Diane Burko: Art as a language for talking about climate change

Artist Diane Burko

Diane Burko is a celebrated American painter and photographer.  She has been a fixture in the women’s art movement since the mid 1970’s with a host of notable achievements.  It is Diane’s involvement with the subject of climate change, however, that connects her to Peaks Over Poverty’s mission. For the past 5 years, Diane has intensely focused her art on documenting the detrimental affects climate change has had on glaciers.  Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says: “Diane’s work connects us to the enormity of what is happening in the natural world and the amazing speed with which these changes are taking place.” Evidenced by the response she has received from her painting series, “The Politics of Snow”, Diane is stirring significant conversation around the affects of climate change.  In Diane’s words, “I want to seduce the viewer with my painting of the landscape and then subtly engage them in contemplating its survival.”

Much like the subject of climate change itself, there is no clear end in site to Diane’s journey and exploration of this topic.  Diane’s insatiable appetite for gaining knowledge and information about climate change fuels her inspiration for the glacial renderings she continues to create.  In my phone conversation with Diane, I was able to better understand her mission as the artist behind such powerful works.

Artist Diane Burko's Everest Diptych 1963 - July 2010 Oil on canvas

Peaks Over Poverty: Diane, you received your Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore, and shortly after your Master of Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

Diane: I always exhibited talent in that direction, however, I was conflicted because I was brought up as an only child of immigrant parents, so I felt some pressure to be a doctor or lawyer, or something of that sort. I thought seriously of being a psychologist when I was very young but didn’t realize I’d have to go to medical school; I hated blood and am a vegetarian, maybe that’s a silly reason to not go to medical school but it really influenced me. So I went to a liberal arts school.  At college I had wonderful teachers and a mentor, Arnold Bittleman, who got me on this artistic path and encouraged me to explore art. After that there was no turning back. By my sophomore year, that was it. I thought, “I’m an artist, I better face it”.

P.O.P: In reading your biography it would appear you started out painting, moved to photography, and came back to painting. Can you explain this transition and also, what mediums you are most excited about using today?

Diane: From the late ‘70’s forward I used photography for my work as inspiration. I’d go to different sites, take photographs and then go back to my studio and make paintings from them. About 6 years ago I started using glacial geographical photography, which incorporates a practice called “repeat photography”.  Essentially, photographers use archival images of a glacier to return to the glacier and take an updated photo from the exact same viewpoint in the archive. The past and present versions of the photo are compared and used to understand how the glacier and landscape have changed and evolved.  This was the basis for my project “The Politics of Snow”.  Really, photography became the data that I was trying to put into a specific framework in my language of paint.

Artist Diane Burko's Main Rongbuk Glacier Series 1 –3, 2010 Oil on canvas

P.O.P: You have been recognized for your politically charged, environmentally conscious themes as an artist.  Have you always been concerned with the environment or did you discover this passion through a particular experience?

Diane: My passion for the environment, up until about 2006, was passive.  In other words, I loved nature and I loved the environment, and I would travel to celebrate the environment and the landscape through my work. In that way I believed in preserving the environment. However, in 2006 Amy Schlegel, a curator, invited me to include a painting of mine from 1976 in an exhibit centered around the concept of “Hot and Cold” as portrayed through icebergs and volcanoes. The curator had remembered my early paintings of glaciers, and we chose one of the French Alps to compliment the theme. During an artist talk on the exhibit, someone asked me about my painting, and it hit me. I started thinking about 1976 vs. 2006, 30 years ago, I’ve changed, the environment has changed and then I started thinking about snow and in a way, serendipitously, I started going back over images I issued in the ‘70s, right out of grad school when I had been doing a lot more reading.

One piece I had read that had immediately influenced me was by Rachel Carson.  So I re-read that, then I went to other sources, such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change”. I got on the Internet and through reading extensively about climate change and the environment, I got really motivated. That’s how I got involved with glacial geologists and learned about repeat photography.

P.O.P: Your “Politics of Snow I” exhibit garnered a lot of attention. You have a “Politics of Snow II” exhibit coming up this Spring at Princeton. Can you explain how the works in the second exhibit have changed or evolved since your first?

Diane: Usually when I’ve had exhibitions, it’s a series {of paintings} and once I solve any aesthetic problems, I can move on and work on something else.   But with this project, there’s so much more information that I am learning or that is emerging in general, and that’s why there has to be a “Politics of Snow II”.   The main difference from “Politics of Snow I” is that I’m adding more data. For example, I am integrating glacial recessional lines into the paintings.  It’s a way of trying to bridge the two disciplines, integrating the science into the art more seamlessly.  Also, I keep getting new images, so I’m finding ways to present the new information differently.  I’m finding inspiration and discovering how to reach an audience without saying much.

P.O.P: You have accomplished so much in your career, from groundbreaking artistic expression, to founding the Philadelphia All Arts Festival, you are a chair for the Women’s Caucus for Art, which you also cofounded, and you are a chair for the Committee on Women in the Arts for the College Art Association of America, among other prestigious and inspiring mentionables; what is next for you?

Diane: You know, I don’t know!  I just go until I’m bored and this really is a new level of involvement for me. It’s always been political but I’ve never been able to connect my politics with my art like I have here. I’m looking for new topics that still relate to climate change, it’s going to be a very long-fought issue.  I just want to keep pursuing this and learning more.

Artist Diane Burko's Kilimanjaro I & II May-June 2010 Oil on Canvas

You can find more of Diane’s work as well as detailed information on her current exhibitions on her website: http://www.dianeburko.com

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