BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The polar regions of the world have long been a source of awe and wonder.
But that inspiration often comes second hand. Most of us won’t see these places up close with our own eyes.
Instead we rely on photographers, filmmakers, painters and writers who journey to far flung frozen lands to capture their extreme nature and raw beauty.
This notion inspired a new first-of-its-kind exhibit called “Vanishing Ice” opened this month at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wash.
“Before photography, art was the only way for people to know about these regions,” says Barbara Matilsky, curator of the collection, which is made up of more than 90 works from 12 countries. It’s the largest exhibit the museum has ever curated and the largest exhibit of art depicting the world’s alpine and polar regions.
The collection interweaves art with science and history. It features photographs by legends like Ansel Adams alongside present day artists like Alexis Rockman whose painting of penguins perched atop an iceberg suggests how these creatures are threatened by a changing climate. But the exhibition begins by reaching back to the earliest depictions of the arctic including work of 19th century painter William Bradford who earned a living depicting the arctic disaster scenes.
Starting in the 1700s, artists searching for new pictorial motifs became explorers of polar and alpine regions, Matilsky says. The early works of these artist-explorers were at once stunning and informative. They appeared in scientific publications, travelogues and popular magazines at the time. Today, she says, artists travel to mountain tops and arctic climes not only to capture their grandeur but also to document the evidence of (and make statements about) climate change.
“It’s obvious that the exhibit is about climate change, but it’s not in your face,” Matilsky says. “I wanted people who have been sitting on the sidelines of the climate change discussion to come and connect emotionally on this topic in a way that science and statistics can’t.”
The exhibit is opening in heart of Bellingham, where for more than a year, residents have been engaged in a heated debate over whether to build what would be North America’s largest coal export terminal just a few miles away at Cherry Point. Matilsky says the timing of these two events is largely coincidental. She’s been working on this project since 2005, long before the coal export proposals were announced. But Matilsky says she recognizes the opportunity for the exhibit to generate discussion and inform the coal export debate in the community.
That’s why the exhibit goes beyond art, she says. The museum is also hosting an array of educational programs, featuring discussions with leading climate scientists, glaciologists, authors, philosophers and filmmakers.
To kick off the opening of the exhibit, Bellingham artist Jyoti Duwadi is assembling a giant ice cube from more than 150 blocks of ice, and each block weighs 300 pounds. Solar-powered LED lights and prehistoric fossils are being embedded in the ice and will slowly reveal themselves as the cube melts in the museum courtyard.
“Nobody has ever done this before,” Matilsky says. “We have no idea how long it will last.”
That’s why Matilsky is encouraging visitors to come see the exhibit before it’s gone. For those who can’t make the trip to Bellingham, many of the works can be viewed online. There’s even a live streaming Ice Cam fixed on the giant melting cube.
After concluding its debut in Bellingham next March, “Vanishing Ice” will travel to El Paso, Texas and Ontario, Canada.
— Katie Campbell
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