Artist Emma Stibbon Talks Glaciers and ‘Bearing Witness’

For award winning artist Emma Stibbon, connecting with the landscapes she draws is a crucial part of her artistic process. Her travels have taken her to both poles and in between, where she has witnessed the impacts human activity has in some of the most isolated parts of the world.

Stibbon, who is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Brighton, creates large, generally monochromatic works that evoke expansive and lonely landscapes. She agreed to do an interview with GlacierHub to discuss glaciers, her role as a witness of human imprints on the world, and the importance of capturing the ephemeral nature of the world’s icy landscapes.


Snow Field  154 x 215 cms ink and charcoal dust 2014, courtesy of Emma Stibbon
Snow Field 154 x 215 cms ink and charcoal dust 2014, courtesy of Galerie Bastian, Berlin

GH: What drew you to glaciers and ice bergs – specifically in the Antarctic Peninsula – in the first place?

ES: I have long been interested in the effects of snow and ice on a landscape. My first trip to Antarctica in 2005 was extraordinary: watching the full cycle of ice moving and calving into bergs right in front of me; there is something mysterious about such a large gleaming mass on the move. I am interested in glaciers both as dynamic features and as places of psychological imagining, and their evident retreat in the Peninsula area are of urgent environmental concern. I’ve been committed to it as a project ever since with projects in the Alps, Iceland, the High Arctic and Antarctica.


GH: Why do you feel it is important to depict them?

ES: Ice sheets and glaciers face a precarious future and their evident retreat in the Polar Regions is of environmental concern. One of the reasons I was provoked to visit the Antarctic Peninsula was reading about recent scientific assessments that show increasing instability in the Polar ice sheets confirming that the vulnerability of the Polar Regions will have profound effects upon our global environment. I see my work fitting within a North European Romantic tradition of the Sublime. In a contemporary context this is both a landscape under threat but also a dynamic powerful force that puts a perspective on our own existence and other species.


GH: What difference does it make for an artist actually to visit the ice, rather than to draw from photographs?

ES: Being ‘in the field’ allows me a sense of bearing witness to something, I require that physical experience of place in order to make my studio based work. Once on location I usually gather information, either through drawing from observation or the camera. I believe that a human response to place is still meaningful, that the tactile quality of drawing connects with people on an emotional, visceral level.

Summit 20 x 152 ink and charcoal dust 2014, courtesy of Emma Stibbon
Summit 201.5 x 152cms ink and charcoal dust 2014, courtesy of Galerie Bastian, Berlin

GH: Why do you select particular media (drawing and prints rather than oils or watercolors)?

ES: The drawing process is fundamental to my work. I struggle to establish a correspondence between the drawing media and the subject and to equate an experience of place with a drawn mark. I often use delicate drawing media; watercolour, graphite, carbon and aluminium powder to try to both render an image and use the media as metaphor for the subject. The scale of the work is important, I want to create immersive drawings that communicate something of the sensory qualities of the place – to connect viewers with the Polar environment. For me the act of drawing has almost magical qualities, allowing me to connect the physical world with memory.


GH: Does your art emphasize the ice itself or the broader environment?

ES: A bit of both. I have a formal interest in the complex, physical shapes of the ice and the extraordinary light of Antarctica, bergs can appear almost like a mirage. Passing through the strange, ethereal light certainly felt like one was travelling into an internal world. I wanted the work to reflect a feeling of reverie or introspection. However although my work relies on an aesthetic response there is usually a political underpinning indicating an unstable terrain. My interest is in rapidly changing landscape, we may be one of the last generations to see these giants of ice – I want to witness them now. I am interested in whether drawing can connect the viewer with the contemporary urgencies of our relationship with environment through a visual immersion in the image.


GH: What does your work convey?

ES: I am attracted to places that are undergoing formation or transformation and how the apparently monumental can often be so fragile. I position my work and interest in landscape around themes of awe and an awareness of the power of Nature. But what also preoccupies me is that despite the apparent monumentality of place, there is always that contingency and inevitable frailty of change. We seem to be in denial about this as a human species, we want to believe that our surroundings are immutable and resilient, that there’s a solidity to the ground we walk on. For me the challenge is rendering this view, to try to represent and ‘stage’ the subject through the composition and material construction of the pictorial space.

Sea Ice 152.8 x 167cms watercolour, graphite and aluminium powder 2014, courtesy of EMma Stibbon
Sea Ice 152.8 x 167cms watercolour, graphite and aluminium powder 2014, courtesy of Galerie Bastian, Berlin

GH: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming exhibition?

ES: From 11 June – 5 September 2015, I will be showing the outcome of my recent Polar fieldwork in the exhibition Ice Limit at the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. The exhibition will include large-scale drawings and prints focusing on wilderness and the remote and how this occupies our imagination, in particular taking the idea of glaciers and ice shelves as symbols of change and transition.