Carbondale's community supported, weekly newspaper

Seeking Higher Ground: Of painting, pikas and politics

Sections: Columns Published

By Nicolette Toussaint

Right now, I’m pursuing two long-deferred callings: writing a personal column and becoming a fine-art painter. 

  • SAHN-TKD_8th_090618 thumbnail

Those two activities feel like yin and yang, emotionally balancing the scales: painting is a right-brain activity, writing is left-brain. When I’m writing, my mind is full of words. I never miss a publication deadline. While I’m painting, mind chatter disappears. I lose track of time. I sometimes even miss meals.

I started writing a column – this one – because all through my journalistic career, my first-person pieces have always seemed to resonate most with readers. I will soon stop editing a regional magazine not just because the writing I do there is less personal, but also because the editor’s role has kept me, in indirect ways, from expressing a political opinion. While this column isn’t intended to be political per se, recent events call to mind a phrase I remember from the seventies: “The personal is political.”

  • 2020_8th_WoodGirl_091318 thumbnail

Until recently, I thought that my painting was not political. I don’t make political posters like Shepard Fairey, nor satirical graffiti like Banksy. My paintings celebrate light and color, the natural world. I like to paint mountain landscapes and Colorado wildlife. When I resumed painting seriously last fall, I first painted a bighorn sheep, then a mountain lion. Then a pika.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the pika. It’s a small round-eared relative of the rabbit. Pikas live in boulder fields above timberline, grazing on grasses and flowers, signaling one another with high-pitched whistles.

  • FirstBank thumbnail

Because this cute, baked-potato-sized creature can be cooked by temperatures above 78 degrees, it’s considered an “indicator species” for global warming. The pika is desperately seeking higher ground. We still have pikas in Colorado, but in many western states, they have topped out of livable habit. They may be the first species that North America loses to climate change. 

After learning that, it began to dawn on me that all of the mountain animals I was painting are threatened. Every life zone in the Rockies is warming, and the range of all our plants and animals is changing. That’s why scientists project that Aspen may become too warm for its namesake tree by 2030. 

  • FSM Promo thumbnail

Considering all this, I began to think my paintings as an “elegy for the anthropocene.” That name has been coined to describe the current geological age, a time period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environment. I decided that when I exhibited the paintings as an ensemble, I would include a brief artist’s statement explaining that title.

It wasn’t until I began looking at an application for an artist’s residency in Glacier National Park that I realized that my paintings, are—or have become—unintentionally, but inescapably, political! 

  • SS_qtr_NewAdRates_PageSize_092018-(1) thumbnail

Glacier offers artists a chance to spend a month living and painting in the park. They’re expected to share their work by giving talks or demonstrations to visitors, and their art must support Glacier’s educational, environmental and cultural goals. Sounds benign…

But as I was pondering Glacier’s application, Scott Pruit, a climate-change denier, was being vetted to head the EPA. The new president was muzzling science-based government agencies, ranging from the EPA to the NOAA and the Forest Service. Republicans were also vowing to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (That’s a political rather than a fiscal goal, since the combined budgets of the two agencies equal less than .001 percent of the nation’s annual spending.)

It’s hard to even talk about Glacier National Park without acknowledging global warming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, but only 25 larger than 25 acres remained by 2010. By 2030, the place may be known as Glacier-free National Park! I began to wonder whether painting Glacier’s scenery—let alone explaining the term “Elegy for the Anthropocene”—might be construed as political resistance. 

My artistic goals this year are modest: to sell enough to pay for my materials and to become known as artist. The residency at Glacier would have helped me become more widely known; the work produced by resident artists is used in the park’s public outreach. 

But in the end, I didn’t apply.  I didn’t want to be away from home for a full month, so I decided to save this adventure for summer 2018.

I think the glaciers will withstand the planet’s climate that long. I’m wondering how well Glacier’s residency will hold up given the nation’s political climate. 

Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 16, 2017. 
▲Top