In a Time of Change artist to be featured in fifth national climate report

Spruce Smoke is an art quilt that will be included in the Fifth National Climate Assessment by In a Time of Change artist Ree Nancarrow.
Courtesy of Ree Nancarrow
"Spruce Smoke" is an art quilt by In a Time of Change artist Ree Nancarrow that will be included in the Fifth National Climate Assessment.

It’s hard to distinguish the line in Ree Nancarrow’s work where the dedicated botanist ends and the meticulous fiber artist begins. Her quilt pieces depict the natural world and its life cycles, often simultaneously zooming in to the microbial level and out to larger landscapes.

The Alaska artist’s work also often portrays the effects of climate change.

Nancarrow’s quilt “Spruce Smoke” was recently selected by the U.S. Global Change Research Program for inclusion in its Fifth National Climate Assessment Such assessments, considered the preeminent analyses of climate change,  are submitted to the White House and Congress every four years. 

This year was the first time the federal agency put out a call for and incorporated work from artists. Nancarrow’s work was chosen, along with 90 others, from 800 submissions. 

“Fiber is very approachable,” said Nancarrow. “People are really interested in getting an up-close look at it. They want to touch the quilts to see how they’re made. Talking about my technique or the craft is another avenue to get a conversation going with someone who may not have a background in science.”

Nancarrow’s art is rooted in her graduate training in botany and 50 years spent witnessing the water level slowly drop at her home on Deneki Lakes near Denali National Park and Preserve. 

Nancarrow finished “Spruce Smoke” in 2012 as part of the In a Time of Change initiative. The Bonanza Creek Long-Term Research program, housed within the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, sponsors the arts-focused initiative

Nancarrow, who began silkscreening in the 1970s, worked on the margins of textile art (even using sled dog hair) until she arrived at quilting in the mid-1990s.

Ree Nancarrow’s artwork captures the natural world melding art and and science.
Photo by Amy Loeffler
Ree Nancarrow’s artwork captures the natural world melding art and science.

In a Time of Change artists  work for one or two years, interacting with scientists for presentations, field trips and retreats. Afterward, an exhibit featuring their work often tours nationally and internationally. Since starting  in 2007, the initiative has hosted six projects focused on themes relevant to the far north, including climate change, wildfire, trophic cascades, microbial worlds, and boreal forest dynamics.

Nancarrow renders digital samples on an iPad, hand-dyes her own fabric, and creates her own textures. “Spruce Smoke” is mostly dyed in hues of purples and grays. She thought the colors effectively captured the haze and heat of the smoke in forests.

“Her commitment to the accuracy of the science is extraordinary,” said Mary Beth Leigh, the UAF professor who directs In a Time of Change. “She reads primary scientific literature and consults with scientists one-on-one to research her work. Then, she creates multi-layered pieces with stunning artistry and meticulous detail.”

Placing art in the Fifth National Climate Assessment reflects the U.S. Office of Science and Technology’s belief in the power of such integrative activities, according to Lissy Goralnik, a Michigan State University assistant professor who evaluates ITOC programming and events. 

“Artists and scientists have different ways of knowing,” Goralnik said. “Science is more linear, built on a lineage of ideas and research, where art appeals to emotion. Bridging these ways of knowing through co-inquiry of the natural world can lead to more nuanced understanding and creative thinking, as well as more inclusive public conversations about environmental issues.” 

The Fifth National Climate Assessment will be available in the fall. In previous years, more than 1 million people have read the report. 

The University of Alaska Museum of the North’s permanent collection displays Nancarrow’s work. In Homer, her quilt “Boreal Forest Roulette” will be on exhibit at the Pratt Museum and Park until Sept. 23 and will tour the state through 2025.  View more of Nancarrow’s quilts and see news about upcoming shows at her website