Artist Diane Burko Ties Together Art and Science

Diane Burko on Viedma Glacier, South America (2015)
Diane Burko on Viedma Glacier, South America (2015)

The nexus between art and science first featured in artist and photographer Diane Burko’s work in 2006. Since then, Burko has traveled around the world to capture monumental landscapes and features. She has spent time in Norway, Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula, documenting and bearing witness to the global disappearance of glaciers. 

Burko agreed to an interview with GlacierHub, where she discusses her journey to communicate science and dispel doubt through art.

GH: What first inspired you to draw connections between art and science?

DB: I think I am “science curious”.  As a landscape artist, monumental geological environments, dramatic vistas, aerial views, have always captured my imagination. Perhaps growing up in a New York City apartment may be why…  The Grand Canyon was one of my first subjects in the 70’s. Understanding its deep history – how it was formed was crucial. When I did a series on Volcanoes in 2000, learning about plate tectonics was part of my process. Knowing how a landscape is put together, the geology, is as important to me as experiencing it by walking, climbing or flying over it…

Grinnell Mt. Gould Quadtych, 2009, 88” x 200” overall (Courtesy of Diane Burko)
Grinnell Mt. Gould Quadtych, 2009, 88” x 200” overall (Courtesy of Diane Burko)

GH: Why is it important to bring together art and science?

DB: I believe that art can communicate science. My obsession with nature at its most awe-inspiring naturally leads me to want to preserve and protect it.  That’s why I want to show how our environment is being threatened by climate change. My strategy is to seduce with beauty and then subtly insert awareness in the viewer by utilizing visual/scientific prompts I’ve garnered through my interactions with climatologists, my observations in the field and my own research.

The visual devices (literal and metaphoric) employed are as simple as presenting chronological images of glaciers receding in multiple panels. Or more mysterious and abstract images redolent with the idea of the landscape as body –  as mortal with potential to decay, contrasting ancient rocks with melting ice.

Landsat maps and geological diagrams, and recessional lines are also strategic devices I’ve employed.

Deep Time Diptych (Glacial History Eqi and Looking into Viedma 2), 2015, 40” x 60” each (Courtesy of Diane Burko)
Deep Time Diptych (Glacial History Eqi and Looking into Viedma 2), 2015, 40” x 60” each (Courtesy of Diane Burko)

GH: Tell us about your trip to Argentina and Antarctica. What challenges did you face? What part of the trip struck you the most?

DB: In January 2015 I was invited to join 26 educators with “Students on Ice” a nonprofit organization offering student expedition experiences to Antarctica and the Arctic. This was my second expedition there – the other in 2013. After the voyage we landed back in Ushuaia and boarded a plane to El Calafate. Having been to the two largest ice fields in the world (Antarctica and Greenland) I was eager to see the third largest one in Patagonia.

Initially my goal was to go to climb on Perito Marino, which has a 3-mile front glacial front. Ironically this is one of the few glaciers that is not receding

However it was Viedma Glacier that totally took my breadth away.

Wearing crampons we climbed very carefully on top of this glacier for hours because it was really treacherous.

Crevasses were everywhere around me as I captured some incredible images

Back in the studio, I am working on a series on Upsala, which was the third glacier we visited – also receding.

Columbia Quadtych, 2011, 60” x 200” overall (Courtesy of Diane Burko)
Columbia Quadtych, 2011, 60” x 200” overall (Courtesy of Diane Burko)

GH: How do people respond to your work?

DB: They seem to respond at the exhibitions. And they participate when I give talks on my artistic practice at the intersection of art and science.

GH: The world of ice is at times colorless, white ice and dark rock, but the blue keeps appearing. How do you work with the color?

DB: I just embrace it – attempting to capture it’s magic through my photographs. My paintings, I tend to interpret from the experience and memory when back in the painting studio.

Perito Moreno’s 3 Mile Front, 2015, 40” x 60”  (Courtesy of Diane Burko)
Perito Moreno’s 3 Mile Front, 2015, 40” x 60” (Courtesy of Diane Burko)

GH: Can you tell us a bit about your choice of mediums? Do you use different mediums to convey different messages or evoke different emotions?

DB: As a painter in oils I strive to make that medium represent the ideas I wish to convey. Here are two examples that might answer the question:

GH: Ice accumulates where snow falls, and snow falls from clouds. Being close to glaciers often means being close to cloud and mist. Does the photographer hope for sun, or accept the cover?

DB: Clouds, fog, all present many more possibilities.

