Using Art as an In-Road to Science and Activism
Jill Pelto, 27, is an artist and scientist living outside Portland, Maine, whose work explores the effects of climate change. Growing up, she had the opportunity to study climate change firsthand while accompanying her father, a professor of environmental science at Nicholls College, on research trips to the North Cascades every year since she was 16.
Using watercolors to present scientific data in striking, narratively compelling compositions, Pelto’s art has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, PBS NewsHour, and National Geographic. Most recently, her work appeared on the cover of “One Last Chance,” TIME Magazine’s special July 2020 issue on climate change.
I spoke with Pelto over the phone recently about her background and how art can provide in-roads into science and activism. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I understand you recently traveled to the North Cascades in Washington State. What brought you there and why?
I traveled with my father, Dr. Mauri Pelto, as part of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project—field work he began in 1983, when he was completing his PhD.
This is a long-term glacier monitoring project in the northern Cascades, near Seattle. We backpacked throughout the area with two other research team members, an undergraduate student and a recent master’s graduate in glaciology, taking measurements on the glaciers.
Given the extent to which glaciers are melting worldwide, and their value as a source of freshwater, it’s important to have consistent data on their changes from year to year. The glaciers of the North Cascades provide up to 25% of the region’s freshwater, and their retreat affects those who live there.
So we need to ask: how much have they retreated? How much ice loss is there?
You studied both earth science and studio art at the University of Maine. When did you first start creating art that combined these two passions?
I feel very lucky to have studied glaciers since I was 16, which was a unique experience for someone growing up in Massachusetts. My high school didn’t even have environmental science classes. My main interest back then was art, but I still loved field work. In college, I often made environmental art for my studio art assignments, and was always thinking about how to combine them.
Then in 2015, Washington State experienced really terrible drought and forest fires—the worst I’ve ever seen firsthand. I wanted to communicate this with my classmates when I came back to Maine, and so I looked at the data we had collected. Seeing the slope of the data over time made me think of the slope of a melting glacier, and it just connected. Having this background in science, I was used to reading and interpreting graphs—they make sense to me. But not everyone is able to interpret data. Creating visuals and telling stories helps communicate science more easily.
What is your process for a piece? How do you choose the data you use, the science you’re exploring, or the imagery you create? Do you know what it looks like when you start?
The planning stage is often the hardest for many artists. Pushing your creativity to do something new and different is tough! The sequence of that stage varies for me, but you learn to do it more effectively as you go.
Usually I have an initial idea—for example, I want to create a painting about ocean acidification. I’m a climate scientist, not a marine sciences expert, and so I do some research just to get a good basic background on it. In the last couple years, I’ve really made an effort to connect with experts in those fields, get their perspectives to make sure I’m telling the story right. I want to make sure I’m using trustworthy data, too—so, for example, data from groups like NOAA, or from individual scientists’ peer-reviewed work. Sometimes I do have an idea about the data I’d like—say, “I’d like something to show a long change over time.” But that data might not exist, or might not be trustworthy.
Once I’ve done my research, the next approach is just to do dozens of tiny messy sketches. Even if I don’t like an idea I have, I still draw it to get it out of my head. Writing sometimes helps too. All of this forces new ideas out of me gradually. Only very rarely do good new ideas spring forth directly.
Then I discuss with family and friends. My twin sister is an illustrator and a very good resource. Eventually, I choose an idea to push forward into a final piece. I create a whole under-sketch of where the painting will be, with the slope of the data and the axes, because I don’t paint data as loosely as I would a landscape. I can still play with the paint overlaying it, but the data is sketched out decisively ahead of time.
Your work is closely tied to your experiences doing research in Washington State—for example, your paintings on forest fires and salmon population decline. Do you think focusing on such local and personal experiences helps make the reality of climate change feel more immediate?
Yes—I think creating specific and relatable images can better reach some people. On the other hand, if I create something that’s not relatable for others, can it then help them learn more about it, and better see what’s really happening?
You’ve also worked with children on classroom activities such as drawing their own data-driven works of art. How did that get started? How do the kids react?
