In its extremes Antarctica intensifies the senses, creating a feeling of something out of the ordinary: heightened sights and expanses and colors and sounds. As a concept it’s fascinated the Western imagination for at least 1,800 years. As a reality it’s drawn scientists and adventurers for more than a century.
And it beckons artists.
“I am drawn to see new shapes of water and travel to where melting ice is part of our current story,” artist April Waters says. “Seeing many stages of ice, enormous icebergs, and being face to face with the Maar Glacier was awe-inspiring.”
In late 2018 Waters, an accomplished contemporary painter of landscapes and waterways who lives in Salem, Oregon, spent several weeks at Palmer Station, on Anvers Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, she bunkered in with the oceanographers, biologists, and other scientists who work there, analyzing and measuring the life, water, geology, and atmosphere of one of the planet’s most extreme environments.
She found herself in a rapidly and profoundly shifting place. Average temperatures on the peninsula, which stretches upward from the polar continent toward the southern tips of Chile and Argentina, rose rapidly during the latter half of the twentieth century, and more slowly and variably in the two decades since. In spite of an unusually cold winter season across Antarctica in 2021, the continent’s glaciers are melting at an astonishing rate, with intense implications for the entire globe. Here, climate change is unavoidably visible. The scientists and staff at Palmer like to refer to nearby Dietrich Island as “Pi Island,” because it was formed on Pi Day, March 14, 2014, when the last bit of glacier fell away and made the outcropping an actual island, separated from the peninsula.
This is what Waters wanted to see, experience, and transform into a striking new series of paintings. “As I understand something in more depth,” she says, “I can express it better in paint.”
You can see the fragile magnificence of it all in one of the exhibition’s centerpieces, the triptych The Face of Maar, depicting the sweep of the Maar Ice Piedmont Glacier on Anvers Island. The vista stretches more than seventeen feet wide: a startling, glistening, almost otherworldly vision in blues and whites, painted in vividly intense detail, from the sharp faceted cut of its ice to the patterns of sky and sea. Huddled near a lower corner is Palmer Station itself, the emblem of human incursion, like a footprint dwarfed and almost unnoticed.
Water is intensely important to Waters, as a physical presence and as a subject for her art, which includes images of waterfalls, wetlands, creeks, and river systems. She quotes the marine biologist Sylvia Earle, one of the subjects of Sheroes, her series of large-scale portraits of women leaders in the environmental, peace, and justice movements: “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you are connected to the sea.”
Waters’s art carries echoes of the work of classic Dutch landscape painters, the nineteenth-century painters of the Hudson River School, the great German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, and fellow contemporary artists such as Oregon painter Michael Brophy, whose work often reveals the tension between the natural landscape and the human forces that threaten it. In Waters’s paintings the human factor is implicit, in the shapes and manicurings and revisions on the natural environment. Her paintings, while hardly photographic, are deeply observational, and not so much romantic as engaged. That engagement links the worlds of science and art, and perhaps amplifies beyond the gallery walls. “As Antarctica is undergoing dramatic changes in response to climate change,” marine biologist Dr. Kim Bernard of Oregon State University says, “I hope that those who experience the paintings that April Waters has created from her Antarctic expedition feel awed and inspired to protect this place.”
Waters’s deep knowledge of the ways in which water works, and the shifts in color that are part of the workings of the ice and sun, come to the fore in her forty-two-inch-square painting Fresh Water Dance, a revelation in shades of blue. It depicts a bergy bit—a small chunk of a glacier, broken off and floating on its own—changing and being changed as the fresh water from melting ice converges with the salt water of the sea, “so there’s this dance of the two kinds of water meeting,” creating a liquid border of different-hued blues. This painting also brilliantly conveys the patterns of the ice’s many facets, or “suncups,” which glisten and glow. The way that icebergs break—cracking like obsidian, as one glaciologist described it to her—is expressive of their structure, and nurtures an understanding of how to represent them in paint. Another glaciologist, Dr. Erin Pettit of Oregon State University, told her icebergs flow and stretch, and when they meet the warmer air, they break. Sometimes, Waters says, the sun and sky shift, and the spaces inside the crevices of the ice become a luminous light bouncing blue: “It’s delightful.”
Waters was on Anvers Island for about three intensive weeks, part of a five-week journey that included about a week to get there and a week to get home. “There’s a sense of risk about the whole journey,” she says. “The first thing they tell you is that the Drake Passage, over the Southern Ocean, is the roughest body of water in the world to cross.” Antarctica, too, is a place of danger. “The water temperature is about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so you’re taught how to pull someone out in case they fall off a boat, and how to set up a survival tent in case you’re stranded. You’re warned about the leopard seals, because they’re the predators.” She recalls the tense moments when a leopard seal closely followed the Zodiac boat she was riding in, and the pilot sped up to avoid it. Yet the environment is also extraordinarily beautiful. She found herself in a place of penguins, blue-eyed shags, millions of minuscule krill, and humpback whales.
At Palmer Station she settled into a routine. “Every day I went out on the Zodiac or one of the other boats with the scientists,” she says. These weren’t icebreakers; they were inflatable, rigid-hulled, synthetic-rubber boats, powered by outboard motors and slung low to the water. They transported her to the surrounding islands and coves, all full of penguin colonies and seabirds. Her days started early and ended late, and were filled with both wonder and routine. She got up at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. and stayed up until 11:30 at night, “every day. Day after day.” Her camera was a constant companion. “On a sunny day it’s completely transformed,” she says of the territory. “The ice there is mostly white. What gives it color is the sky.”
The scientists at the base are involved in long-term ecological projects that can span decades. “They have monitored and taken samples in the same spots every day, six days a week, for thirty years,” Waters says, to learn how the environment is changing within a two-mile radius of the base. Their focus might be the state of the ice, a measure of climate change, “or studying the marine life or counting the dwindling Adélie penguin pairs.”
“The work of the scientist, as well as the artist, is teasing out Nature,” Waters says, quoting the planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, and in at least one sense, the methodology of science is close to her own as a painter. “I find a place I’m interested in and then I go there over and over, in different times of the day and in different seasons,” she says. It’s a way to get to know a place, and to allow that knowledge to inform and enter into her art. Then she takes it all back to her studio. In her Antarctic series she discovered patterns in her icescapes while she was painting, and followed their lead. “There’s an underlying pattern that tells a story,” she says. “I’m not trying to make it too exact. I’m trying to see it and convey the experience.”
Blue, in several shades, becomes a vital color in these paintings to reflect the hues of the ice and sky. “One of the paints I’m using is the newest blue,” she says—a shade called MasBlue or Oregon Blue, developed by chemists at Oregon State University. “It captures a color I saw in the reflection of the sky on the ice.”
For April Waters, the passion for borderlands and the experiences they bring to her art grows strong. In the dance of fresh and salt water, or the places where land and sea meet, the edges fascinate her. On the edges, things coalesce. They become.
- This essay was originally published by the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in the brochure April Waters: Water-Ice-Sky, Antarctica, accompanying the exhibition of the same name, and is republished here with permission. The exhibition continues through August 13, 2022, in the Study Gallery and Print Study Center of the museum, 700 State Street, Salem.
- The exhibition David Roberts: Artist and Traveler, which focuses on the work and life of the 19th century Scottish artist and visual chronicler of the Middle East, opens June 4 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art and continues through August 27, 2022.