© Trevor Traynor
Zaria Forman’s works have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Huffington Post. Zaria was featured on Good Day New York, New York Post, and Fox News and was interviewed by Lucy Yang on ABC7 Eyewitness News. Her drawings have also been used in the set design for the Netflix TV series House of Cards.
Zaria’s most recent achievements include participation in Banksy’s Dismaland, a solo exhibition at Winston Wächter Fine Art in New York City, and a four-week art residency in Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Last November, Zaria delivered a TED Talk at TEDTalksLive NYC, which aired on PBS and is on TED.com.
Born in South Natick, Massachusetts, Zaria currently works and resides in Brooklyn, New York. She studied at Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy and received a B.S. in Studio Art from Skidmore College.
Evermaven asked Zaria:
EM: Tell us a little about the work you’ve produced so far.
ZF: I consider it my life’s mission to convey the urgency of climate change through art. I have traveled to the Polar regions to capture the unfolding story of ice melt, and to the Equator to document the subsequent rising seas. Most recently I visited the icy Antarctic Peninsula, and the low lying islands of the Maldives, connecting two seemingly disparate, but equally endangered parts of our planet. My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence, and tranquility in the landscape, allowing viewers to emotionally connect with a place they may never have the chance to visit.
EM: How do you use your drawings to tell the climate change story?
ZF: I chose to convey the beauty, as opposed to the devastation of these threatened places. Shocking imagery can capture our attention, but I think it also leads us to disengagement, making us feel helpless and overwhelmed. Beauty inspires hope, and hope makes us feel empowered to act. If we appreciate and love something we become protective of it, giving us a higher chance that we will act in a way that benefits the cause. That being said, I attempt to imbue an underlying somberness in my compositions. Instead of drawing sunshine and palm trees, I portray the sands of the Maldives underneath rippling waves, to remind us of the bigger picture and draw the viewer in emotionally.
EM: What hopes do you have for the impact of your collection of work?
ZF: I hope my drawings can facilitate a deeper understanding of the climate crisis, helping us find meaning and optimism in shifting landscapes. My work offers a moment to contemplate something that is otherwise abstract or distant from everyday life. During that moment of contemplation, an emotional connection to the landscape becomes possible. Our emotions steer our actions, and when we care for something we want to protect it. I hope my drawings serve as records of landscapes in flux, documenting the transition, and inspiring our global community to take action for the future, however small or large those actions may be.
EM: What do you use in your drawing process? How faithful are you to the photographs the drawings derive from?
ZF: When I travel, I take thousands of photographs. I often make a few small sketches on-site to get a feel for the landscape. Once I return to the studio, I draw from my memory of the experience, as well as from the photographs, to create large-scale compositions. Occasionally I will re-invent the water or sky, alter the shape of the ice, or mix and match a few different images to create the composition I envision. I do however try to remain as true to the landscape as I can. I want to portray it in its most natural form, without interfering too much, so that viewers can have a chance to share in my experience.
I begin with a very simple pencil sketch so I have a few major lines to follow, and then I add layers of pigment onto the paper, smudging everything with my palms and fingers and breaking the pastel into sharp shards to render finer details.
The process of drawing with pastels is simple and straightforward: cut the paper, make the marks. The material demands a minimalistic approach, as there isn’t much room for error or re-working, since the paper’s tooth can hold only a few thin layers of pigment. I rarely use an eraser –– I prefer to work with my “mistakes,” enjoying the challenge of resolving them with limited marks. I love the simplicity of the process, and it has taught me a great deal about letting go. I become easily lost in tiny details, and if the pastel and paper did not provide limitations, I fear I would never know when to stop, or when a composition was complete!
EM: What is the power in using a drawing for the climate change message? How is it similar to the photographic medium? How does it differ?
ZF: “A photograph is static because it has stopped time. A painting or drawing is static because it encompasses time” – John Berger. Artists play a critical role in communicating climate change, which is arguably the most important challenge we face as a global community. Imagery has been proven to be a more direct and effective way to process information. The word “iceberg” doesn’t actually describe the object itself, whereas seeing an image of an iceberg offers an immediate visual description. Art conjures up emotions because the process of viewing it involves this direct consumption of the object represented, allowing our minds to respond directly and emotionally – we feel, we think, and we come to an understanding. Art helps us learn, strengthens conceptions, challenges our ideas, and leads us to insight.
EM: How connected do you feel to the landscape during your process as you revisit the moment in such a gradual, tactile way?
