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Artists harness the power of fire and ice to shape attitudes on climate change

There's no shortage of powerful images and video when it comes to natural disasters like wildfires and melting glaciers. But a pair of artists are now using those images in new ways, as part of their mission to warn people about climate change and its devastating impact on familiar landscapes. Miles O'Brien takes a different look at fire and ice and the balance between horror and beauty.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's no lack of images and powerful video when it comes to disasters like wildfires or melting glaciers.

    But a pair of artists are using those images in new ways, part of their mission to warn people about what's happening too frequently to familiar landscapes.

    Miles O'Brien has this different look at the power of fire and ice for our segment on the Leading Edge.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In a small shack in the Palm Springs Desert and a sunlit studio on a Brooklyn corner, two artists are aiming their talent at an existential crisis.

  • Jeff Frost:

    Sometimes, people accuse me of being an alarmist. And I say, that's exactly right. It is time to sound the alarm. Any sensible adult who's responsible in any way would be sounding the alarm right now.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For Jeff Frost, the subject is wildfire. The medium is time-lapse video art. His film is "California on Fire," an intense, horrifying creation about destruction.

  • Jeff Frost:

    I had looked at this wildfire situation and I thought, well, here is a present-day effect of climate change.

    People tend to not react to things unless they're actually happening to them right then. And I was thinking, well, this is happening right now. It's definitely not a film that pulls any punches whatsoever. In fact, it's full-on aggressive.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For Zaria Forman, the mission is the same.

  • Zaria Forman:

    Art has this very special ability to tap into people's emotions, and people take action and make decisions based on their emotions more than anything else.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Her medium is pastels, and her subject is ice, vanishing ice, also a story of destruction, on a different time scale, and from a different perspective.

  • Zaria Forman:

    I choose specifically to show the beauty of these places at the forefront of climate change, as opposed to the devastation that's happening, because I want people to be inspired, to be moved to want to protect and preserve them.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Jeff Frost began his artistic journey here, inside abandoned houses in California's Salton Sea. As he embellished them with paint, he captured time-lapse images, art that is as much about the process as the object.

  • Jeff Frost:

    On the way to one, I accidentally ran into my first wildfire out — right out here by the wind farms. My artist brain just kind of exploded, and I stopped immediately and time-lapsed it all night.

    I just was looking at it, thinking, I have never seen anything like this. And it was wildly exciting. I want to do more.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Zaria Forman's love of distant, fragile places is inherited. Her mother, Rena Bass Forman, was a fine art landscape photographer, obsessed with exploring and photographing the most remote places on the planet.

    In 2007, they traveled together to Greenland. For Zaria, the ice offered inspiration, and yet also intimidation.

  • Zaria Forman:

    I was terrified to draw ice, and I omitted it from all of my drawings. It's hard. It doesn't lend itself to very crisp, hard lines, specific details. And especially white is one of the hardest colors to work with. It doesn't blend well with other colors. So, I just didn't think I was going to be capable of it, to be totally honest.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But it was impossible to ignore this artistic sin of omission, so she eventually embraced the challenge.

  • Zaria Forman:

    And it was this big, kind of scary step, but I made my first drawing when I got home, and it didn't turn out so bad. And I have been doing it ever since.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Jeff Frost became equally obsessed with wildfires. He started responding to the big ones.

  • Jeff Frost:

    The very first time I went to a fire, it was just massive level of anxiety and heightened alert. But, once I got used to it, it became more contemplative, and it became more strategized.

    I would take this photo that was incredibly aesthetically beautiful, but then I would feel guilty because I was happy about making a good picture. And I think a lot of photojournalists probably go through this. And, eventually, I compartmentalized and strategized.

    And so, in a lot of ways, the strategy is to pull people in with that aesthetic beauty, but then they're seeing something that's got a lot more depth than just the surface.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    His is constantly playing with the clock, speeding it up, slowing it down, lingering on a frame.

  • Jeff Frost:

    If you change chronologies away from real time, what our experience of time is as humans, it can give you the overview effect, which is the same kind of thing that you get if you were to look at space photos from the International Space Station.

    It sort of expands your mind into this wider view. We really need that, because I don't think, in the evolution of our species, anything has ever developed to give us a global instinct.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Zaria Forman has her own tale of overview.

  • Zaria Forman:

    So, one day, I opened this e-mail that was in my inbox that read, "Dear Zaria, we would love for you to come fly with us over Antarctica, love NASA."

    (LAUGHTER)

    And I was like, what?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It was the crew of NASA's IceBridge, which flies low-altitude sensing missions over both polar regions. She's flown with them several times, a new perspective on a familiar subject.

  • Zaria Forman:

    I'm used to seeing it at the very end stage, either the face of a glacier where the icebergs are calving off, or the icebergs that have already broken off and are on their deathbed, essentially, until they melt completely in the ocean.

    So, it was really interesting to get to get to fly over the ice cap, over the ice sheet, and really see where all of that ice came from, and understand how it travels and how it moves.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is the focus of her work right now.

  • Zaria Forman:

    I want to be true to the landscape that existed at that point in time. I want the viewer to have as much of a recreation of an experience that I had. I want it to be real.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The landscape depicted in "California on Fire" is grim. It ripples with tension, made palpable with a throbbing soundtrack composed and performed by Jeff Frost himself.

  • Jeff Frost:

    The most feedback from the firefighters themselves I have got is, this really makes you feel like you're in the middle of a fire. And you see the things that normally civilians wouldn't see.

    This probably gets as close as you're going to get. I have had a number of people thank me for essentially making something beautiful and something productive and artistic out of this horror that they experienced. There are moments in this where horror is beauty.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For Zaria Forman, the horror lies in the beauty that is vanishing, melting, even as she freezes it on paper.

  • Zaria Forman:

    I think it's important to have like come at it at all different angles, you know? Like, we need news. We need the stories. We need the data from the scientists.

    But then I think we also need beautiful images, whatever we can possibly do to change policy. I mean, we're moving in the right direction, just not fast enough.

  • Jeff Frost:

    I can't really go into it saying like, I'm going to change the world. I'm saying like, look, it would be great if this was a catalyst.

    I think everybody has to do their thing. I just feel like more like I'm doing my part, you do your part too, and you and you and you and everybody else. And they're all important.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Two artists making fine art of fire and ice, beautiful, terrifying work, created to evoke and provoke.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Palm Springs and Brooklyn.

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