Climate Data and Art, Part 1 — The Tempestry Project and Jill Pelto

This episode of Warm Regards, the first of two on the intersections of climate data and art, will feature conversations with Emily McNeil and Justin Connolly, founders of the Tempestry Project, which uses climate data to create patterns that people can knit into scarves and tapestries, and Jill Pelto, a visual artist who incorporates climate data into a variety of natural landscapes. First, though, some thoughts on the US presidential election from our very relieved hosts.

Show Notes

You can learn more about the Tempestry Project, as well as purchase your own kit, at their website. They also have an active Facebook group where you can connect with others working on Tempestry kits and find help.

Tempestries on display during a 2019 protest.
A collection of knitted Tempestries hanging vertically on the wall of a gallery.
A collection of knitted Tempestries hanging vertically on the wall of a gallery.
A collection of Tempestries on display.

You can see some of the Tempestries created for US National Parks at this gallery.

To learn more about Warming Stripes, and create a custom visualization for your area, visit the project’s website.

For more about Jill Pelto and her work, visit her website. You can also purchase prints at her Etsy shop.

The cover of TIME magazine created by Jill Pelto in July 2020:

The cover of TIME Magazine, featuring a painting by Jill Pelto

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The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Jacquelyn Gill
Welcome to Warm Regards, a podcast about life on a warming world. I’m Jacquelyn Gill, and I’m joined by my co-host Ramesh Laungani. We are back here after a short break during the election and, uh, wow, it’s still not over but I feel better. Ramesh, how about you?

Ramesh Laungani
Yeah. You know, Saturday when it was called on the various networks there was a big sigh of relief. No pun intended here, the elephant that had been sitting on my chest for the last four years at least sort of lifted its weight a little bit. So yeah, relief, but I know that there’s a lot of work left to do.

Jacquelyn
Yeah, I would say I feel really similarly. For me it was more of like an existential howl of relief. But overall I think if I had to pick one word, I would say “hopeful”. I feel like I have room to breathe. I have room to do the work. I think that’s really important that it’s not a matter of . . . some people described the situation as, “Some folks just want to go back to brunch”. It’s like, no — you know, brunch is great, sure. I’d love to have some brunch, but what I want to do is be able to go back to the work — the work of fighting climate change. I feel like what we’ve been doing for the last several years is fighting just to have the opportunity to do that work. Now there’s just so much more that we’ll be able to do with an administration that gives us the space to do that kind of work and validates that work, believes that that work is necessary and real, and maybe even facilitates it a little bit.

Ramesh
Yeah. Climate change: they are no longer four letter words under this administration. So that’s a sigh of relief, but you’re right. You know, there’s space to breathe and so that means we gotta take some deep breaths and dive deep back into the work.

Jacquelyn
And so for the rest of the season, we’re really focused on all of the ways in which we’re doing that work — everything from activism to indigenous knowledge. We’ve got some episodes coming up about decision-making, so what we do with all of this information. And we’re even tackling all of the ways in which we can think about and envision our different climate futures, everything from a scientific perspective to fiction to science fiction. So we’re really excited about all the episodes that we have coming your way in the coming weeks. We still want to hear from you. We would love to hear your data stories. How you’re feeling about, you know, after the election how you’re feeling about the state of our knowledge of climate change. What you’re experiencing in your own homes and backyards, in your own work and life. This is very much a dialogue with you, our listeners, and we’d love hearing from you and how you’re doing with all of this as well. So now I’m going to turn it over to Ramesh, who’s going to introduce the first of two of our upcoming episodes about all the ways in which the arts are intersecting with climate data to educate, inspire, and activate people.

[music]

Ramesh
I’m a biology professor, but really I’m more of a science story-teller. In class, I tell my students an unfinished story about how humans and their activities (like the burning of fossil fuels) are drastically changing our planet. This book has a lot of chapters, and we as humans play the protagonist. Like any protagonist, we’re full of messy contradictions. Sometimes we’re the hero and sometimes not so much, sometimes we just kind of suck. There are a lot of other important characters alongside us too in the book. Those characters are the forests, the oceans; where I’m at in Nebraska, the prairies, the butterflies, the clouds, and the rain. When I tell this story, the details of each scene are really the data that scientists are collecting from all over the globe. I use charts and graphs showing how temperatures have gone up along with greenhouse gas concentrations, and how plants and animals are responding to the world getting hotter.

