This Artist's Stunning Ice Portraits Show The Effects Of Climate Change

Most of us have a fraught relationship with global warming. We know it’s something we should care about, we’ve heard that there are things we can do to help, we may have binge-watched Frozen Planet on Netflix, but climate change tends to be the most palpable in far-flung places that we may never see.

It’s tricky to link our everyday choices with what’s happening at the poles. Double-bag the groceries? Why not. Leave the lights on? No big deal. Toss that water bottle in the trash? Everyone else does. And yet all of these small choices have accrued over the last half-century to contribute to rising sea levels threatening populations from Bangladesh to the Maldives, more extreme weather events like Winter Storm Jonas, and deserts unfurling where there were once lakes full of fish.

Zaria Forman isn’t here to beat anyone over the head with a Greenpeace placard. The Brooklyn artist’s methods are subtler, more personal, and altogether more arresting. Forman creates vast, meticulously detailed pastel drawings of waves in the Maldives, storms over Greenland, and icebergs from a recent trip to Antarctica. She hopes that her work will help foster a deeper understanding of the climate crisis by giving viewers a way to connect with these remote landscapes.

In Forman’s drawings, the frozen monoliths seem endowed with personality. “This one’s very masculine,” she says, gesturing toward a jagged crest of ice that seems to rear up from the paper. She lightheartedly points out what she calls her “Georgia O’Keeffe iceberg,” replete with damp, layered curves. It’s no wonder she calls them “ice portraits.”

Growing up a stone’s throw from New York City, Forman was exposed to art at a young age through her mother, photographer Rena Bass Forman. During holidays, the family travelled to faraway places for the elder Forman’s work. “I developed an appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the ever-changing sky and sea.”

Refinery29 met the artist at her Brooklyn studio, where she told us about climate change and her artistic process, and taught us new words for ice. Click ahead for our interview and more of her stunning work.

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Forman working on "Deception Island, Antarctica", astudy leading up to her trip to Antarctica in winter, 2015. Photo: Quinn Miller-Bedell.​
Your work contains so much detail on such a large scale. Can you tell us about your process and how you begin?

“When I travel, I take thousands of photographs. I often make a few small sketches on-site to get a feel for the landscape. Once I return to the studio, I draw from my memory as well as from the photographs to create large-scale compositions. Occasionally I will re-invent the water or sky, alter the shape of the ice, or mix and match a few different images to create the composition I envision.

“I begin with a very simple pencil sketch so I have a few major lines to follow, and then I add layers of pigment onto the paper, smudging everything with my palms and fingers and breaking the pastel into sharp shards to render finer details.”

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Greenland no.57, 45x50 inches, soft pastel on paper, 2013
What do you like (or find challenging) about using pastel and paper?

“I have always preferred soft pastels over the myriad materials I have experimented with. The process of drawing with pastels is simple and straightforward: cut the paper, make the marks. The material demands a minimalistic approach, as there isn't much room for error or re-working since the paper’s tooth can hold only a few thin layers of pigment.

“I rarely use an eraser—I prefer to work with my ‘mistakes,’ enjoying the challenge of resolving them with limited marks. The simplicity of the process has taught me a great deal about letting go. I become easily lost in tiny details, and if the pastel and paper did not provide limitations, I fear I would never know when to stop!”
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Greenland no.63, 50x75 inches, soft pastel on paper, 2013
How long does it usually take you to finish a drawing?

“Depending on the size and detail of the piece, I spend roughly three to eight weeks on each drawing. That time frame continues to increase as I expand the scale and clarity of my compositions.”

I tend to think of ice as quite static, but your drawings seem so dynamic and full of life! Is it challenging to imbue them with dimension and movement on a flat medium?

“Yes, it can be challenging, but if I only drew what came easy I wouldn’t learn or make progress. I think this is where the personal experience comes into play. It’s important for me to observe the landscapes I draw, to see how the waves form, crawl, and crash against the shore or watch the sunlight drift across an iceberg. These memories bring my photographs to life and help me transfer that same sense of movement into my drawings.

Icebergs and glaciers themselves are quite dynamic. They move and pop and crackle, especially when they’re calving.
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Greenland no.74, 40x54 inches, soft pastel on paper,
Calving? Like…cows?

"Yes! "Calving" is when a chunk of ice (15 feet or larger) breaks off of a glacier. There are numerous terms for different kinds of ice. For a chunk of ice to be considered an iceberg, it needs to be at least 15ft in one direction. Anything smaller is considered a "growler"; "bergy bits" —one of my favorite terms— are small chunks of floating ice, anything less than the size of a basketball. "

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Waipi'o Valley, Hawaii no.3, 56x85 inches, soft pastel on paper 2015
How does your mother inspire you personally and artistically?

