to explore the work of both these artists!