Making Art From Climate Change

Editor’s Note: The Sea Change series hangs in the PICCC’s office. The artist who created the piece, Melissa Chimera, describes below the creative process and idea behind the art.

The genesis of the Sea Change series lay with Deanna Spooner of the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative. Deanna wanted to support a new art project that would speak to climate change. She wasn’t interested in work that was overly didactic, political or obvious. Rather, she was looking for something to spark a conversation about what it means for our world to be changing so dramatically before our eyes.

The work in progress.

I was immediately thrilled at the idea of using art to address a problem that is perceived as a purely scientific one. It began with the following questions to Deanna: what inspires you about your work? What issue are you most concerned with and what brings you hope? Art always begins with an emotional response.

Deanna spoke of the frustration of political paralysis and the apathy by the general public when confronted with the rapidly changing climate. Interestingly, it is the coral reefs–their potential for recovery and resilience despite their widespread damage–that gives her the most hope. This led us to Chip Fletcher’s Hawaiian Islands sea level rise maps.

The mapping project depicts possible sea level rise scenarios at twenty-five and seventy-five years out across various Hawaiian islands. They are frightening maps because they graphically depict inland areas under water. I don’t mean just a few feet here and there. In some cases, there are several square kilometers of lands that are inundated. In some cases, we are talking about endangered bird habitat under water.

More of the work in progress.


The maps–particularly those of Keālia and Campbell Wildlife Refuges on Maui and O’ahu respectively–are also beautiful for the organic shapes they contain. I knew that the current coastlines and inundation lines were going to be my starting point because they were frightening and beautiful at the same time. Art sustains us when it captures and yet doesn’t resolve dualities such as these.

I painted the back of the linen canvas first (which had been previously treated with a clear gesso ground to preserve the linen’s natural color). This created a mottled pattern on the front as the colors bled through. I then treated the entire surface of the front of the canvas with several washes of oil. I projected the imagery from Chip’s maps to the canvases and then hand-painted topographic features and inundation lines. The stitching came last after I removed the canvas from the stretcher bars, putting it through an industrial sewing machine. I then re-attached the finished canvas to the bars.

The final work, Sea Change.

Art always pushes the maker into an intimacy–a sometimes torrid love/hate relationship–with the subject. Every line, every object is burnished into memory. The making of Sea Change is a spatial meditation–not on equations, statistics or scenarios–but on the actual land, the stones, the earth that will possibly be underwater. It is a call to action in the most primal sense, to preserve the very land–the dirt beneath our feet–before it is gone forever.

Melissa Chimera