But those charts and graphs only go so far. Sometimes all those graphs can feel really impersonal. So I often turn to creative ways to help my students understand the story of climate change more fully.

One of the most effective visualizations that I use to tell this story is called “warming stripes”. You may have heard of these. They’re a really powerful visualization of rising global temperatures translated into a gradient of colors ranging from blues to reds — each year represented by a particular stripe. And when you stack a bunch of these stripes next to each other, you get a pretty simple but effective timeline of temperature changes. And when I show my students warming stripes in class and we discuss what each stripe represents, I can tell my students are profoundly struck by just how simple the visualization is and how good it is at telling the story of the planet getting hotter. Warming stripes, and other visualizations like it, help me break down communication barriers that sometimes are just deeply embedded in a graph and can be hard to get around. They help me tell, frankly, a much more effective story, and I find myself turning to these creative ways to communicate science more and more.

And really not all of these communication tools have to be particularly serious or profound. Sometimes keeping things light hearted to communicate science can be really effective too. Once I taught my students about some research on the impacts of climate change on monarch butterflies through a series of Star Wars GIFs where Admiral Akbar’s infamous “It’s a trap” scene was featured prominently along with other GIFs of Darth Vader, X-wings, Rey, and Chewbacca. Don’t worry there was no Jar Jar Binks . . . even I have lines that I will not cross to communicate science. This GIF-based talk was so much fun for me to put together that now I have my students do the same thing for an assignment in one of my classes. Recently, a student told the story about how climate change is impacting sharks all through GIFs from Jaws and Finding Nemo. How do I know that these visualizations help get the science to stick? Well, for one, my students have made references to those images and visualizations on exams, literally one of my students wrote “IT’S A TRAP!” on a question about the monarch butterfly study. That’s how I know it’s working.

But in all seriousness, as a scientist I have been impacted by the data about our warming planet, but I’ve also been profoundly struck by the work of artists like Isaac Cordal, depicting political leaders having a meeting as sea levels rise around them or the expansive murals of Zaria Forman that allow the viewer to experience the massive Greenland ice sheets melting into the Arctic ocean.

These artistic depictions of climate change, you know, they just strike us in a different part of our consciousness. They hit our brain differently than a graph. These depictions capture something that can — I don’t know — kinda get lost in the data sometimes, and that thing that gets lost is the humanity, the life behind that data and the immediacy of climate change and its impacts. It’s why I turn to those visualisations and those creative outlets over and over again as an educator, and it’s also why scientists and activists are increasingly partnering with artists to tell powerful stories about our warming planet and everything that is at stake. Whether it’s warming stripes showing how quickly our planet is heating up, a GIF of Baby Yoda, or even sculptures or murals depicting scenes of a possible future, the arts can touch both minds and hearts in really powerful ways.

This episode is the first of a two-part exploration of how the arts can help us gain a deeper understanding of climate data, climate change, and its wide-reaching impacts. First up, Jacquelyn has a conversation with the two co-founders of the Tempestry Project — Emily McNeil and Justin Connolly. The Tempestry Project helps bring together a community of fiber artists knitting and crocheting temperature tapestries. I’ll be back in the second half of the episode for a conversation with Jill Pelto — a visual artist based in Maine whose life experiences in both science and art inform the pieces that she creates.

[Music]

Jacquelyn
When I was in graduate school, I’d come home after a long day in the lab, put on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and just try to shut my mind off. I couldn’t, until I taught myself to crochet. I started working on a blanket. Just a simple double stitch, two rows for each color. I found that keeping busy tricked my brain into thinking I was being productive, so it could focus on other things, like a demon-fighting high school student in Sunnydale, California. My blanket stripes were randomized, with white and blue and salmon, goldenrod and sage alternating in a pleasantly haphazard way. I liked that there was no order to my blanket.

But for our next guests, the patterns don’t come from random stripe generator on the internet and they don’t come out of a book; they represent the reality of Earth’s warming climate. It’s called the Tempestry Project, which is kind of a perfect word for the manifestation of climate change in yarn. It evokes words like ‘temperature,” and “tapestry,” but also “tempest,” like the storms made stronger by an ever-warming ocean. And what better way to represent climate data than with yarn? Knitters were arguably the first coders, using knits and purls instead of ones and zeros to record information in slipknots instead of bits. Unlike my blanket (which marked the TV episodes I used to unwind) Tempestries, as they’re known, are a powerful story of climate change, told by hand. It’s a project that invites us to bear witness, as makers and citizens of a warming planet.

