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Women Mind the Water Podcast Series: Jill Pelto, Maine

As told by Jill Pelto
Portland, Maine

Story Narrative:

Jill sits at a desk in front of a window with an open computer, a piece of paper, and set of paints.

Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2020, featuring regional artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.

Jill Pelto is a Climate Change Artist who holds a Master’s in Earth and Climate Science. Her watercolor paintings communicate important environmental topics to make them more emotionally relevant. Her art is rooted in scientific research which includes research with glaciers.

Pam (00:00): Women Mind the Water podcast engages artists in conversation about their work and explores the connection with the ocean and its influences on their art. Through these stories, we hope to inspire action to protect our world's water resources. Today I am speaking with Jill Pelto, who is both an artist and a scientist who lives near Portland, Maine. Jill holds degrees in studio art and earth science. She has studied the sensitivity of the Antarctic ice sheet to changes in climate. Let me start by asking you to tell me about your journey to becoming an artist.

Jill (00:42): Hi, thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to this. So my journey to becoming an artist started, I think it does for a lot in the field, where I was really drawn to it from an early age. And growing up, I one felt like I had a natural talent for it. And then two, just was passionate about it, and so I spent a lot of my time making art through high school and the same can be said for my twin sister. We were both just kind of naturally drawn to art and decided because of our love for it that we wanted to pursue it in college.

Jill (01:21): And so going into college, I definitely didn't know what direction art would take me. I knew that I was interested in studying more than just art. And for that reason, I went to the University of Maine because it was a school that had a broad range of classes. And so I could kind of dabble, and I was particularly interested in natural science classes. And so I took a classes like ocean science, ecology, and eventually decided to also major in earth and climate science.

Jill (01:55): And so that double major with art and climate science is what really drove me to where I am today as I label myself a climate change artist. And so it's kind of my journey is developing that, but always kind of having that grain of passion that kind of guided me through that and gave me confidence that that was something I could pursue for a full-time career.

Pam (02:23): So how did you arrive at what you do in terms of art?

Jill (02:26): I began to work with my dad who is a glaciologist. One of the things he does for work is he runs a glacier monitoring program in Washington state. And so I started to help as a field assistant and go to Washington state and work on these mountain glaciers with him when I was still in high school. And so that developed that passion of like getting to see glaciers firsthand from someone growing up in the Northeast and getting to see the effects of climate change firsthand. And so that was obviously a huge influence in choosing my double major with climate science in college.

Jill (03:06): I started to realize more how I could combine these majors, and they were separate classes, but I saw all these connections, and I saw the role that art could play in sharing important science topics. And so it was a journey of studying other environmental artists, pushing my own environmental art, brainstorming, trying things again and again, getting information from my peers. And then on the other side, getting in my science classes at the same time and having that strong background that allowed me to kind of fuel the content of that work. So I would say cumulative learning and lots of creative pushing and brainstorming is what led me to the current style of my art.

Pam (03:56): Is your medium mostly watercolor and pen and ink? And if so, why did you choose that medium?

Jill (04:05): Yeah, my medium of choice right now is primarily watercolor, and I will sometimes incorporate some colored pencil into it. And I think there's a few reasons why this has become my primary media. One, I've always been most drawn to 2D arts. And so in college, I took the most classes in both painting and printmaking, and those were my two passions. I think I still love printmaking, but it's not quite as accessible to do kind of in a at-home studio space. And so I gravitated to it a little more towards painting after college.

Jill (04:47): And then on the other hand, when I got to go do field work, with my dad in Washington state, and then later on with my own research, I always wanted to bring a little kit of art supplies with me, and it's a lot easier and more accessible to bring watercolor supplies. So it was actually still in high school that I got a small travel sized watercolor set and would just do little landscapes when I was out doing science field work.

Pam (05:16): Tell me about a particular piece or experience that reflects on your connection with the ocean and how it has influenced you.

Jill (05:25): I created a painting about the increasing variability in temperature in the Gulf of Maine. And this was in 2018, I believe. And I think it was creating a painting about the ocean here in Maine that made me think about a few things in a different way in order to come about telling the story of why the ocean is so important here. And so, seeing the different layers of the ocean and what it means to people in a coastal state. And so, not just what was in the ocean, but also the lens that we see it through, whether it's through scientific research or whether we see it through business or a source for food or as an ecosystem that is changing.

Jill (06:14): And so I wanted to kind of overlap those stories about Maine's ocean in a painting and communicate how those different layers are all going to be affected by climate change. And so I think just creating this piece and the conversations that I had in creating it and prior to creating it with ocean scientists, just give me a cool new perspective on how the ocean is changing here and why that's important.

Jill (06:47): So my painting Gulf of Maine temperature Variability is basically depicting the water column of the ocean. And so you have three quarters up the page the top surface of the ocean, and then you can see down below it and see different species that are living here in Maine. And so there are Cod swimming across the page, and they disappear as they swim across, because Cod have been really over fished here in Maine. There are also lobster, and there are shrimp and there are soft shell clams burrowing in the bottom on the sea floor.

Jill (07:25): And so I have this water column of species, and the top surface of the water is jagged because it's a data line showing the change in Maine's ocean surface temperature just over the last about 15 years. And so that data line is showing how there's a lot more variability in the temperature in Maine's ocean right now. And so there's certainly a lot of warming, but there's also a lot more rapid and unpredictable spikes in temperature that are difficult for species to adapt to.

Jill (08:03): And so on the surface of the ocean, I also included a fishing boat to make sure I incorporated that human element in and kind of speak to how we have a role to play as humans and with our fisheries here in Maine, to make sure that as these species that are taxed by climate change, we're considering that in our fisheries practices.

Pam (08:29): Explain how your art is an expression of you and your view of the world.

Jill (08:34): My art that I currently make incorporates scientific data. And for me, that's an expression of my dual background in art and science, certainly. And so my idea with that is to pair visuals through painting with that data, because I want to bring more emotion to science. I see the world through the lens of science a lot of the time, but for me, science isn't just cold, hard facts. It's important research that drives us and that is vital and necessary. And so for me, there's a lot of emotion in science and in what we're discovering.

Jill (09:19): If I can make the story interesting or appealing with the visuals. If it's a striking glacier and someone's never seen a glacier, well, maybe that visual will kind of entice them to learn more about it and think, "Okay, I haven't seen it, but this places is real somewhere and these changes are happening to it." So if it's not local, making that topic a little bit more relatable to people with visuals.

Jill (09:46): I think also making sure that I tell stories about a range of topics, different types of topics. And then also, what is the tone? Is it something that seems like negative and scary? Is it something that seems like a good positive change or is it kind of neutral as it's just something that's happening in the environment? And so I want to make sure that kind of people aren't just bombarded with negative climate news, and they can also see positive environmental stories. So it's something I hope to incorporate more in future work because I think it can be more relatable.

Pam (10:27): I have been speaking with Jill Pelto for the Women Mind the Water podcast series, which can be heard on and on iTunes. This is Pam Ferris-Olson. Thank you for listening.

Asset ID: 2020.01.03
Themes: Women Mind the Water, conservation, artists, Climate Change, science, data, environment
Date recorded: September 21, 2020
Length of recording: 10:40 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water 
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