Balancing the beautiful and the horrific

Artists Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid explore the Anthropocene and climate change in a show at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center

The morning of Sept. 13, Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid set out from their home in Skagit Valley about 60 miles north of Seattle for Oregon in a white Mercedes Sprinter van loaded with their artwork.

It was smoky where Reid makes her home on Samish Island, and Niblack lives along the Skagit River, and as they drove south the haze worsened. The two artists headed to Newberg, where, beneath brown skies and a few miles from one of two mercifully small fires in Yamhill County, they would oversee the installation of On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene. The newest exhibit to open at the Chehalem Cultural Center features, among other images, spectacular visions of fire.

The women regard the drive down I-5 through Seattle and Tacoma as among their least favorite because of the traffic and never-ending road construction. But on this Sunday, there were few travelers, allowing them to contemplate the surreal view.

Artists Natalie Niblack (left) and Ann Chadwick Reid share environmental interests that include monthly monitoring of beach debris for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team Program (COASST), here at Bowman Bay in Washington’s Deception Pass. Photo courtesy: Ann Chadwick Reid
Artists Natalie Niblack (left) and Ann Chadwick Reid share environmental interests that include monthly monitoring of beach debris for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) program at Bowman Bay in Washington’s Deception Pass. Photo courtesy: Ann Chadwick Reid

“What little landscape there was disappeared until we could see only about a quarter of a mile or so in front of the van,” Reid said. “By the time we got to Portland, we couldn’t see downtown from the freeway. The passing landscape became silhouettes of trees and buildings that faded from a dark smoky gray into the curtain of brown that enveloped everything. It was like experiencing the end time.”

“My overall sense was one of mourning,” Niblack added. “Mourning for the trees, ecosystems, and all the species that will be greatly diminished or become extinct, and guilt because it is our fault.”

“Anthropocene” is an unofficial unit of geologic time, describing the current period in Earth’s history when human activity has significantly affected climate and ecosystems. On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene, which opened last week and runs through Oct. 30, has been in the works for more than a year, and as curator Carissa Burkett observes in the program notes, the timing of the opening “is both triggering and prophetic.”

“Artists are always at the forefront of important issues and the predictors who bring a visual voice to things that cannot speak with words that others can hear,” Burkett writes. “To look at these works you see such beauty and softness that only makes the viewer feel heavy conflict as they try to hold the content.  You want to look, but you also want to look away.”

Those who do look will see two different types of art, positioned on opposite sides of the long corridor that serves as one of the center’s many galleries. As you enter, you’ll find Reid’s sprawling but tightly controlled paper cuts on the left, pinned to the wall so that instead of lying flat, they ripple in little waves. The obvious deliberation with which the pins are positioned made me realize that only the artist could have been responsible for the installation. In fact, I learned later, she was making minor cuts and trims to the paper even as the pieces were going up.

On the right, an explosion of color. Niblack’s pieces are mostly oil paintings, on canvas or linen, although there are a couple of graphite works, including Below the Waves, which depicts the miasma of plastic in the ocean. While most of Niblack’s work focuses on the destruction of things made by humans, Reid’s work explores the dynamic between non-human life, which shares the Anthropocene with us, and an environment irrevocably changed by us. The depictions are in sync with a line from the introduction to a recent book, Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon, in which writers Anand Pandian and Cymene Howe describe the Anthropocene as “an image of the Earth as captive to the machinations of a single species.”

artist Natalie Niblack
Natalie Niblack: “Fire or explosions are compelling, beautiful, and frightening. I choose this most dramatic representation of climate change because I want people to look.”

Both women trace their interest in the arts to an early age. Niblack notes that she, like many artists, early on had absorbed the idea that making art “was not a realistic or rational way to survive.” So she taught art for a while and studied graphic design and illustration before finally realizing she “didn’t want to create art under direction, but to make paintings on my own.”

During the 1980s, Niblack worked part-time to pay the bills but used the rest of her time to work on art. In the early 1990s, she attended graduate school in Scotland and taught art after returning. She no longer teaches and has the luxury of “spending all of my time in the studio.”

Reid is a fourth-generation Northwesterner, originally from Eastern Washington. The daughter of a banker with a degree in forestry, she and her family spent summers camping and hiking at Priest Lake in northern Idaho. Except for a brief moment as a teenager when she considered social work, she’s always thought of herself as an artist. “Between my nature-loving father and a mother who insisted my sister and I take art, dancing, drama, and piano classes, there was always encouragement for a future that combined the arts and the natural world,” she said.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, she married and divorced while studying art and geology, graduating in 1974, and going on to teach part-time at Spokane Falls Community College while heading a nonprofit, the Touchstone Center for the Visual Arts. “Over 22 years, I taught every art class except ceramics and photography and became department chair,” she said. “I also met Natalie while I was chair and she taught a printmaking class for our department.”

Artist Ann Chadwick Reid
Ann Chadwick Reid: “It is the duty of artists to ‘worry’ the public by reflecting back what we are and how we desire to be seen.”