Emily McNeil
My name is Emily McNeil and I’m a knitter. And originally was the shop manager at our local yarn store, which sort of played into how this all got started.

Justin Connolly
I’m Justin Connolly and I’m the resident spreadsheet guru and . . .

Emily
Data processing magician.

Justin
Co-founder, I guess.

Jacquelyn
Well, as a climate advocate and a knitter, I’m really excited to talk with you about the Tempestry Project. So to kick us off, I’d love to hear about how this project came to be. What made you decide to engage with climate data in this particular way?

Emily
You know, it came about around the inauguration time in January of 2017. We were reading all these articles about how people were concerned that the incoming administration would start removing environmental data from government websites. We were sort of joking one night about needing to store all of that data in more permanent formats like neoform tablets or something. So we were joking about that and then decided to actually do that.Yyou know, I know a lot of knitters through my work at the yarn shop and I needed a lot myself and Justin wanted to dig into climate data for our particular area and turn that into a format that we could then knit year by year.

Justin
I had wanted to sort of connect people with the history of climate in their own locales. Climate reporting is often just about what’s happening. You know, you hear a lot about what’s happening in the poles or the glaciers high up in the mountains (the things where there’s not a lot of humans) and you hear about the predictions for what it’s gonna look like in 2100 or, you know, years down the line. I think it’s easier for people to ignore that, for the general population to ignore that. And so I wanted to have a way to connect people with the history of climate in their own backyards, basically.

Emily
And their own life times.

Justin
And their own lifetimes, yeah.

Jacquelyn
Wow, that’s really powerful. So, how did you decide on an annual dataset for this project? Was this related to Ed Hawkins’ Warming Stripes?

Emily
Not at that time. This was before we were familiar with Warming Stripes, but within the knitting and crochet community in general, there’s this trend of knitting temperature blankets. People will start on new year’s day and just track their own personal daily temperature in their backyard or something and knit these pieces. They all choose their own colors and their own systems. We sort of were playing on the back of that, but we wanted to make it a systematic process where people all over the world could use the same color system and the same temperature range so that you could compare them all around the world. So we built on this idea that was already pretty popular and then just turned it into a larger framework that people could participate in.

Jacquelyn
Oh, that’s cool. Had either of you knitted one of those daily temperature blankets before? That’s not a project that I’ve ever taken on.

Emily
No, I had read about them and I think a couple of my customers that yarn shop had knit them from, or there’s another project where people knit the sky every day. You know, it’s gray if it’s cloudy or blue if it’s sunny. So there’s been that sort of data knitting around for quite a while. I had not done it myself, but had been interested in it. Not so much as a personal thing, but more a larger climate thing.

Jacquelyn
What other kinds of data do you use in the Tempestry Project? And what drew you to those particular datasets?

Justin
We went through a lot of iterations early on. Once we first came up with the idea in January, it wasn’t until I think May the first one was finished. Originally we figured zero to a hundred degrees seems reasonable. We live in the Pacific Northwest; it’s very temperate here — we rarely get below 30. Our temperature range is like 30 to 75, and so we thought that would be enough. And then we started looking at temperatures elsewhere and we’re like, no, we knew we needed to expand. So our original run of colors, we ended up having to add a bunch of colors to. I found data available through NOAA. We initially were thinking, well, let’s use the daily averages.

Emily
But then we ended up settling on daily high temperatures instead, because that seemed more like what people experience when they’re out in the world during the day.

Justin
Yeah. That’s like what you plan your day around — the highs or the lows and some places. But generally speaking, kind of the high temperature that you plan around.

Emily
And so we ended up switching our entire system to start at negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit and colder (so that we could be more granular about places like Alaska and Antarctica and things) and then went up to 120 degrees and hotter (so that we could get more detailed about Death Valley in Southern California). We’ve done pieces for Baghdad and Iraq so we needed to move beyond our own temperate experience of weather and realize that the rest of the world isn’t that limited. So that was sort of the big change, just realizing what we needed to do to make it a global project rather than just a northwest Washington state project.

