Not Afraid to Tackle Large Subjects

Jill Pelto Studies and Paints the World’s Endangered Glaciers

Watercolor landscapes have the ability to transport people to faraway places. They have taken Jill Pelto to the ends of the world. Jill, a climate-change artist, has traveled with her portable watercolor kit to ice-covered fields in the mountains of Washington State and remote areas of Antarctica where she has detailed the fragility of frozen landscapes.

Jill holding up a painting done in August 2020 of an icefall on Easton Glacier, one of many glaciers on Mt. Baker in Washington State.

“They are so beautiful. You observe so much by spending time out there, and it feels really meaningful to also get to be able to do the research, take measurements of the glaciers, and see how they are changing, or observe how wildflowers are shifting with climate change,” Jill said.

Her love for the outdoors and her adventurous spirit are deeply rooted in family. As a child, Jill, her twin sister Megan, and their older brother Ben spent summers at their nana’s camp on Long Lake in Naples. They enjoyed the fun activities that go with a lakeside vacation. When it was time to play boardgames with her nana, Jill described the matriarch as competitive, not letting the grandkids win just because they were youngsters.

When Jill was 15, her father Mauri took her on her first wilderness backpacking experience. The two hiked the White Mountains, a part of the northern Appalachian Mountains and described as the most rugged mountains in New England.

“Her first response was being concerned, but then relishing the challenge and the experience. That reaction illustrated that she enjoyed adventure and could persist through the miserable conditions that are inevitable working in the mountains,” Mauri remembered. Mauri Pelto is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Nichols College and Director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, located in Dudley, Massachusetts.

Jill working on a watercolor painting in August 2020 in the North Cascades in Washington State.

Afterwards they agreed that Jill was ready to join her father the next summer when he conducted glacial field work in Washington State. That trip was an intense one for Jill. Among other valuable skills acquired, she learned to climb mountainous ice fields with ice crampons and an ice ax.

During her junior year at the University of Maine in Orono, an opportunity arose for Jill to go to Antarctica. Her previous experience studying glaciers with her father gave Jill the confidence to know she was ready for this new challenge. Jill has subsequently made three trips to Antarctica.

Each time Jill traveled to Antarctica, she went equipped with a portable watercolor set. With her art, she was able to document the landscape, when she wasn’t occupied with scientific research for the UMaine Orono’s Climate Change Institute. The research team’s excursions to study the continent’s ice sheets necessitated travel to and camping in remote areas. The smallest necessities, like access to water—an essential for a watercolor artist—required advance planning.

“Usually we camped near a source of water, like ponds, mostly frozen,” Jill said. “But you could hack through to get water with an ice ax. Sometimes there were little streams. But we could, if needed, melt snow on the stove.”

Jill admitted that living and working in what she referred to as the “deep field” had low points, particularly during bad weather spells. Over time her thoughts were drawn to indoor plumbing, washing her hair, and fresh veggies. But even the low times had their rewards. “You persevere through them. I think it changes me a little bit as a person in a really positive way. I come back feeling inspired because I just did that. I did something positive to help the environment.” The result? “A sense of accomplishment.”

No argument, Jill is accomplished. A 27-year-old resident of Westbrook, she has degrees in Earth and Climate Science and Studio Art. Her field work in Antarctica earned her a master’s degree and, like the work of her father in Washington, involved measuring glaciers to document changes in relation to climate. Jill’s job as a scientist is to observe, measure, and understand the collected data. As a climate-change artist, Jill creates watercolors that convey the data in a compelling way. Her glacier-inspired work entitled Currents, depicting global climate change over two centuries, was on the cover of the July 2020 issue of Time. “Science does not make a ripple unless you can communicate it,” said Mauri Pelto.

Jill is endeavoring to do just that. She incorporates scientific data into her watercolor images. A growing number of artists, like Jill, are collaborating with scientists to make scientific work more accessible to the general public. Jill’s latest collaboration is with paleoecologists from Scandinavia. These scientists study the relationship between ancient environments and the plants and animals that lived in them. The scientists contracted with Jill to create five paintings based on data they had collected on the Norway Spruce. Jill’s paintings will show how the tree has changed over time and might respond in the future to climate change.

Jill and her dad, glaciologist Mauri Pelto, on Mt. Baker in Washington State in August 2020. Dr. Pelto founded the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project in 1983, and has run it every year since.

She also is working with the Halcyon String Quartet, classically trained musicians, who describe their use of music and the arts as a way “to promote environmental stewardship and respond to the urgency of climate change.” The painting Jill is creating for the quartet deals with sea-level rise in Maine. Her focus is to show how the rise will impact coastal ecosystems like marshes and human-built infrastructure. She plans to include data about Maine’s interest in renewable energy. She wants to include positive progress in her story.

Climate change is on the minds of both Jill and her father. When asked for examples of how changes in climate will affect Mainers in the future, Mauri said, “The frequency of winter rain events will increase, and the persistence of winter lake ice will decrease.” And he noted that these changes will also impact the availability of winter pastimes. “I taught cross country skiing in the 1980s at the University of Maine,” he continues, “and used snowmobile trails to do so. Both of these activities are becoming less of a consistent possibility, due to the lack of persistent snow cover.”

Even with her scientifically tuned view of the world, Jill believes her reaction to the melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland is similar to that of non-scientists. “It is just so massive. It is hard to really comprehend. You just have to make yourself dwell on it and understand why that is so important, so bad. For me, it really makes me upset because I love glacial environments. They are so stunning. To see the way they are changing irrevocably is emotionally draining.”

For more on Jill’s artistic process and her piece Gulf of Maine Temperature Variability, about increasing temperature fluctuations in Maine’s coastal marine environment, go to Women Mind the Water podcast, Episode 3 at womenmindthewater.com.

: Jill working at her home studio space in Westbrook. She is painting a new piece about sea level rise in Maine.

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