After retiring in 2008, Reid started using paper cuts to create images that reflected her concerns for ecological degradation. In 2017, she enrolled in volunteer training and became a Salish Sea Steward.  “As part of that program, participants had to volunteer 50 hours of work, so I spent the next year monitoring heron populations on and off Samish Island,” she said. “Natalie took the course the next year. Our common interests led to monthly beach-debris monitoring together for the COASST program at the University of Washington.”

Below is an exchange I had with the artists, and it is unusual in that I initiated it in March, thinking it would be interesting to begin a conversation about the Anthropocene in the context of a pandemic that, at the time, had us quarantined in our homes. That felt pretty end-timish to me. Knowing that their work was on the way (and naively believing that things would be back to “normal” by now) I reached out to both women. None of us could have expected that, after a hiatus over summer, the conversation would resume just as fire — which scientists say was surely worsened by climate change — was destroying broad swaths of the West.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did this show and collaboration come about?

Reid: Natalie and I have been part of the arts community in Skagit Valley for several years. Because we have a history together, we’re aware of each other’s work and interests. Natalie lives on the Skagit River and I live on Samish Island. Our homes give us access to the natural world more directly than if we lived in urban locations, so we are aware of environmental challenges these locations face. Observing each other’s work and working on environmental issues together led to conversations about what our work has in common and how it differs. Those conversations led to discussions about having an exhibit together, so we looked for venues that would be a good fit.

Niblack: When we looked for a space to exhibit, it was important to show our work in public spaces rather than a private gallery.  I would like as many people as possible to see our work and the issues we address, specifically climate change, habitat and species loss, and the impact of our collective dependence on oil and plastic.

“Yellow Billed Cuckoo and Horned Lark Lament Cellphone Towers” by Ann Chadwick Reid (hand-cut black arches paper, 21 by 23 inches)
“Yellow Billed Cuckoo and Horned Lark Lament Cellphone Towers” by Ann Chadwick Reid (hand-cut black Arches paper, 21 by 23 inches)

You’ve both always been aware of how humans treat the planet, but I’m wondering if the way you’re approaching artistic work now, given that our “now” actually has a name, Anthropocene, is different from 15 or 20 years ago?

Niblack: My work has absolutely changed.  Although I was aware of climate change, it did not enter into my work in an overt way until the advent of fracking and the sudden increase in train traffic carrying crude Bakken oil just a mile from my home. There was also talk of expanding pipelines and oil and coal export facilities from our coastline.  This was also just after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which made a big impact on me.

I was always a little conflicted  about landscape painting, especially in a place as lovely as Skagit Valley. Depicting a landscape without power lines, dikes, traffic, or industry seemed overly romanticized and a little indulgent in denial. 

When I began painting oil explosions, I found the imagery compelling and that I have a facility for it.  I can paint landscapes that are truly legitimate to me, that say, this is the unvarnished reality, this is what is happening.

The thing that has changed the most for me, and everyone, is that time has run out.  There is no reversing climate change, and the window for lessening the impact is closing rapidly.  In the face of that reality, I would find painting anything else a meaningless distraction.

“Candle” by Natalie Niblack (oil on canvas, 2020, 48 by 36 inches)
“Candle” by Natalie Niblack (oil on canvas, 2020, 48 by 36 inches)

Reid: Growing up with a father who had a degree in forestry gave me little choice but to be sensitive to the natural world. However, my work until 2008 was mostly figurative pastels with references to larger, generic environmental issues. Two things shifted my focus. First, the desire for creating suburban landscapes had introduced invasive species that were consuming trees and native plants. Second, neighbors argued about whether trees were a view or inhibited views.

I began thinking about how I would create imagery specific to issues in my immediate surroundings and shifted my medium to black cut-paper silhouettes for their funereal color and stark imagery. I decided to find out more about the habitat of the estuary and signed up for the Salish Sea Stewards class. That experience gave me an opportunity to find out ways I could be actively involved in changing things and it inspires ideas for the work I am doing now.

The thing that came to mind looking at your paper cuts, Ann, was: Did Carissa install this, or did the artist come and do it herself? Because it seemed to me that the answer had to be the latter.

Reid: I install my wall installations. I always do, because I have to finesse the work, and with pieces like Plume and Snow Drought, they never look exactly the same each time they are hung. Hanging it myself ensures it gets hung the way I want it to look.

“Plume” by Ann Chadwick Reid (hand-cut black arches paper and map pins, 2017, 48 by 63 inches)
“Plume” by Ann Chadwick Reid (hand-cut black Arches paper and map pins, 2017, 48 by 63 inches)

How long does it take to create one of these pieces? What kind of paper do you use and what tools?

Reid: I use Arches black cover paper and an exacto knife with a No. 11 blade. It takes much longer to design and draw the work than it does to cut it. If you watch the video posted on the website, it pretty much explains the process.

What sort of arrangement is made with someone who purchases these pieces? Do you come into the home and install them yourself?

Reid: I have never had anyone buy a wall installation, although I have had people ask me how to frame it if they did. One purchased for the Skagit Regional Health clinic was in three pieces, so I had to have each piece framed, and they were hung together. I think it lost the cohesive element of the three pieces together. For me, the work needs the open space around it, because it becomes more tangible and delicately fragile, just like our environment and our precarious situation.

