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.
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.
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.
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.
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!