Morning Sail 2, August 6, 2015, 40” x 60” (Courtesy of Diane Burko)
Morning Sail 2, August 6, 2015, 40” x 60” (Courtesy of Diane Burko)

GH: The glaciers of Argentina are huge, but Antarctica is absolutely enormous. Does this contrast influence your selection of images to include in a record of your trip?

DB: No I just include whatever captivates me visually, whatever is presented in front of me.

It is always serendipitous because one cannot predict the weather- the winds or where we actually wind up landing in Antarctica.   And in Patagonia I only was able to visit three of the many glaciers in the Argentinian ice field. I would love to return to Chile and explore more.

Artist Reawakens Glacial Past In Central Park

In the northeast corner of Central Park by the Harlem Meer, a large billboard hints at Manhattan’s icy past. The piece, commissioned as part of the Drifting in Daylight art exhibition celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Central Park Conservancy, was designed by Karyn Olivier.

Olivier chose to depict a glacier that covered Manhattan 20,000 years ago. The glacier shaped many parts of the island in ways that are both familiar and taken for granted by New Yorkers. Through her piece she also leaves a trace of Seneca Village, a mostly forgotten African American settlement from the 1800’s.

Olivier, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is an artist and associate professor of sculpture at Tyler School of Art. She spoke to GlacierHub about her piece, titled “Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock.”

Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock by Karyn Oliver
Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock by Karyn Oliver

GH: Why did you choose to depict the glacier that used to cover New York?

KO: The task to create an artwork for a place like Central Park, a place already filled with so much beauty, was daunting—what can compete with such an amazing landscape? So I decided to focus on the site of Central Park and reveal what existed at that location—perhaps allowing for a reflection on what stands there today. I was reading about the Wisconsin Glacier that travelled through what is now New York City, 20,000 years ago. It created valleys, moved boulders, formed rock outcroppings, carried alluvial debris that was eternally stranded in new locations when the ice sheet melted. I was interested in this physical evidence, this geological diaspora, that can be found throughout Central Park—it’s both everywhere, in plain sight, but also hidden by our lack of knowledge and awareness. I was also interested in the more recent history of the site—Seneca Village—and the fact that there is little evidence left of this once vibrant community. This settlement of mostly freed African American residents in the 1800’s was displaced, scattered wholesale throughout the city, with few traces of their tenancy left in the bucolic park. The billboard depicts an image of a glacier, but also a pottery shard that was found on the site of the village. I saw a literal and metaphoric connection between the subtle residual artifacts of both the glacier and village.


GH: What meaning do glaciers hold for you?

KO: One of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve had was coming upon a glacier while visiting Iceland 14 years ago. It took my breath away—its vastness, its enormity, its visual reminder of the immensity of time and a vanished epoch that it holds and bears witness to.

Karyn Olivier
Karyn Olivier

GH: Can you tell us a bit about your choice of medium for this piece?

KO: I decided to use a lenticular photographic process to create the billboard display. In addition to featuring an image of a glacier and an artifact found from Seneca Village, I embedded a photograph of the landscape that currently exists directly behind the billboard structure. Depending on the viewer’s vantage point, multiple iterations of the three images can be seen. At moments each image is distinct; at other times they reveal themselves as fragments; at varying distances the three images overlap and are compressed—in a sense, conflating thousands of years of time in a single image. When a viewer moves from one end of the billboard to the other, the glacier will seem to move and morph into another time period—transformed as if the park goer on some level is controlling time or her understanding of it. The glacier mutates into a shard from a ceramic vessel—a domestic object made from clay dug from the same earth the glacier traversed before it also vanished. I hoped the image would be arrestingly beautiful, mysterious and thought provoking, as the viewer ponders the connection between the park and the display, the display and himself. I hoped it might spark the viewer’s recognition of the circularity and cyclical nature of time and history and his brief existence in this continuum.
GH: What emotions, thoughts or experiences are you hoping to trigger in passers by?

KO: My aim is for the viewer to have a visceral response to the piece. I want the expansiveness of the glacier to be felt in contrast to the scale of a ceramic plate fragment. I hoped to somehow equate the two—the massive and larger-than-life physicality of the glacier with the smallness and intimacy of a domestic object, a kitchen plate. What does it mean to position these two opposing scales and physicalities into the same image? I wanted to raise more questions than answers.


GH: Have you depicted glaciers before?

KO: I haven’t, but this project is inspiring me to continue this exploration.