On Bearing Witness and Embracing Beauty

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

For over fifty years, Philadelphia-based painter, photographer, and activist Diane Burko has translated her love for large open spaces and monumental geological sites into powerful and alluring landscapes. Her current exhibition at the American University in Washington, D.C. (August 28 – December 12, 2021), titled Diane Burko: Seeing Climate Change 2002 – 2021, contains 103 paintings, photographs, and time-based media depicting mountains, oceans, snow and ice, glaciers, volcanos, and fires that address the growing impact of the climate crisis.

Installation view of Diane Burko: Seeing Climate Change 2002 – 2021 at the American University, Washington, D.C., 2021.

In 2006, Burko became one of the first artists to focus her work on the visible changes happening to the environment. That was the year the groundbreaking film An Inconvenient Truth came out, highlighting former president Al Gore’s campaign to raise public awareness on the dangers of global warming. An activist all of her adult life, Burko felt compelled by what she was learning to use her paintings as a way to both bear witness to what was happening to the planet and, at the same time, to show the astonishing beauty of what we stand to lose if we don’t make radical steps to mitigate climate change.

In order to understand her pivotal transition from landscapes without a political message to those with a concentration on environmental devastation, Seeing Climate Change includes paintings that represent Burko’s prior focus. Influenced by French landscape painters from Corot to Van Gogh as well as Manet, Velasquez, the Hudson River School artists, Winslow Homer, Fairfield Porter, and the abstract impressionists, Burko’s earlier works were technically flawless and aesthetically beautiful. Grandes Jorasses at Marguerite, a mountain in the Mont Blanc massif between France and Italy, was created in 1976 and based on an image from a magazine photo (see below).

Grandes Jorasses at Marguerite, 64” x 108,” acrylic on canvas, 1976

When Burko first began to address climate change, she was using what she called “other people’s images” and what “other people saw” as the inspiration for her paintings, including photos from Landsat, a satellite program sponsored by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS), which provided her with an aerial perspective of the world. Ultimately, she committed herself to “being there,” to personally bearing witness to climate change. Beginning her own exploratory journey, she traveled as far away as the Arctic Circle, Antarctica, Iceland, Hawaii, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, and more to document flooding, volcanic activity, melting glaciers, mega fires, and the destruction of coral reefs. The results of these voyages were an astoundingly prolific number of paintings and photographs. 

One of Burko’s first trips was to Grinnelle Glacier in Glacier Park, Montana, where she both climbed the mountain and flew over it. In order to document changes to the area over time, she used repeat photography as one of her initial strategies.

Grinnell Mt. Gould, quadtych, 88” x 200,” oil on canvas2009

As Burko delved deeper into her explorations, she engaged with scientists and research labs. In her extensive and thoughtful essay for the exhibition catalogue, co-curator Mary D. Garrard noted that Burko acquired scientific knowledge from them and they in turn learned to look at the environment from “her perspective as an artist-explorer.” Garrard goes on to say that 

Burko has gained recognition in scientific circles as a collaborator in dealing with climate change. Scientist colleagues write her into National Science Foundation grants. In 2012, she was invited to her first American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference; in 2018, she organized an art-science panel at the AGU conference in Washington, D.C.  

In 2013, Burko participated in The Arctic Circle’s annual expeditionary residency program for artists and writers, traveling aboard a Barquentine sailing vessel around Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago in the Arctic only 10 degrees south of the North Pole. Svalbard is a region that is warming the fastest within an area of the planet that is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. While in Svalbard, she walked on a glacier for the first time and visited the Ny-Alesund Research Station, where she engaged with the research scientists there. 

Showing the overwhelming beauty of nature has always been at the heart of Burko’s work. The megafires she paints, although horrific in reality, are mesmerizing on her canvases; the devastating degradation of coral reefs within the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia are represented in enticing cobalt blue, turquoise, and yellow ochre colors; the Arctic ice, although diminishing, sparkles and shines. Burko admits that her intention is “to say her piece with seductive beauty” – to, as Garrard explains, “alert us to the earth’s peril by reminding us of the extraordinary beauty of what we are losing and of nature’s complex, exquisitely subtle operating systems that are being thrown out of whack.”

CA Burning, 8 ft. x 15 ft., mixed media on canvas, 2021Collection of Joe and Pam Yohlin
Great Barrier Reef, 60 ft. x 84 ft., mixed media on canvas, 2018

Over the years, Burko’s working process has evolved and her choice of materials and media has expanded. In addition to paintings and photographs, Seeing Climate Change includes video and lenticular prints. She refers to her more recent paintings as “the most abstract work I’ve done in decades.” Rather than painting on canvases hung from a wall, she now works horizontally, pouring pigment onto the canvas, often mixing the paint with salt, sand, and glitter, and then blowing it across the surface of the canvas with air from a compressor, creating an impression of wind and the elements. She is also adding crackle paint in areas of her paintings to indicate where the breakup of ice is occurring. Ice Melt, 2020, a video in the exhibition, incorporates images from many of her paintings and photographs, along with a soundtrack of crackling ice and eerie music.

Ice Melt, 2020, Diane Burko with Alanna Rebbeck; sound by Alanna Rebbeck.

The physical layout of the gallery at the American University effectively complements Burko’s work. Configured as a spiral in which visitors can see the beginning and end of the exhibition at the same time, it mimics the circular shape of the world as well as the interconnectedness and global nature of the critical issues being addressed.  

One of the most striking paintings in Seeing Climate Change is Unprecedented, completed during the COVID-19 pandemic (see image at the top). Monumental in scale, it reads from left to right like a narrative of disaster and renewal. Using spheres as metaphors for the virus cell itself and, as in many of her works, for the global community, Burko is telling us that, despite areas where COVID is still raging red hot, there is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, a time in the near future when we will have survived the virus and when perhaps even the Earth, represented by a green sphere, will have recovered from the damages we have caused.  

Not one to rest on her laurels, Burko has ambitious plans for her next journey and body of work. She intends to explore the Amazon and study the effects of gold and copper mining on water tables and the deforestation and fires impacting millions and millions of trees. The Amazon, considered the lungs of the world, is enormous in scale, crossing nine countries and consisting of 2,700,000 square miles. Its wellbeing is critical to the wellbeing of the planet. In addressing these issues, as she has done in her previous work, Burko will use her art to awaken our emotions and senses to the dangers of man-made climate change. It can be said that Seeing Climate Change and all of Burko’s work since 2006 can be summed up by the quotation attributed to Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation botanist, which she has chosen to display at the entrance to her exhibition: “the most effective alert to the threat of climate change is likely to come from the world of art rather than of science, because art has such an extraordinary way of cutting across human society.” 

(Top image: Unprecedented, 8 ft. x 15 ft., mixed media on canvas, 2021. Photo by Joseph Hu.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. This fall, she is participating in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she will be comparing changes to bodies of water over time. 

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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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