“My mother dedicated her life to photographing the most remote regions of the earth. The cold and isolated landscape of the Arctic consumed her interest from 2001 until her passing in 2011. She always said that she had been a polar bear in a past life, and watching her spend endless hours in the frigid winds, patiently and happily waiting for the moment when the light was right, gave me no doubts that this was true! She taught me the importance of loving what you do, and carrying out projects with full force, no matter what obstacles lay in the way.

“Her dedication, passion, and perseverance continue to inspire me. She would spend hours on an icy cliff edge, waiting for the sunlight to illuminate the frame through her camera lens, smiling and happy long after the rest of the family's toes had gone numb. We would whine and complain, but she wouldn't budge until she knew she had captured what she wanted.”

“My mother conceived the idea for a voyage to Greenland, but did not live to see it through. She was diagnosed with brain cancer on Mother's Day in 2011, and passed away six months later. I promised to carry out her final journey. In Greenland, I was compelled to addresses the concept of saying goodbye on scales both global and personal, as I scattered my mother’s ashes amidst the melting ice.

“I sometimes go back through my mother’s negatives and use parts of them in my drawings. In a way, it’s like being able to collaborate with her.”
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Maldives no.3, 30x60 inches, soft pastel on paper, 2013
Your work is sometimes described as “photo-realistic.” What distinction do you see between the pieces you create and the images taken by your mother or other photographers who have inspired you?

“My framer once said to me: “A photograph is not of an instant—it’s of a length of time while light is gathered on the emulsion. In a sense, your drawings open that time out again, and slow it down, and to make something easy to access that was impossible to access.” I love the way he put it, and I agree with him.

“I actually don’t set out to make anything photo-realistic. Rather, I attempt to portray the landscape as I experienced it. I use photographs to achieve this ultimate goal, simply because my memory isn’t good enough to retain all the details I see! My personal and emotional experience influences the composition (how can it not?). I want my drawings to transport the viewer, to give people a chance to emotionally connect with a landscape they may never have the chance to see.”
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Forman hopes that her drawings will "give people a chance to emotionally connect with a landscape they may never have the chance to see." Photo: Dustin Cohen
Shapes and patterns often emerge when we look at clouds or stars—it seems to be part of our attempt to process and relate to what we see. Does this ever happen to you when you look at ice?

“I always see shapes in the ice and clouds. Most often, an entire iceberg will look like an object or animal. During the Greenland expedition, the other passengers and I would name the icebergs as they passed by—‘whale berg’, ‘castle berg’, ‘birthday cake berg’, et cetera.”

Do you allow this to be part of your drawings, or do you resist it?

“I don’t let this inform my compositions in any way. If anything, I avoid or alter shapes that look too much like anything other than ice. Friends and family will often point out faces, animals or objects in my drawings that they’ve found, and that doesn’t bother me at all—it’s fun to see what people discover in my work.”
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Forman sailed to Antarctica on the National Geographic Explorer in December 2015." Photo: Michael Baldwin
What similarities or differences did you notice between northern and southern ice in your Arctic and Antarctic expeditions?

“In all my travels I have never experienced a landscape as epic and pristine as Antarctica. I still haven’t found the words to properly convey the majesty and ethereal wonder of that icy continent!

“It was fascinating to see how the ice differed from its northern counterpart. The biggest difference I noticed were the unbelievable shades of blues—I had no idea so many existed! In the Arctic, every now and then we came across an iceberg with a thin strip of bright sapphire ice, whereas in the Antarctic, almost all the icebergs glowed. It was as if they were lit from the inside.

“The challenge I face now is staying true to the landscape in my depictions of it, but also keeping it believable so the viewer doesn’t assume I embellished and exaggerated the colors. I don’t want my drawings to look surreal, but I worry that they might if I attempt to draw the blue ice that I saw. Even as passengers on the ship in Antarctica we barely believed our own eyes.”
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Forman followed the arctic melt water to the Maldives, the lowest-lying nation in the world. Photo: Trevor Traynor
You’ve traced climate change all around the world, from the Arctic to Antarctic, Hawaii to the Maldives, do you have a favorite place among them? What’s next?

“It is hard to decide on one particular place, since I feel like all the trips I've taken have been magical! But for now I'll say Antarctica, since it was the most recent, but also was perhaps the most otherworldly experience I've ever had. It was like if you took the most magical winter wonderland that anyone could ever dream up, multiplied it by one million, and added penguins.

“I don’t have any trips planned at the moment but I think my next destination would be another low-lying place, similar to the Maldives (the lowest country in the world). I’d like to continue the narrative of going from the poles to places that are very vulnerable to rising sea levels.”

How do you hope people will approach and respond to your work?

“I hope my drawings can facilitate a deeper understanding of the climate crisis, helping us find meaning and optimism in shifting landscapes. I hope they can serve as records of landscapes in flux, documenting the transition, and inspiring our global community to take action for the future.”

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.