For Jill Pelto, Science Intersects With Art

Posted by on Mar 8, 2016

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Jill Pelto aspires to use art, especially screen printing, to communicate climate change, rising sea levels, and the state of threatened species to the world. She has a background in both art and science— she graduated from the University of Maine in 2015 with a double major in Studio Art and Earth Science— and says on her website that ”art is a uniquely articulate lens: through it I can address environmental concerns to raise awareness and inspire people to take action.”


Pelto witnessed glacier retreat first-hand as a teenager, and since then images of glaciers have left her with a strong impression. She’s visited glaciers on many occasions. She has accompanied her dad, a glaciologist, to the North Cascade Glaciers of Washington state, and has assisted with research conducted on mountain glaciers in that state. Pelto’s recent work was featured at the University of Maine Art Department’s senior studio art exhibit, “The Ghosts of Carnegie Hall.” Now she is a graduate student at the University of Maine, studying in the Earth Science Program. She spoke to GlacierHub by email. 

GlacierHub: Are there any interesting stories or particular feelings you would like to share from you previous visits to glaciers?

Jill Pelto: Working in the field is perhaps my favorite part about working as an Earth Scientist; these trips also lead to a lot of interesting stories. I think it’s very important to note the rate of change that is occurring on Earth. We hear a lot of people state that change in the climate are natural and so on, yet they do not realize that unprecedented rate that has led us to call this a global warming. I think it is important that more people understood why the current changes are not like any in the past, and that they are caused by human influence. I have worked with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project on a group of glaciers in Washington for the past seven years. This is not a long period of time, yet over this interval I have seen huge changes to the glaciers and ecosystems, including the creations of a new meltwater lake.

This past field season, August 2015, I was stunned and saddened by the effects of the drought: almost no snow on the glaciers, huge ice volume loss and retreat, reservoirs and streams depleted, a new lake beneath Columbia Glacier, and forest fire smoke engulfing the sky. When I returned from the field I was inspired to create a series that used data to show people: look, this is happening! It is going to be difficult to change our relationship with the environment, but it is essential that we do so now! I hope that my artwork will communicate both this sense of loss that is occurring, yet also inspire hope and action.

Jill Pelto: Salmon Population

Jill Pelto: Salmon Population


GH: What component do you consider the most important when communicating science to public?

JP: I am really still figuring out how best to share science to a broad audience, but I have always thought artwork was an excellent form of communication. I think this is because the aesthetic visual quality often evokes an emotional reaction. I am trying to use my artwork to share with people the emotions I feel about environmental issues: worry and anger, but also hope and the belief that we can change our relationship with nature for the better. Using research and data in my art has helped communicate well because it informing people about a topic and showing a trend, yet it does not rely on the graph by itself to tell a story. Right now I think the key to communicating science to the public may lie in combining the intellectual to the emotional. One without the other is a much less effective way to bring about change. You need the intellectual so that people know what is happening, but without the emotional they may not pay attention, or may not care enough. The emotional is key for getting people to care, yet without the information they would not learn about why the topic is important, or how and why they can make a difference.


GH: Can you tell us a bit about screen printing?

JP: Screenprinting gives me the unique ability to create an edition of original artworks that are handmade. The whole process is quite complex, yet I am able to turn one work of art into a series that varies in color palette. I use the photoemulsion process for my series and work in the University of Maine print shop run by Susan Groce. I first create a watercolor that will serve as my image. I then scan it and use Photoshop to separate it into its four color layers: Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, and Black (CYMK). These are printed on four separate acetate positives. I can then use a special emulsion and the Print Shop’s UV Light Exposure Unit to expose my images to the screen. The emulsion washes out wherever my image is, allowing the ink to transfer through the screen and onto my paper in this those areas; it is extremely precise.  

GH: How do scientific research and data motivate your artwork?

JP: For each piece of artwork I research the topic that I wish to communicate. My piece Habitat Degradation: Ocean Acidification, for example, is inspired in particular from two sources that I will share below. The watercolor contains ocean pH data from 1998 to 2012. I wanted to depict the decrease in pH, which is due to atmospheric carbon dissolving into the ocean and creating carbonic acid; this has harmful effects on all marine life. I wanted to include this intellectual content but also portray the emotional response I had when I read that studies on clownfish show that more acidic water alters how their brains’ process information. This affects their ability to avoid predators by detecting noises and find their way home. Ocean water has a lower pH than a fish’s cells, so they take in carbonic acid in order to be in harmony with their environment. Even a small drop in pH requires fish to expend much more energy in order to equilibrate, and this energy is taken from other necessary functions. The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion, separated from the anemone in which they live. The oceans may be vast, but if pH drops globally, there is literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the water.

Pelto’s artwork covers more than just glaciers. Explore more of it here.

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