Most paintings don’t come with an x- and y-axis. But for Jill Pelto, art is all about the numbers.
The artist, who graduated in December from the University of Maine with a degree in earth science and studio art, creates paintings based on graphs of data on the environmental effects of climate change.
Pelto’s paintings are based on several different data sets that measure glacial melt, animal populations and forest fires, among others. Each set focuses on the ways that climate change has affected these aspects of the environment.
Seven years ago, Pelto began assisting on a project led by her father, glacial researcher Mauri Pelto, to measure the health of the glaciers in Washington’s North Cascade National Park. The project, which measures snow depth across a wide area to determine to what extent the glaciers there recede each year, has been ongoing for 31 years.
In a 2008 paper, the researchers wrote that in the previous 23 years, the North Cascade glaciers had lost 20 to 40 percent of their total volume. The paper called the glaciers’ retreat “ubiquitous, rapid and increasing.” Washington relies on glacial melt for drinking water, agriculture and hydropower, according to the state’s Department of Ecology, but as the glaciers decline, that melt will eventually slow down, depleting the area’s water source.
Pelto hopes that her pieces can work as a visual link to the data, grabbing the attention of people for whom those numbers aren’t enough. “As someone who’s interested in science, I’m intrigued by a graph in an article,” she said. “But I know the majority of people aren’t. They’re going to just skim over a graph. … I think a much bigger percentage of people are attracted to the visuals of art.”
When creating a piece, Pelto looks for “something that is happening that is important but isn’t well-publicized, maybe something that people aren’t paying much attention to,” she said. Most of her data comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Climate Central and other researchers whose work she has studied.
Pelto is working on a piece now about a caribou herd in Canada whose population is in decline. “My hope is that by creating this piece, it’ll get more people to stop and learn and think and become more informed,” she said. “My main audience are those people that know climate change is going on and know these are important issues, but either don’t realize how drastic it is or don’t stay informed.”
See more of Pelto’s work below.