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An Interview with Zaria Forman

29 April 2015

What is your memory of the remote landscapes you travelled through as a child?

The inspiration for my drawings began in my early childhood when I travelled with my family throughout several of the world's most remote landscapes, which became the subject of my mother's fine art photography. I developed an appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the ever-changing sky and sea. I loved watching a far-off storm on the western desert plains, the monsoon rains of southern India, and the cold arctic light illuminating Greenland's waters.

How did your mother influence you?

My mother was certainly one of the biggest influences in my life, and continues to be even after passing away in 2011. Fulfilling her dream to follow Bradford's voyage in Greenland was one of the most meaningful gifts she gave me. She taught me about light, and endurance. She would wait hours in frigid temperatures for the right light to illuminate a view. If something she wanted was impossible, she found a way to make it possible!

You have a great environmental concern, how is that and your art intertwined?

My most recent drawings document Earth’s shifting landscape and the effects of progressive climate change. In August 2012, I led an Arctic expedition up the north west coast of Greenland. Called "Chasing the Light", it was the second expedition the mission of which was to create art inspired by this dramatic geography. The first, in 1869, was led by the American painter William Bradford. My mother, Rena Bass Forman, had conceived the idea for the voyage, but did not live to see it through. During the months of her illness her dedication to the expedition never wavered and I promised to carry out her final journey. I have begun a series of drawings inspired by this trip. Documenting climate change, the work addresses the concept of saying goodbye on scales both global and personal. In Greenland, I scattered my mother’s ashes amidst the melting ice. Continuing the story of polar melt, which is the main cause of rising seas, I followed the meltwater from the Arctic to the equator. I spent September 2013 in the Maldives, the lowest and flattest country in the world, collecting material and inspiration to create a body of work celebrating and representing a nation that could be entirely underwater within this century. My drawings invite viewers to share the urgency of climate change in a hopeful and significant way. Art can facilitate a deeper understanding of any crisis, helping us find meaning and optimism in shifting landscapes.

You say you like the movement of water, as its always changing like life, how do you go about capturing that in your work? What is the thought process as you work?

Are you capturing movement or a moment in time? Both. Obviously my photographs are each still moments in time, but in my drawings, I attempt to capture movement. Experiencing the landscape and watching the light shift, and the water move, is a very important part of the process for me. I try to imbue my drawings with that experience, so the viewer can feel as though they have been transported to the landscape they are looking at.

What do you like about pastel?

I have always preferred soft pastels over the myriad materials I have experimented with. The process of drawing is stripped down and straight-forward; cut the paper, make the marks. A minimalistic approach is required as there isn't much room for error or re-working since the paper tooth can hold only a few thin layers of pigment. I enjoy this challenge, and simplicity.

How would you advise someone working in pastel who wants to capture movement, or draw ice and snow?

When I draw, I enter a "zone" which is very meditative. When I look at the composition up close, the iceberg and the water disappear and it becomes shape, line, form, and colour. I am following a photograph, but at times I make up the water, sky, or I change the shape of the iceberg. I think about the movement. I think about where the light is hitting, and make sure the highlights are in the right direction. There is fluidity in the movements I make, and I think that translates from my arm, and fingertips onto the paper. I teach yoga once a week and that helps my drawing, and the drawings support my practice. It is important for me to have good posture while I draw, since I often sit or stand for hours on end. When drawing, I never think technically. I don't think it's an art form that you can teach, but I would encourage people to play around and find what works for them. It just takes practice!

How do you feel when you look at your own work?

If it is a piece that I like and I am happy with the way it has turned out, I love looking at the it. I don't get to live with my drawings for very long. They go straight to an exhibit, or client (which is of course a good thing!). Because of that, I relish the time I have with them. Once a piece is finished I try to separate myself from it. I don't go back and get nitty gritty fixing things all the time. When it's done it's done, and all the subtle details I spent hours perfecting, fade into the background, and I can only see the composition as a whole. The drawing becomes the scene that I remember experiencing, looking at the iceberg, the sea, the sky. I am grateful that I am able to make that separation once the piece is finished. I know I have succeeded when the drawing evokes the my experience of being in the landscape. My hope is that I am representing these landscapes as honestly as I can, and putting onto the paper what I experienced when I was there, so that people who don't get to travel to these far off places have an opportunity to experience them through my work.

You have done a bit of collaboration, what do you enjoy about that?

