Earth Science Artist, Jill Pelto @GlaciogenicArt: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Earth Scientist, Jill Pelto

Portrait: I love being immersed in nature for long periods of time. The privilege to travel and work in the field is one of my favorite parts of working as an Earth Scientist. I enjoy backpacking trips in my free time as well. Here I am in the Bigelow Range in Western Maine. ©2016 Jill Pelto

NAME: Jill Pelto

CURRENT TITLE:  Professional Artist, University of Maine (UMaine) Alumnus

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Communication of Scientific Research through Art

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  4.5 years undergraduate; 7 years as a field assistant on three separate projects; and 3 years student research assistant. Currently in first year as a full-time professional artist.

EDUCATION:  Double Major: BA in Studio Art and BA in Earth Science at UMaine. Plan to attend UMaine to receive my MA in Earth Science focused on Glacial Geology and Paleoclimate beginning Fall 2016.


What’s your job like?

I am just beginning my career as both a scientist and an artist, and so I am finding out how to create a unique job that allows me to follow my passions and inspire others to make environmentally conscious changes. The first step to any piece of art is research, which can be done via fieldwork, scientist collaborations, or self-directed reading.

While doing research in the field, I take photographs, create field sketches, and make notes about changes I see or elements of the landscape that catch my eye. All of the observations I make during any field project inspire art pieces when I return home. I have also begun to work with fellow scientists: I discuss their areas of research, read about their work, and create art that communicates that information in a new way. This is similar to my approach when I self direct a project: I research a topic on my own via online articles in order to develop the concept behind my art. These three approaches define the scientific part of my job. I look forward to doing my own research as a Master degree student and learning how to develop an extensive science thesis that will inspire a body of artwork.

As I am currently between studies and field projects, my job currently consists of developing my artistic career. I am connecting with artists and scientists, selling artwork, doing interviews, researching topics to address, and looking for places to exhibit my work. I am also consistently working on one or several pieces of art.

What’s a typical day like?

I will describe a typical day in the field working on both science and art! I have worked with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project for seven years: two and a half weeks each August. Our work day starts early: after breakfast we hike to the glacier we are camped below and begin our measurements. These involve mapping the terminus, probing for snow depth, measuring snow depth in crevasse stratigraphy, measuring crevasse dimensions, finding the surface slope, and recording supraglacial stream flow velocities.


Measuring Crevasse Depth: Me using a Cam-Line Measuring Tape to determine crevasse depths on Easton Glacier, Mt. Baker, WA. Measurements of the characteristics and distribution of crevasses on glaciers in the North Cascade Range, Washington may be used to quantify crevasse response to ice retreat. In order to identify a relationship between alpine glacier health and the size and extent of crevasses, I have measured the physical characteristics of 204 crevasses across seven glaciers in the North Cascades (2012-2015). ©2016 Jill Pelto

We work until late afternoon or early evening, and then I will begin a field sketch. I observe the landscape and ecosystem and choose a particular aspect of it to represent: the changing terminus position, the meltwater that provides for the plants and animals, or the scientists at work.

Lower Curtis Glacier

Field watercolors: Here I am painting the beautiful melt pools and crevasses on Lower Curtis Glacier, Mt. Shuksan, WA. I bring a set of watercolors and and brushes whenever I do field work in order to capture different aspects of the ecosystem. Doing these field sketches allows me to take the time and observe different elements of the landscape in detail, and inspire art pieces when I return home. ©2016 Jill Pelto

My typical day when I first return home involves looking through my group of watercolors from the field season. I sit down and write and make small sketches about what I have learned and observed. During our most recent (August 2015) field season, I was deeply saddened by the catastrophic result of the drought in Washington. When I returned to Maine, I created a series about the consequences of climate change I had witnessed.  The three pieces are titled very literally: Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance, Salmon Population Decline, and Increasing Forest Fire Activity. Scientific research and data from our project and from other scientists fueled this series, allowing me to communicate with people the importance of these issues.

glacier mass balance

Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance uses measurements from 1980-2014 of the average mass balance for a group of North Cascade, WA glaciers. Mass balance is the annual budget for the glaciers: total snow accumulation minus total snow ablation. Not only are mass balances consistently negative, they are also continually decreasing. ©2016 Jill Pelto

What’s fun?

The most fun part about science are the opportunities to travel and do field work. Nothing beats being surrounded by nature and living out of tents for several weeks to months each year. I love all the wonderful sights: wildlife, wildflowers, interesting rocks, patterns in glacial ice, and mountains as far as the eye can see. These are the moments when I feel so lucky to be an Earth Scientist.

When I am not in the field I have the most fun when I am painting a work of art. As fascinating as the research and sketching part of the art process is, I most enjoy when I begin to use water and pigment to manipulate my drawings into beautiful renderings of color and form. These are the times when I feel so fortunate to be an Artist.

earth art

Proxies for the Past is inspired by the universal unknowns, which humans try to solve by using materials such as ice cores, tree rings, and lichens to date past climate events. Nature reveals some of itsí secrets in these concentric forms, allowing us to determine information such as the data depicted: the average global temperature of Earth from 11,000 years ago to present. Thus, natural materials help us to understand a small portion of Earth’s history. ©2016 Jill Pelto

What’s challenging?

As I am just beginning my career, there are many new and difficult challenges arising. It is difficult to learn enough about any particular scientific topic to feel like I have a real grasp on it, yet I know holistic understanding will be extremely important for completing my Master’s degree and beyond as a professional scientist. Because there are countless topics in Earth Science, and each one is complex, it is daunting to step into the field and feel as though I can become as learned as the other students and professors.

The challenge as an artist is similar. I am struggling with a lot of vital yet difficult questions such as pricing and marketing my work, how to consistently make artwork, and how to continue to evolve as an artist outside of the classroom.

What’s your advice to students?

I just finished my undergraduate double major in December 2015, so my advice is based on my very recent experiences. What has allowed me success both in and out of school is seeking and taking opportunities. Whether it is an interesting part time job, a chance to travel, or an award to enter, it always helps to try. These opportunities enrich me and help me find unforeseen connections. Don’t be afraid to take a risk and seek something out even if you think the odds are slim or for any other reason! I also would advise students to build relationships with their classmates and professors. The advice, support, and critique they give you is worth so much and will lead to lasting connections!


  1. Juliet

    Wonderful to see science and art studies combined in the same subject.

    1. Jill Pelto

      Thanks a lot Juliet! They go together so well don’t they!

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