Climate Artist Melissa Fleming
Editor’s Note: ClimateYou.org has long appreciated the climate artwork of Melissa Fleming and her popular blog The Weather Gamut, that discusses all things related to weather and climate change. Following is our interview with Fleming.
ClimateYou: Is your approach to the weather/art connection the same as when you started?
Melissa Fleming: No, my approach has evolved over time and continues to do so. Every project I undertake teaches me something new and increases my desire to learn more. So, as my depth of knowledge expands, my approach shifts.
At first, I kept my art and weather/climate work separate. My art was about the beauty and wonder of nature. My weather and climate website, The Weather Gamut – which I wrote for more than 9 years – was more about statistics and the “how” and “why” of nature’s processes. But then I realized the emotional power of art could help communicate some of the complexities of climate change. That is when I started making more climate-related art and talking more about artists on The Weather Gamut. Soon after that, I started giving talks such as “The Art and Science of Climate Change.” As that advanced, I started to look to environmental history to put it all in context. That is where my focus is now.
CY: How has your study of environmental history informed your art?
MF: I cannot say that it has informed my art, at least not yet. But it has re-enforced my belief that art is a powerful tool for sharing ideas and information.
CY: Why are rock glaciers of interest to you? Are they impacted by climate change?
MF: I have been working on my American Glaciers project for a few years, trying to photographically document glaciers in the nine US states where they still exist. It was put on hold during the height of the pandemic, but I have recently re-started the project. In fact, I hiked up to and photographed Wheeler Peak Glacier, the last remaining glacier in the state of Nevada, in June. Largely covered in talus and debris from the mountain walls that surround it, it is often called a “rock glacier”.
I had never heard of a rock glacier until I started this series. But that is the beautiful thing about researching projects, you learn unexpected things. There are technically a few different types of rock glaciers, but they are all essentially massive combinations of ice and rock that are in motion – the essential characteristic of any glacier. They are not as visually obvious in the landscape as an all-ice glacier, but their rocky top layer shields the ice from the sun and helps reduce melting. Nevertheless, as with anything made of ice, they are still susceptible to rising temperatures and the changing precipitation patterns associated with climate change.
Walker Fire, California by Climate Artist Melissa Fleming
CY: Do the wildfires in California still prohibit you from photographing that state’s glaciers?
MF: Before the pandemic, I tried several times to photograph glaciers in California and was thwarted each time by wildfires. The seasonal access to glaciers is limited as the roads and trails used to approach them are often not open until summer due to snow cover. They generally close again in the fall for the same reason. So, you only really have a short window in the summer and that is also prime wildfire season. Since glaciers are generally located in remote places, traveling to photograph them takes time and planning. And, you cannot predict a wildfire. So, a California glacier remains on my to-do list.
Speaking of California wildfires, I should point out that most of the images in my Wildfires project were taken in the Golden State.
CY: Have you become interested in any other new climate/nature phenomenon?
MF: I am mainly attracted to water, in all its forms – from oceans and ponds to clouds and mist to ice and glaciers. This can be seen in my many water-based projects, especially Sentient and Sea Change. That said, I am also very interested in trees. Aesthetically, I am drawn to their overall forms, the shape and color of their leaves, and even the texture of their bark. But, I also deeply value the shade they provide and their role as carbon sinks. The way their annual growth rings record the environmental conditions in which they lived is also fascinating. This is the main subject of “Memory”, a piece in my Under Glass series.
Under Glass a sculpture by Climate Artist Melissa Fleming
CY: You have your own weather station. How does it work, how do you use the information?
MF: Yes, I have a personal weather station outside the window of my NYC apartment. It is small and unobtrusive but provides a lot of data. It measures temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, as well as rainfall. It is registered with Weather Underground’s network of personal stations, so the data is used by more than just myself.
I have been fascinated by weather my whole life and like to follow the changes and stats the station provides. It is also interesting to compare the conditions at my location versus those in Central Park, where the city’s official weather information is recorded. Even though it is only a few blocks away, the numbers, particularly temperature, can be different. The temperature in leafy Central Park is often a few degrees cooler than at my apartment building, which is surrounded by concrete and asphalt. This is a hyper-local example of the urban heat island effect.
CY: Please tell about being on the Weather Channel.
MF: A few years ago, The Weather Channel launched a show called “Weather Underground” that takes a deeper dive into the science behind weather events and phenomena. One of the segments on the show was called “Weather Gets Personal” where they invited people with registered personal weather stations, like me, for live, on-air interviews to discuss major local weather events. These included heatwaves, snowstorms, unseasonable temperatures, and flooding rains. I was honored and thrilled to be asked back several times.
CY: Has your work been shaped by climate change policy?
MF: My work is inspired by a love of nature and is guided by knowledge. Since climate change impacts all of nature, including us, it has become an important subject for me. So, I guess you could say that the long inaction on the policy front has been a motivating factor.
CY: Do you think your work raises awareness about climate change?
MF: I do. The goal of my work – in all mediums– is to inform people about the wonder and workings of the natural world and to inspire a concern for environmental issues, especially climate change. Different people respond to different types of messaging. Some like straight up data and others prefer visuals. I have found that blending the facts and figures of science with the emotional power of art extends the climate change message to a wider audience. Art has a long history of helping to make complex issues – like climate change – more visible and allowing society to look at and to understand the world in new ways. And, understanding really is the first step toward changing behavior and adapting to a new environment.
About the Artist: Melissa Fleming is an artist and writer focused on nature and the environment. Her artwork, which has been exhibited, published, and collected internationally, is largely an exploration of the transient and often unseen aspects of the natural world. She is also the author of The Weather Gamut, a website that discusses all things related to weather and climate change. Researching the ways art can impact opinions on environmental issues, she has been a speaker at a variety of venues, including national and international conferences for both art and science.