Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Ellen Alt: I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York where I learned to love cold weather. My life is all about art: studio practice, art education and facilitating community art projects throughout the world. In the studio, I work in mixed media – combining every day materials (sugar, salt, gravel, sand) with art materials (ink, paint, wax and resin). I cannot always anticipate the results and that is part of the excitement.
RB: Your work ‘Ice Melting’ explores not only the beauty of ice, but also the effects of Climate Change. What was the inspiration for this interest and approach?
EA: A friend of mine recommended that I see the documentary “Chasing Ice” by James Balog. It was simultaneously riveting and ruinous, gorgeous and ravishing, inspiring and catastrophic. The contradictory feeling of being swept away by beauty while watching devastation was the driving motivation for the series Ice Melting. The work is about the compelling forms created by the melting process. There are 25 pieces in this group, ranging in size from 11” x 14” to 30” x 40”.
RB: How did this series of works progress?
EA: First I bought James Balog’s book: Extreme Ice Survey & ICE: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers and treated it as my source text for information and inspiration. I rented other documentaries about the Artic, glaciers and polar ice and set up a tripod in front of my television to capture images. After working in this way for a while, it became clear that I had to see the ice for myself and took a trip to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. The vastness of Alaska made the ice look small and fragile which is the correct metaphor. The trip fuelled my understanding and solidified my commitment to this work.
RB: How can art facilitate a deeper understanding of Climate Change?
EA: Climate change is happening throughout the planet. Individual countries help, ignore or curb its advancement as the planet warms. Art and science are together on this. Both are sounding the alarm in their own ways. Science is publishing the data and art is using the information for creative interpretation. Artists often put up a mirror of society to show what is happening and artists on every continent are creating work to promote awareness, and galvanize support around this global phenomenon.
RB: Can you say something more about your ‘Ice Writing’ series? What are its aims?
EA: The Ice Melting series is about awareness and after awareness comes action. It is about that next step. I imagine that we are talking to each other through time; that messages are being revealed as the ice melts, much like petroglyphs or cave paintings show our past selves to our present selves. The messages in this series appear as an overview of written symbols. I incorporate ancient languages including cuneiform, petroglyph, hieroglyphic, Mayan and Sumerian, with current forms like emogee and chromosome pairs. These messages show us our history, how we got to where we are and directions of how to proceed to talk to each other regardless of linguistic. political and physical barriers. Water is immune to our limitations.
RB: Can you say something about your interest in linguistics, which you often reference or use in your work?
EA: My interest in linguistics goes back to a course in High School where we studied the Talmud. The physical Talmud books are large and when you open them you dive into a world of argument and interpretation across time. In college, I took a course in English calligraphy which presented a powerful way to merge form and content. I subsequently added Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy. Recently I was commissioned to create a piece about the history of writing by a Linguistics professor and that sent me into research about earlier forms of mark making. It was a continuation of this thread that led me to realize I wanted to incorporate writing into the ice.
RB: What do you think your mixed media works achieve that a photograph cannot?
EA: I don’t think they are so different. Photographs are the interpretation of nature, as is my work. The employment of a wide variety of resources: glass, sand, plastic, glitter, salt, sugar, rocks, clay, ink, acrylic, oil paint, spray paint, epoxy resin, wax, and found objects turns my studio into a laboratory. I am constantly testing the combinations to achieve different effects. I am looking to translate nature into layers of textural beauty, to catch the eye and draw interest into the materials, then subject matter and ultimately the global context.
RB: What do you hope people will take away from the art you create?
EA: The beauty, power and inevitability of nature and that the language of denial is not as powerful as the language of cooperation.
RB: What are your future aims and plans?
EA: I have started to apply for residencies to work with communities about climate change. I have an idea to build a large iceberg out of recycled water bottles and to put messages from children in all languages inside the bottles. The messages will be about how the next generation wants to live on their planet and how to work together. I have several shows planned, in Boston and Jerusalem and am looking for more. I am talking to other climate change artists, realizing that we are a group with visual power and a strong focus.
All images copyright and courtesy of Ellen Alt
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