Natalie, I noticed your pieces have generic names, so I was wondering, particularly with the scenes of fire, whether you were representing specific events.

Niblack: I use photo reference to make my paintings, as a matter of necessity; it is difficult to get a fire to keep still for you. I will edit elements out, or combine elements from other pieces of reference.  The drawings, for instance, can have 10 or 12 separate pieces of reference. I always edit people out of my painting, because I do not want the painting to be about the interaction of people in a painting with the fire or explosion, but about the interaction of the viewer with the events in the painting.

Fire is possibly the oldest and most elemental of images in art, familiar to all, and one that is used to denote both creation and destruction. Your images are both beautiful and horrifying. Could you reflect on that contradiction?

Niblack: I always try to achieve that balancing act of having both the beautiful and horrific. Fire or explosions are compelling, beautiful, and frightening.  I choose this most dramatic representation of climate change because I want people to look.  I want viewers to be attracted, to resolve what the painting is about, and to think about their relationship to what is happening.

“Funnel Cloud” by Natalie Niblack (graphite on paper, 2017, 41 by 50 inches)
“Funnel Cloud” by Natalie Niblack (graphite on paper, 2017, 41 by 50 inches)

I was curious how much work you did, Natalie, or perhaps how much knowledge you already possessed, on how fire works, what happens during an explosion? Like the correspondence of varying colors to hotter and cooler temperatures, or the dynamic between smoke and fire during an explosion. Because nothing about the paintings struck me as inaccurate.

Niblack: When I first began painting oil-train and pipeline explosions, I did research into the dynamic of how an explosion moves, because my first attempts were somewhat flat.  Since then, I’ve gained a lot of experience through observation of how to create a painting that appears hotter, has movement,  and is three dimensional.  I have many years of experience with color and how to manipulate color combinations to create the effect you want. Mostly observational skills, but not a lot of science.

So much visual art has been affected by the artist’s conception of the natural world. George Inness and the Hudson River School landscape painters come to mind. One could talk about how the Nordic landscape has influenced art from that area. We now have a generation of younger artists whose perspective is being shaped not just by the beauty of the world, but also by its destruction. That has to have an effect, I’d think, on the trajectory of art.

Niblack: It seems to me that most depictions of landscape reflect the values of a society, usually of the ruling class, as they’re the ones buying art, curating it, and writing the history books. The Hudson River school and other landscape painters were essentially painting real estate, depicting the untamed wilderness as an invitation to explore and settle. Along with that sensibility comes a whiff of Manifest Destiny, of vast unconquered lands open to all who are white, male, and of European descent. 

On the other hand, the British painter William Turner depicted nature overwhelming the hubris of mankind in slave shipwrecks dwarfed by turbulent skies.  His paintings were a kind of memento mori, a reminder of our sins and the inevitability of death. In retrospect, after witnessing the ravages of nature in a postindustrial world, Turner’s vision still seems relevant, and the Hudson River school postcard nostalgia.  In our time, there are plenty of  landscape painters depicting the accepted romanticized view of leaping salmon or blue heron on the wing with nary a powerline, freeway, or oil refinery plume in the distance.  But increasingly, you will find more artists trying to deal with the reality of what is happening.

Reid: I have always been struck by our romance of the natural world. Especially in America, “The West” has been seen as the land of opportunity and the great escape. Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington are good examples of painters who framed the western ideal. That tradition has carried on in inexhaustible forms in western and landscape painting. Of course, living and being in the West countered those notions with devastating effects on native peoples, settlers, farmers, wildlife, and forests. Ultimately, we are seeing the results of our greed as it destroys that dream of the West, its gifts and beauty. It is the duty of artists to “worry” the public by reflecting back what we are and how we desire to be seen.

“Police Car Fire” by Natalie Niblack (oil on linen, 2020, 26 by 32 inches)
“Police Car Fire” by Natalie Niblack (oil on linen, 2020, 26 by 32 inches)

I would ask both of you: What is art supposed to do? Particularly with this topic. Especially now. Is it an instance of bearing witness? Is it to compel action?

Reid: It’s hard to keep positive about the future, but both Natalie and I are doing whatever we can do to make a difference in our personal lives. For me, it’s first of all making art that expresses my deep concerns for the environment, being a citizen-scientist monitoring herons for a nonprofit organization, and monitoring beach debris on Bowman Bay at Deception Pass with Natalie for the COASST program. It’s contributing whatever I can financially to organizations like 350 and Earthjustice. It’s working hard on watching what I purchase and consume and sharing what I believe with those who are willing to listen.

Niblack: Like Ann, I do what I can to help or change my tiny little corner of the world: bird surveys, COASST debris surveys, shopping challenges of not buying plastic, driving an electric car, growing my food, signing petitions, sending money to some great organizations, etc.  I know that this is just a drop in the ocean. I know that without worldwide, cooperative, mammoth effort and clear science-based leadership, there is not a lot of hope that climate change will be slowed or modified.  This is why I paint.  If what I paint or draw or carve changes or inspires or angers anyone, that’s good. 

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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