ZF: Drawing is a form of meditation for me. It quiets my mind. During every minute that I work up-close, I don’t perceive what I am drawing as water, or ice, instead the image is stripped down to its most basic visual form of color and shape. I can get lost in these simple details for hours and not notice the time pass. Depending on where I am in the composition there are definitely drawing sessions where I am very aware of the bigger picture and my memories of the experience swim through my mind. I probably feel most connected to the landscape I am drawing when I take a break and step back several feet to observe the composition as a whole, which I do every two hours, or several times throughout the day.
EM: Evermaven insists that people, planet and profit are inseparable if we are to be more effective at facing environmental issues. How do you feel the environmental sector could communicate more effectively?
ZF: People react strongly to visual messages, so I think the environmental sector should align themselves more closely with visual art. Information about the severity of the crisis is out there, but our global community continues to resist change. Of course we need major shifts in government to have any kind of meaningful change, but that begins with the people rising up together, speaking out, and doing whatever they can in their personal lives to make a difference––whether that be flying less, having less children, or simply using less air conditioning. There are plenty of artists out there who are addressing the climate crisis in a powerful way and I think it would be wise to highlight and spread their work as much as possible. It is arguably an untapped resource that, in numerous psychology reports, has been proven to be the most effective method at transforming information and inspiring action.
EM: What do you think it is about your work that resonates with such a wide audience?
ZF: For starters, I think most human beings are drawn to water in one way or another. It makes up more than 75% of our bodies, and it covers most of the Earth’s surface. We need water to survive, but we also gravitate toward its beauty—the respite, shimmer, and movement it adds to a landscape. More broadly though, most people enjoy beautiful landscapes and you don’t need an explanation, or any understanding of art history, to appreciate it. That is why it is accessible to a wide audience, much of which might feel alienated from the contemporary art world.
EM: Your work will be featured in the upcoming Seattle Art Fair August 4-7 this year. How important is it for more artists like you to be discovered and shared widely?
ZF: Very important! Art fairs are crucial in particular – perhaps more crucial than a solo show – simply because the number of eyeballs on the work is far greater than most exhibits. Collectors and art lovers travel far and wide to visit the fairs. They have become the easiest way to see what’s out there in the contemporary art world, all in one place, during one weekend.
As I mentioned above, I think it is critical for other artists addressing climate change to get their work in front of all those eyes and inspire as many people as possible!
EM: What’s next for you?
ZF: This past winter, during my four week art residency aboard the National Geographic Explorer, I had the opportunity to experience something few people ever do: the ethereal majesty of Antarctica. Although I have traveled over the planet from Greenland’s ice sheet to the Sahara Desert, Antarctica was unlike anything I had ever seen. The towering ice radiated a sapphire blue that took my breath away. Returning to my studio, I found myself struggling to convey the immensity of Antarctica’s beauty, and the immediacy of its endangerment in the face of climate change.
How can I share the overpowering experience of falling in love with this vast and sacred landscape so others may be moved to protect it? Many of us are intellectually aware that climate change is our greatest global challenge, and yet the problem may feel abstract, the imperiled landscapes remote. The project I propose, the most ambitious I have yet undertaken, will make Antarctica’s fragility visceral to the viewer. It aims to emulate the overpowering experience of being beside a glacier.
I propose to devote a full year to rendering a pastel drawing on a monumental scale – an Antarctic landscape twelve feet tall by thirty feet long, in vivid blues and grays, aquamarines and lavenders. This enormous composition, placed in a prominent public space, will offer viewers an environment, rather than a mere image. The sheer dimensions of this representation will do justice to the scale of the landscape while conveying the magnitude and urgency of the climate crisis. The drawing will allow viewers a more nuanced perception of ice, offering a full immersion in the light and texture of Antarctica. I draw using an unconventionally tactile technique, using my fingers to apply and manipulate pastel pigments on paper in order to render minute subtleties of the ice. My hope is that my highly detailed, immense drawing will sensitize people to the sublimity and fragility of our rapidly changing landscapes, documenting the transition and inspiring our global community to take action for the future.
Read and see more of Zaria’s work here.
In reaching for our goals we aspire to pass curated knowledge on to others through the stories we tell and to nurture a community of collaborators who want to do the same. As a community we aspire to be the trusted experts – “mavens” – of change in our relationship with the living world. HIGHLIGHT draws attention to these community members that are exemplars of environmental communication. These interviews are published with the authors permission and in accordance to their own opinions. HIGHLIGHT is curated by Sam Rose Phillips and Neil Osborne.