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TED Talks Live

Zaria Forman: Drawings that show the beauty and fragility of Earth

November 6, 2015

Zaria Forman's large-scale compositions of melting glaciers, icebergs floating in glassy water and waves cresting with foam explore moments of transition, turbulence and tranquility. Join her as she discusses the meditative process of artistic creation and the motivation behind her work. "My drawings celebrate the beauty of what we all stand to lose," she says. "I hope they can serve as records of sublime landscapes in flux."

Zaria Forman - Artist
Zaria Forman uses visual art to connect people with the impact of climate change. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I consider it my life's mission
00:12
to convey the urgency
of climate change through my work.
00:15
I've traveled north to the Arctic
to the capture the unfolding story
00:19
of polar melt,
00:23
and south to the Equator to document
the subsequent rising seas.
00:25
Most recently, I visited
the icy coast of Greenland
00:29
and the low-lying islands of the Maldives,
00:33
connecting two seemingly disparate
but equally endangered
00:36
parts of our planet.
00:40
My drawings explore moments
of transition, turbulence
00:43
and tranquility in the landscape,
00:49
allowing viewers to emotionally connect
00:52
with a place you might never
have the chance to visit.
00:55
I choose to convey the beauty
as opposed to the devastation.
00:59
If you can experience the sublimity
of these landscapes,
01:04
perhaps you'll be inspired
to protect and preserve them.
01:08
Behavioral psychology tells us
that we take action
01:13
and make decisions based
on our emotions above all else.
01:16
And studies have shown
that art impacts our emotions
01:21
more effectively than a scary news report.
01:24
Experts predict ice-free Arctic summers
01:29
as early as 2020.
01:32
And sea levels are likely to rise
between two and ten feet
01:35
by century's end.
01:39
I have dedicated my career
to illuminating these projections
01:42
with an accessible medium,
01:46
one that moves us in a way
that statistics may not.
01:48
My process begins
with traveling to the places
01:54
at the forefront of climate change.
01:57
On-site, I take thousands of photographs.
01:59
Back in the studio,
02:02
I work from both my memory
of the experience and the photographs
02:03
to create very large-scale compositions,
02:08
sometimes over 10 feet wide.
02:10
I draw with soft pastel, which is dry
like charcoal, but colors.
02:13
I consider my work drawings
but others call them painting.
02:18
I cringe, though, when I'm referred to
as a "finger painter."
02:22
(Laughter)
02:26
But I don't use any tools
02:27
and I have always used
my fingers and palms
02:29
to manipulate the pigment on the paper.
02:32
Drawing is a form of meditation for me.
02:35
It quiets my mind.
02:40
I don't perceive what I'm drawing
02:42
as ice or water.
02:44
Instead, the image is stripped down
02:45
to its most basic form of color and shape.
02:47
Once the piece is complete,
02:52
I can finally experience
the composition as a whole,
02:54
as an iceberg floating
through glassy water,
02:57
or a wave cresting with foam.
02:59
On average, a piece this size
takes me about,
03:03
as you can see, 10 seconds.
03:07
(Laughter)
03:09
(Applause)
03:11
Really, more like 200 hours,
250 hours for something that size.
03:15
But I've been drawing ever since
I could hold a crayon, really.
03:19
My mom was an artist, and growing up,
03:22
we always had art supplies
all over the house.
03:24
My mother's love of photography
03:27
propelled her to the most
remote regions of the earth,
03:29
and my family and I were fortunate enough
03:33
to join and support her
on these adventures.
03:35
We rode camels in Northern Africa
03:38
and mushed on dog sleds
near the North Pole.
03:41
In August of 2012,
I led my first expedition,
03:45
taking a group of artists and scholars
up the northwest coast of Greenland.
03:49
My mother was originally
supposed to lead this trip.
03:56
She and I were in the early
stages of planning,
03:58
as we had intended to go together,
04:01
when she fell victim to a brain tumor.
04:04
The cancer quickly took over
her body and mind,
04:07
and she passed away six months later.
04:11
During the months of her illness, though,
04:14
her dedication to the expedition
never wavered, and I made a promise
04:16
to carry out her final journey.
04:22
My mother's passion for the Arctic
04:25
echoed through my experience in Greenland,
04:28
and I felt the power
04:31
and the fragility of the landscape.
04:34
The sheer size of the icebergs
04:38
is humbling.
04:41
The ice fields are alive
with movement and sound
04:42
in a way that I never expected.
04:46
I expanded the scale of my compositions
04:49
to give you that same sense of awe
that I experienced.
04:51
Yet, while the grandeur
of the ice is evident,
04:56
so, too, is its vulnerability.
05:00
From our boat,
05:02
I could see the ice sweating
under the unseasonably warm sun.
05:04
We had a chance to visit
many of the Inuit communities in Greenland
05:10
that now face huge challenges.
05:14
The locals spoke to me
of vast areas of sea ice
05:17
that are no longer
freezing over as they once did.
05:20
And without ice, their hunting
and harvesting grounds
05:23
are severely diminished,
05:26
threatening their way
of life and survival.
05:28
The melting glaciers in Greenland
05:32
are one of the largest
contributing factors to rising sea levels,
05:34
which have already begun to drown
05:38
some of our world's lowest-lying islands.
05:40
One year after my trip to Greenland,
I visited the Maldives,
05:44
the lowest and flattest country
in the entire world.
05:48
While I was there, I collected
images and inspiration
05:52
for a new body of work:
05:56
drawings of waves lapping
on the coast of a nation
05:58
that could be entirely underwater
within this century.
06:02
Devastating events happen every day
06:09
on scales both global and personal.
06:12
When I was in Greenland,
06:16
I scattered my mother's ashes
amidst the melting ice.
06:17
Now she remains a part
of the landscape she loved so much,
06:22
even as it, too, passes
and takes on new form.
06:27
Among the many gifts my mother gave me
06:32
was the ability to focus on the positive,
06:35
rather than the negative.
06:38
My drawings celebrate the beauty
of what we all stand to lose.
06:40
I hope they can serve as records
of sublime landscapes in flux,
06:47
documenting the transition
and inspiring our global community
06:53
to take action for the future.
06:58
Thank you.
07:00
(Applause)
07:02

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Zaria Forman - Artist
Zaria Forman uses visual art to connect people with the impact of climate change.

Why you should listen

The inspiration for Zaria Forman's drawings began in early childhood when she traveled with her family throughout several of the world's most remote landscapes, which were the subject of her mother's fine art photography. She was born in South Natick, Massachusetts and currently works and resides in Brooklyn, New York. She studied at the Student Art Centers International in Florence, Italy and received a BS in Studio Arts at Skidmore College in New York. Her works have been in publications such as Juxtapoz Magazine, National Geographic Magazine, Huffington Post, and the Smithsonian Magazine.

Recent achievements include participation in Banksy's Dismaland and a solo exhibition at Winston Wächter Fine Art in New York in September and October of 2015. Her drawings have been used in the set design for the Netflix TV series House of Cards.

In August 2012, Forman led Chasing the Light, an expedition sailing up the coast of Greenland, retracing the 1869 journey of American painter William Bradford and documenting the rapidly changing arctic landscape. Continuing to address climate change in her work, Forman traveled multiple times to the Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world, and arguably the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Forman was invited aboard the National Geographic Explorer, traveling to Antarctica as an artist-in-residence in November and December 2015. Her next solo show will take place at Winston Wächter Fine Art’s Seattle location, in February and March of 2017.

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