Painting Grief And Hope

By Lesley Thiel

I feel like I’ve spent most of my life worrying about climate change. I’ve loved the Earth and nature my whole life, and its progressive destruction by humanity has been heart-wrenching. The butterflies, bees, flowers, and small mammals of my childhood have all gone missing from the places where I once played. 

As an artist I process my grief through my work. I have to make talking about our relationship with the planet my focus. Not on a grand scale, but in the beauty and intimacy of small things and in the everyday tragedy of the world we are losing. I know many of us feel this way, but too many others have yet to understand the danger – and we need to use every tool to make them listen. As a contemporary realist painter, that means telling stories in a classical style using symbolism to create a universal message. 

I believe that we do not have the right to destroy the opportunity for life on Earth to thrive. We are committing a crime by destroying the future of our children for profit and convenience. We must change our behaviors in a fundamental way in order to alter our course, and I am convinced that the necessary leadership will come from women and girls. We need new ways of working and thinking about the climate crisis, and women can offer that. And so I started working on pieces that show a young girl in burning and smoke-filled settings that have become all too real to us. I want to show both her strength and her vulnerability, but also to offer hope. More than anything, I want the viewer to see her. I want people to stop and realize that each child is a person whose aspirations are being stolen.

The Heiress

Women and girls all too often struggle to make their voices heard. Society tries to place restrictions on how they should behave, and penalizes them when they “act out,” which often simply means expressing an unwelcome opinion or telling an uncomfortable truth. Today, the restrictions may be more subtle than they were in the past, but they are nonetheless real. In order to illustrate these constraints, I dress some of my young models in collars and ruffs that echo 16th century costumes. 

One example is the painting The Heiress in which Addie, my model, wears a huge and ungainly collar decorated with feathers. She looks straight into your eyes, asking you to see her and not walk away. She holds in her hand a cork, on which is written “espérer” – the word “hope” in French – because hope floats and French is the language of diplomacy. The label says that the future is here — here with this girl, who holds a scepter of dried sea holly, a symbol of independence. 

For millennia, young girls have been used to represent fertility and, thus, renewal. We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful, dewy females wearing garlands of flowers in their hair as they celebrate rites of spring. But now, as we face the prospect of the Earth no longer regenerating fast enough to keep up with our destruction, I see garlands no longer as a sign of regeneration, but as a dried out shadow of their former glory. 

Hope

I’ve painted several pieces with this theme, and will continue to revisit it. However, life has such a strong will to exist that I didn’t want to believe we would happily keep marching towards destruction. And so I painted Hope. Yes, the landscape is burning and that crown is dry, brittle and dead, but Addie holds in her hands rich black earth, and in that earth is a strawberry plant, with both flowers and fruit. The strawberry is the fruit of Venus and symbol of our love for our fellow humans and for the Earth. Addie asks you to look. Look what she can do if you give her a chance.

Living in North Carolina, I am very privileged to be surrounded by the bounty of the natural world. I treasure it because I’ve lived in big cities and felt the loss of nature around me. But I also see how rapidly my area is being developed, the land paved over for housing and endless stores and restaurants. I drive past the piles of murdered trees and raw earth. I see the confused wildlife searching for a new home, and I want to scream at the wanton destruction. It’s what motivated me to paint All Things Bright And Beautiful to make a record of the life that still manages to exist in our neighborhood. At least for now. The stag, who I’ve seen wandering through our yard, now has bottles of water with fish and tadpoles from the creek hanging from his antlers. The squirrel, fox, and raccoon all peer out with watchful eyes. And the girl tells you she’s holding the key as she stands in front of nature – protecting and leading. It may be an obvious piece of symbolism, but in a world where people are asked to see so much, and take in so little, the simple messages are sometimes the best.

All Things Bright And Beautiful

I’ll admit that climate anxiety grips me all too often. You try and tidy up your own life: plant-based diet, reusable bags and baskets, solid shampoos and soaps, no plastic, limited driving, safe spaces for wildlife, even nurturing the bees! You read the science, and then you turn on the news and see the inaction. Worse, you hear nothing about this greatest threat to our survival, because someone considers an ill-considered tweet to be more newsworthy. And sometimes – many times, you despair. That’s how I felt when I painted The Sinking Of The Gaia. The vessel we call home is on fire! And our children will stand on the shore as the water rises, and they will have nowhere to go because, unlike the girl in the painting, they are not selkie. They cannot magically become sea lions and swim away into another world.

I don’t see my work as offering solutions to climate change. But like the brave young girls who speak truth so fearlessly to power, I ask that the people who see my paintings stop and become aware of what we are in danger of losing. I ask them to see the strength and purpose in our young women, and to give them an opportunity to find new and respectful ways of interacting with Mother Earth. I ask people to see that, if we fail them, we will never be forgiven.

(Top image: The Sinking of the Gaia)

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Lesley Thiel was born just outside London, England. After a career in medical research, she turned to her first love: art. Her initial works focused on horses and now encompass figurative realism and portraiture. Since 2005, her work has been featured in numerous international gallery and museum shows, including European Museum of Modern Art; Salmagundi Club; Sotheby’s; Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art; Zhou B Art Center; Mall Galleries; Terminal 5 Heathrow. It is part of the Bennett, and the Fred and Kara Ross collections. She has won awards from Art Renewal Center, Portrait Society of America, and International Artist Magazine.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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