Pastel Artist Zaria Forman’s artwork can easily be mistaken for photographs. Forman has been featured in dozens of prestigious art publications including the Smithsonian Magazine, American Art Collector, My Modern Met, and Lone Wolf Magazine. Her series of artworks were catalysed by a soulful life-changing event, which has sent ripples into the world’s discussions around climate change. To say that her works only explore climate change though, would barely be the tip of the iceberg. Read about Zaria’s heart-wrenching journey to fulfil her passing mother’s last wishes.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Piermont, NY, about 30 min north of NYC. I went to Green Meadow Waldorf school from 6th grade through high school – a very small school with an alternative approach to education, in which art is greatly infused. After my formal art training at Skidmore college, I now exhibit extensively in galleries and venues throughout the United States and overseas. I also taught yoga for 10 years!
You mention that the inspiration for your artwork began with your family travelling to remote locations. Can you tell us about some of the places you went to, how you remember them, and as a child what impact the travelling had on your perspective?
The inspiration for my drawings began in my early childhood when I travelled with my family throughout several of the world’s most remote landscapes, which became the subject of my mother’s fine art photography. I developed an appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the ever-changing sky and sea. I loved watching a far-off storm on the western desert plains; the monsoon rains of southern India; and the cold Arctic light illuminating Greenland’s waters.
Have you been back as an adult to any of those locations & how have they changed from your memory / your mother’s photographs?
The first time I visited Greenland, Svalbard, and the Maldives, I was already a young adult. They are the only places I have revisited so far. In Greenland, the changes that had occurred in the landscape between my visits (2006, and 2012), were brought to light in conversations we had with locals. They spoke of vast ice fjords that are not freezing as they once did, challenging the lifestyle of the subsistence hunting communities that dot the coastlines. The fjords are the communities’ hunting grounds for seal, walrus, and other animals that provide sustenance, warmth and other crucial items necessary for Arctic survival. Insufficient ice severely limits their hunting grounds. Greenland has no railways, no inland waterways, and virtually no roads between towns. Their major method of transportation is by boat around the coast in summer and by dog sled in winter (which, ten years ago, made up most of the year). Without frozen fjords, their dogs and sleds are rendered useless, and many cannot afford to travel very far by boat. This is just one of enumerable ways the warming Arctic is affecting the Inuit way of life.
My two trips to Svalbard were during two different times of year (end of summer 2008, and Spring 2010); the landscape, and the way we traversed it, was entirely different. In the late summer, the only snow you see is high up on distant mountain tops. We travelled by foot and boat. In the Spring, everything was white with deep layers of snow and ice. We explored ice caves (stunning, sparkling diamond-like sculptures that melt every summer), and snowmobiled across frozen fjords, into endless views of white mountains. It was truly spectacular!
Your “Chasing the Light” series was inspired by your mother’s wishes – What were some of the most difficult moments of your expedition, some of the most rewarding, and some of the most unexpected?
The most difficult, rewarding, and unexpected moments actually all happened at once! I spread my mother’s ashes a few times throughout the journey, at what I thought were the most epic “oh my god!” moments (as my mother would have put it). The question arose, “how do we say goodbye?” on scales both personal and global. During the months leading up to the trip, I was so distracted with planning and preparing, I hadn’t formed that connection until I was sprinkling ashes amidst melting, cracking chunks of ice. I will continue to process my mother’s passing throughout the rest of my life. I’m also certain the Inuit communities will be figuring out how to adapt to their changing climate for generations to come.
Tell us about 350.org and your involvement? Why did you choose this organization?
350.org is building a global climate movement. Their online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions are coordinated by a global network that is active in over 188 countries. I strongly believe in what they are doing and the way they are doing it, which is why I choose to support their efforts in any way I can. I donate a percent of all my Maldives and Greenland drawing sales. This past year, most of my donation went specifically to a project in NY that explored story-based forms of community activism, involving a group of artists, writers and climate change activists making and traveling in paper boats down the Hudson. During a three week trip from Troy to NYC, they organized community assemblies and artistic collaborations, drawing a narrative through-line on the map between disparate actors in the ongoing resistance to extreme energy. They held a dismemberment ceremony in NYC aboard the Lilac Steamship, where I participated in a panel talk about water and climate conservations, hosted by SeaChange.
Your most recent series – “Maldives” – is a continuation to your “Chasing the Light” series – tell us about your experience in the Maldives and how your artworks seek to capture the message of climate change.
Exploring the flat islands of the Maldives, I felt a duelling sense of power and fragility. The looming, vast ocean demanded my attention, as it closed in on each tiny island. The color, clarity, and warmth of the water invited me while ominous waves crashed along the encroaching coastline.
Travelling with me on these adventures were two artists, painter Lisa Lebofsky and filmmaker Drew Denny. From our shared experiences together, the three of us developed Ice to Islands, a project documenting disappearing landscapes and sharing the stories of people most affected by climate change. Ice to Islands invites viewers to share the urgency of the Greenlandic and Maldivian predicaments in a productive and hopeful way. Our goal is to facilitate a deeper understanding of these crises, helping to find meaning and optimism amidst the chaos of melting, sinking ground. The project continues to evolve and take shape through drawings, paintings, film, exhibitions, performance, and education.
During our month in the Maldives, the changes due to rising seas were evident. We visited the Maldivian Department of Meteorology to discuss this with meteorologists and climatologists. The head of the department explained, chillingly, that if sea levels rise 88 centimetres, 80 percent of the Maldives will be gone. According to current scientific predictions, this could happen by the year 2100.
