Diane Burko has an appetite for ice. For nearly a decade she has been documenting the disappearance of glaciers from the earth in large-scale series of paintings and photographs. Burko considers herself not just a landscape artist, but a landscape activist. Her two most recent projects, entitled Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations, have been developed in close collaboration with glaciologists. It’s a symbiotic relationship: she wants her work to accurately reflect the science and the urgency of climate change, and they want her to help them communicate their science to the public through her art. The glacier work fits neatly into a much longer artistic trajectory: she has been photographing and painting dramatic, monumental landscapes for more than 40 years. I spoke to Burko about her evolution as an artist, her interest in glaciers, and her collaborations with scientists. What follows is an edited excerpt of the interview.
Q: You were raised in Brooklyn, New York, a place that is not exactly known for dramatic sweeping landscapes of the kind you feature in your work. Where did that impulse come from?
Diane Burko: The first landscape that had that kind of awe moment for me was the Grand Canyon. I was asked to do a show at Arizona State University in 1977, and the draw for me was that I knew it was near the Grand Canyon. I happened to meet James Turrell, the light artist, in L.A. a few months before the show, and I was telling him about how I was going to Arizona, where he was, and he said well what are you going to do? I said, ‘The big thing I’m going to do is see the Grand Canyon,’ and he said, ‘What you need to do is fly over and fly into it.’ Apparently, he actually does that. He has a plane, so he flew me into the Grand Canyon in a little Helio Courier. So that was the first time I flew over something and photographed it. Before then, I was using photographs that other people had made, magazines, calendars, National Geographic, whatever I could find. And once I was in that plane with Jim, I realized I was going to be making my own photos and making paintings out of those photos. That was the historical beginning of my aerial view and I always credit Jim for getting me started.
Q: So how did you move from the Grand Canyon to glaciers?
Burko: There was kind of a pivotal epiphany moment in 2006. I did this project that was basically about Iceland and volcanoes. I went to a place called Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake where lots of the James Bond movies were filmed. And I had an exhibition about it in 2006, and the curator said, ‘You’re doing ice here, in these glaciers, but didn’t you do ice and snow in the 70s?’ And she was correct, and she took one of those paintings of French Alps, from 1976, and put it in this show. And so, it just hit me that it was 30 years later. And it was the exact same year as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out, and I had also just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, on climate change, so it was in the air. I think all those things together raised my consciousness. It really changed my whole practice. It was no longer just about painting beautiful landscapes, but it was about figuring out a way to talk through my language of paint about this issue that is such an urgent issue for time, and for the future.
Q: In the bio on your website you say the Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations projects are intended to “invent visual strategies to make the invisible visible, and visceral to the public.” Can you say more about what this means?
Burko: So, once I started looking at and reading the work of glacial geologists—you know, I got a lot of their books—I saw that they have all these graphs, they have these recessional lines, expressing how a glacier has changed. They date them. So that was one thing I saw, a visual way of explaining change, which I adopted in some of my paintings. But another more powerful tool that they used and that I picked up on was that they use what they call “repeat photography.” This guy I contacted early on named Bruce Molnia, he was the author of a USGS atlas on Alaskan glaciers, and I found them online and I contacted him and then he met me and he’s actually been a collaborator ever since. He explained that what geologists do is they will return to a site and measure it, photographing at the same longitude, latitude, same time each year, and they will photograph that glacier over time. So I would take those repeats and make diptychs. I even made one that was four big paintings of Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park from 1935 up to after 2000 and you can just see by looking. It’s visceral.
Q: What are your collaborations like with the glaciologists? Is it mostly a sharing of materials that the scientists gather?
Burko: Well, it started out that way, it started with me emailing these scientists where I found their names in relationship to images, like Bruce, and then it evolved into my actually meeting them. Bruce came to my first Politics of Snow show in 2010, so we met in the gallery and talked about the science.
Another collaboration developed with this man named Tad Pfeffer, a physicist and glaciologist who studies ice melt, mostly on mountain glaciers, who I found on the Internet. And I did a whole series on Columbia Glacier, based on information he gave me—visual information and conversations. And then we met at a conference in 2012 and he suggested I become an affiliate of this organization, INSTAAR (Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research). Well it’s an incredible organization of scientists who are all involved with glaciers and not just ice sheets that you’d have in Antarctica or Greenland, but also these mountain glaciers as well, which Tad explained to me are just as important. It isn’t just the issue of sea level rise; it has to do with drought. If the Himalayan glaciers are melting at different rates, then the water going down either becomes a flood or it’s not there when the farmers need it. I mean everything is topsy-turvy because of this change of C02 in the atmosphere. And in October, I went to do a seminar at the INSTAAR conference at the invitation of Pfeffer.
All these collaborations have to do with another term I haven’t mentioned yet called outreach. What I like about these scientists is that I learn from them. I’m just in awe of what they do. But what I help them do is I help them tell their story in a way that the public can understand. So I’ve been invited to a lot of their conferences, to panels about how to communicate science. I’m not the only person doing this. There are many, many artists involved in trying to communicate science.
Q: Today many of your photographs are works of art themselves. What makes you decide a particular photograph stands alone as a work of art, and what kinds of images or subjects give you the urge to paint instead?
Burko: The ones that give me the urge to paint are the ones that appear to me less complete, maybe even out of focus, sometimes more abstract, not highly detailed or specific. Sometimes it’s about having a number of photos that I combine to make into one painting. I usually know instantly when a photograph is a photograph and when it should be made into a painting. I never want to just reproduce the photograph, I want to take from it, and make that image inspire more in the painting—different colors, maybe a change of actual lines and shapes. The painting takes over after I use the photographic image as a first pass.
Q: How do you make aesthetic choices about individual pieces versus a series when creating your work?
Burko: I have always painted in series because I’ve never been interested in just making a finished work. I’m more invested in an extended study of landscape phenomena such as volcanoes, Giverny [home to Claude Monet’s house and gardens], deserts, and now glaciers. Diptychs were a natural device for telling the story of climate change because they allow you to show changes in a single glacier over chronological time. The grid is another strategy I find useful in this regard. I was first inspired to use this device by [Danish-Icelandic artist] Olafur Elliasson some ten years ago. It is a way to present a collection of like images that become something more when organized into a group. Thus, both my goals conflate: aesthetics and message—my goal with all my work is to seduce with the beauty I encounter and at the same time remind the viewer of the fragility of our natural world due to the threat climate change poses to our planet.