I have been forming a collective with two other artists that came to Greenland and the Maldives with me, Lisa Lebofsky and Drew Denny. Our project, entitled "Ice to Islands", represents disappearing landscapes, and shares the stories of people most affected by climate change. The project continues to evolve and take shape through drawings, paintings, film, performance, and education. Future exhibition plans involve a group showing of our work, as well as other artists’ work pertaining to the subject of climate change, specifically ice melt and sea level rise. Along with exhibits there will be educational and performance based events, including panel discussions with climate change scientists, activists, and artists.

What is your greatest artistic ambition?

I could go into a lot of detail about a lot of projects I have in mind, but on a broad scale, I would love my drawings to play a part in art history, even if it's after I am gone from this world. My intention is for my drawings to be some viable form of landscape documentation. Scientists are predicting the ice to completely melt, and the Maldives to completely drown within the next 30 years. Generations to come won't have the opportunity to experience an iceberg first-hand, and I hope that my drawings can offer them some sense of the past, of these beautiful places that no longer exist.

Does that make you sad, or glad you can do something?

Both! It's definitely sad, and I like to think of myself as a positive person. I always try to look on the bright side of things. I don't want my work to be all about doom and gloom. That's why I try to draw the landscape as beautifully as I can. I see beauty and that's what I want to convey to my viewers. People ask me, "Why aren't you drawing the devastation, because that will shock people more, and get them to make a change, and bring awareness more powerfully." I disagree. I'd rather send a positive message, spread beauty and hope, and ideally get people to think about how can we move forward into the future and adapt.

In Greenland, subsistence hunters are having to drastically change their way of life. These changes were brought to light in conversations we had with locals. They spoke of vast ice fjords that are not freezing as they once did. The fjords are the communities’ hunting grounds for seal, walrus, and other animals that provide sustenance, warmth and other crucial items necessary for Arctic survival. Insufficient ice severely limits their hunting grounds. Greenland has no railways, no inland waterways, and virtually no roads between towns. Their major method of transportation is by boat around the coast in summer and by dog sled in winter (which, ten years ago, made up most of the year). Without frozen fjords, their dogs and sleds are rendered useless, and many cannot afford to travel very far by boat. This is just one of enumerable ways the warming Arctic is affecting the Inuit way of life.

During our month in the Maldives, the changes due to rising seas were evident. We visited the Maldivian Department of Meteorology to discuss this with meteorologists and climatologists. The head of the department explained, chillingly, that if sea levels rise 88 centimetres, 80 percent of the Maldives will be gone.

Artists play a critical role in communicating climate change, which is arguably the most important challenge we face as a global community. I have dedicated my career to translating and illuminating scientists’ warnings and statistics into an accessible medium that people can connect with, on a level that is perhaps deeper than scientific facts can penetrate.

Neuroscience tells us that humans take action and make decisions based on emotion above all else. Studies have shown that art (and in particular drawings, paintings, photographs, and film) can impact viewers’ emotions more effectively than an essay or newspaper article. My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence, and tranquility in the landscape, allowing viewers to emotionally connect with a place they may never have the chance to visit. I choose to convey the beauty, as opposed to the devastation, of threatened places. If people can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps they will be inspired to protect and preserve them.

Tell us about 350.0rg. that you donate some proceeds of your work to.

It's a wonderful grass-roots organisation working to solve the climate crisis. They work all over the world and teach people how to protest, bring awareness, raise money, organise divestment campaigns, etc. I want my work to be part of a greater good, more than just offering a pretty drawing on a living room wall. I hope my drawings can make a big impact, but if I make money from them, I can share that too. I give a percent of all my sales to

Do you consider yourself to be a successful artist?

At the moment, yes. Success is different for everyone though. I love what I do, and I get to do it every day! That is success to me. It also supports me financially which I am grateful for. Art is never a secure job no matter how well you are doing, there is never a regular pay cheque, so you have to love it, which I do!

What has allowed you to be in this position?

Hard work! No one should ever think it is easy to be successful as an artist. Some people get lucky, but I have paid my dues! I am a hard worker, very motivated and it helps that I love what I do of course. Some luck though, and some connections are also factors. It really helped having a mother who was an artist. She guided me wisely and that was really valuable.

What do you think about the colours that Unison have been making for you?

I am so excited and happy with them. You have been so generous, and really wonderful to work with. I really appreciate everything you guys have done. Working together to create specific colours that I remember seeing in the landscape has been such a joy! I hope others will benefit from them too.

Zaria's contact information
Melanie Reese
Studio Manager 

Zaria Forman Studio Brooklyn, NY

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