Around 2016, I developed a curriculum for science and art classrooms with Science Friday, the NPR radio program. I’m not always involved with the classrooms that use it, but over the last year, one of my goals has been to get more involved. I’ve gone to schools in Maine and worked with multiple grades, both in science and art classes. I usually do a presentation where I discuss both my personal story and climate change. I bring in physical things, like my art supplies and climbing gear. Then often I help lead the students through the exercise, and respond and give feedback on their work.
Reactions vary based on how the individual students learn. Some kids like the wildlife photos I’ve taken; some like the art process; some like all of it. A lot of them really connect with the idea of creating art about something they really care about. To be able to ask questions, express their fears, and communicate all of this through imagery they care about — whether it’s sports, or their favorite animals — is meaningful. In high school classrooms, maybe they can collect and graph the data themselves as well, and learn more about the research and analysis process that way.
Just seeing the work they create is really powerful. One student drew a line of data as a crack in a floe of sea ice, with a mother and baby polar bear separated by it. It was so poignant! I would love to make a collection of this work, if I can get permission. It really touches adults’ hearts to see what kids care about. I think it can be hard for adults to remember how they thought and felt when they were at different ages in their childhood. Seeing work like this can help them realize, “I need to do better for this generation.”
Do you ever get negative reactions? Are there scientists who don’t take this seriously, or others who may take some issue?
I don’t expect someone walking up to one of my paintings to immediately grasp the data behind it, which is why I always include an artist’s statement with each piece in a gallery. It’s a balancing act, but the intent is always to tell the full story of the data.
I think it’s good to be prepared for more criticism as my career grows. Some criticism can be harder to learn from, though, and I try to be ready for that, and handle it maturely and respectfully. People often think my work is too negative or alarmist, for example. Some people were unhappy with TIME’s “alarmist headline”—but it’s not my place to speak against this amazing opportunity, nor is it my magazine or my headline! Feedback like this is never really based on you—just bits and pieces they have picked up about you.
Still, I take them seriously. I’m thinking hard about the tone I choose, and how it might be more hopeful. I don’t want to sugarcoat climate change, but rather be aware of how my tone can influence people. Some of the more positive concepts I have explored include the upward trend in renewable energy consumption.
For my next big data series, I’m thinking of creating a series of paintings about one overarching topic—say, sea level rise—with the visuals in the paintings highlighting data that refer to collective action. Data that shows what people and places are doing collectively to address climate change. The message is then: This is how we are going to mitigate, prepare, and protect ourselves.
What does art do to communicate that data or scientific papers on climate change don’t? Why is it valuable?
A scientist’s primary objective is to do the research and publish the research. A lot of scientists do use communication skills as part of their work, but some don’t. Research is a scientist’s full-time job, but at the same time there is a lot of pressure for them to be good at public speaking, social media, and so on. Not everyone has all of those skills. I think there should be more outside communicators in science. Art and communication have always been important passions for me, even stronger than my love of scientific research. I was happy to complete my studies and become a scientist, but most important for me is to have the time to do the work of communication. That can mean not continuing as a full-time scientist—at least, that’s what it meant for me.
Using striking visuals to create emotional connection really clicks with some people. While scientific data depicts what’s there, too, it’s hard to connect with it emotionally, or know what it means for your life. By making art about a topic, it becomes a part of our culture. Art has always been used as a tool for communicating the things that matter to us and define our lives.
What do you hope people take away from your work at this time?
I hope it’s something that gets people thinking, whether about what they see depicted, or whatever topics are most important in their lives. Right now, with the pandemic, we’re all living through a stressful situation that is bringing out a lot of different things in different people. Some people have been able to use this situation to reflect and tune in in a different way. Activism is taking off because people cannot wait for the slow pace of change any longer, and activism helps you learn better how your impact matters. I really hope that a lot of people are awakening to the power of their individual actions—which is the only thing that leads to larger collective action. Individual action may feel limited, but when amassed together, it forces change. I hope that my work has enough of an emotional connection to help set that chain of events going, and inspire others to take action.
Katie Naum is an alum of Columbia University’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. She is a science writer and the operations manager for the NSF-funded Northeast Big Data Innovation Hub.