We encountered a range of responses to climate change among the people we met on the islands. Almost everyone is well aware of the situation, yet they seem unconcerned about the future of their homes. I wonder now if they are in denial. Acknowledging the imminent disappearance of one’s entire homeland must be devastating. The Maldives are situated atop a submarine ridge of natural coral, which many locals believe will grow faster than the seas can rise, lifting their islands to safety. But this is not possible: ocean warming and acidification are destroying the delicate coral ecosystems. Others are well aware of the current scientific predictions and are purchasing land in Sri Lanka and other locations for their families, when the time comes to relocate.
In collaboration with an environmental organization in the Maldives called Ecocare, Drew, Lisa and I offered a workshop and presentation at the Iskandar School in Male, the nation’s capitol. We met with middle-school students to share the concept of our project and what we had learned from speaking with scientists. Providing art materials, we invited them to document their homeland as it transforms throughout their lives. Our hope is that the children, through their creativity, can both spread awareness of the urgency of climate change and inwardly process the ecological transformations surrounding them.
Some artists will use their works to express emotions, or to convey ideas – your artwork also serves a cause. Can you tell us about each of these three elements in your work, and how they relate. In other words, What does “Art” mean to you & what Ideas are you communicating?
Artists play a critical role in communicating climate change, which is arguably the most important challenge we face as a global community. I have dedicated my career to translating and illuminating scientist’s warnings and statistics into an accessible medium that people can connect with, on a level that is perhaps deeper than scientific facts can penetrate. Neuroscience tells us that humans take action and make decisions based on emotion above all else. Studies have shown that art (and in particular drawings, paintings, photographs, and film) can impact viewers’ emotions more effectively than an essay or newspaper article. My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence, and tranquillity in the landscape, allowing viewers to emotionally connect with a place they may never have the chance to visit. I choose to convey the beauty, as opposed to the devastation, of threatened places. If people can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps they will be inspired to protect and preserve them.
What does your artwork say about who you are?
I suppose it is an expression of my efforts to play a part in our global community. I think I have found my gift, and I am doing my best to use it in a way that can help all of us.
Switching gears a bit – let’s talk about your process. From conceptualizing a piece, to the method of creation – walk us through this.
When I travel, I take thousands of photographs. I often make a few small sketches on-site to get a feel for the landscape. Once I return to the studio, I draw from my memory of the experience, as well as from the photographs, to create large-scale compositions. Occasionally, I will re-invent the water or sky, alter the shape of the ice, or mix and match a few different images to create the composition I envision. I begin with a very simple pencil sketch so I have a few major lines to follow, and then I add layers of pigment onto the paper, smudging everything with my palms and fingers and breaking the pastel into sharp shards to render finer details.
The process of drawing with pastels is simple and straightforward: cut the paper, make the marks. The material demands a minimalistic approach, as there isn’t much room for error or re-working since the paper’s tooth can hold only a few thin layers of pigment. I rarely use an eraser-I prefer to work with my “mistakes,” enjoying the challenge of resolving them with limited marks. I love the simplicity of the process, and it has taught me a great deal about letting go. I become easily lost in tiny details, and if the pastel and paper did not provide limitations, I fear I would never know when to stop, or when a composition were complete!
What has been some of the hardest criticism you’ve received in your art career?
Other than the very occasional nasty comment from a climate change denier, I don’t receive much criticism! I think people just don’t tell me when they have something critical to say.
What about the most rewarding moments?
My parents tearing up when they saw the first large scale storm drawings I made in College. A Greenlandic man reached out a few months ago to tell me how well I have captured his landscape, and thanked me for bringing attention to the climate issues his country faces. A 15-year-old girl reached out to me recently to relay a terrifying story about losing her father to a rare brain disease, a few years after which her mother died in a fire, and how drawing and making art is the only activity that brings her solace in life, and how my work inspires her to continue.
Lightening the mood a bit – How did you manage to get your artwork on House of Cards? Did your friends lose their minds?
Thank you! A friend of a friend was the graphic designer for the show. He had seen my work, and when he got the job for House of Cards, he thought my drawings were a perfect fit for Claire Underwood’s office space. There are also 5 of my Giselle drawings in their townhouse, but I have only found one, very blurry in the background during a scene in the kitchen! I still have yet to finish the second season though. Please tell me if you find any!
Yes my friends were all very excited! The most thrilling moments are when people who know my work, but didn’t know it was in the set of House of Cards, reach out to ask me if it was in fact my work that they noticed in the show. I never expected anyone to notice unless they were really looking for it, (when do you ever notice art on the walls in a TV drama!?).
Where will your artwork take you next?
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am currently working towards my upcoming solo show at Winston Wächter Fine Art in New York. The opening reception will be held on September 10, 2015 from 6-8pm and my work will be on view through October 17, 2015
In Nov/Dec I will be doing a 5-6 week art residency in Antarctica, aboard the National Geographic Explorer with Lindblad Expeditions.
Ice to Islands continues to evolve and take shape through documentary film, expeditions, panel discussions and performance. We are working towards our first major exhibition – stay tuned!
Any final thoughts or parting words?
For originals, please contact my studio manager Melanie Reese at email@example.com. Thank you!
Read More about Zaria Forman on her website. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Interviewer: Rob Green