Jacquelyn
That’s like how in Australia, a few years ago the weather maps had to add new colors to represent new temperature extremes that were literally off the charts. So what’s your process like, from an aesthetic perspective? You’re working with yarn and there are a lot of brands and colors to choose from, so how did you go about deciding what the palette would be for the project?

Emily
That was a process in and of itself. We really wanted to find a yarn company that was on the lower end of affordability so everyone could have access to it. And then we needed to find a company also that had a large enough color selection so that we could really pull a long range of colors that play into how we see temperature. And admittedly, all of our colors aren’t perfect for it, but we went with it anyway. It was important to us to have this be accessible to everybody. So we went with an online company that has good, solid, repeatable colors that’s affordable for almost everyone. Our initial idea had been for everyone, we’d put this information online and everyone would just make their own data worksheets and gather their own information and buy their own yarn. And then we kept having people come to us and say, we want to knit these but can you make us a kit so we can just do the knitting and not do all the back work?

Jacquelyn
Okay, so it sounds like this project really started to grow from the bottom up, as people came to you wanting to personalize their own Tempestries?

Emily
Well that’s sort of how the business came out of this art project, which was kind of a backwards way to do things. But yeah, so we settled on that yarn and then we’re actually in the process now of creating our own line of yarn, which we’re pretty excited about. We found a custom dye works in Philadelphia that’s been dying yarn for over a hundred years and we found a mill in Pennsylvania that does only US-sourced wool, rather than importing it from Peru, which is what we’ve been doing up until now. So sort of shrinking our carbon footprint as far as shipping things all over the world, supporting the US job market, you know, union jobs and the wool industry here in the States. So we’re pretty excited to be moving into this next phase of yarn, you know, just our own yarn. So we’re not dependent on another company who might discontinue colors on us or that sort of thing. Because it’s been important for us to have the same colors going forward so that people making Tempestries in the future will still be comparable to the ones they made five, ten years ago.

[music]

Jacquelyn
On your website, you use four words to describe the Tempestry Project: personal, tangible, beautiful and accurate. Why did you feel that it was important to include “accurate” in your description and how do you balance that with the other elements of the project?

Emily
That’s a good question. And we, you know, we want these to be beautiful art, but also to be representational of actual data for the areas that they represent. We’ve been pretty firm in getting all of our information from NOAA as much as possible, just for consistency of information sources. Every once in a while we do have to reach out to Wunderground or you know, other local stations not at NOAA, but we’ve, we’ve worked for the most part, just with NOAA data.

Justin
During the government shut down a couple of years ago in January, the NOAA databases were all offline and on one hand we were like, aha, see, we’ve recorded so much data in these tapestries now that you know, Tempestries, are still available. It’s just a data source. but also it was frustrating for us because we didn’t have access to the data we needed to process kits and things. And so we started looking elsewhere and we were, I was trying to compile data like manually entering it in from like farmer’s almanacs and things. And I would get so many conflicting numbers for the same locations that we like after struggling for a couple of weeks to try to come up with, with a reasonable data set. We just gave up and said, we’re just going to put everything on hold and wait, because there’s so many discrepancies in these numbers that I can’t trust it.

Jacquelyn
Wow. So it’s not like you downloaded these data and then bundled them into a kit, one and done. It sounds like you’re still working with processing data for new kit orders all the time.

Justin
Everything is custom.

Jacquelyn
So if I wanted to do one of these, as someone who lives in Bangor, Maine, how would I go about starting a project? Walk us through the process.

Justin
You would just go on our website and order a kit. And in the, as you order it, you would fill in your location and year that you would like for the original Tempestries we also offer New Normal Tempestry, which are based on norming, the Warming Stripes. So for that, you would just pick a state or whether you want the contiguous US or global data set for those, those are a whole lot easier for me.

Emily
Yeah. The New Normals we at this point just have downloaded all the data and can print it out and make kits around it. but the originals, each one is custom done. So we get the data that the customer wants, you know, the year and the place that they want to knit. yeah, so the New Normals are a bit easier. The originals are more unique for everybody,

Justin
So the kits include the data, data worksheet, where it tells you the date and the temperature of that day. And then there’s an empty column for checking off your progress as unit. and then it includes the yarn and we whined off exactly the yarn needed for . . .

Emily
Your particular kit.

Justin
You get one day of a color. You’re not getting a full skein of yarn for that. It cuts down on waste dramatically. And, you get the pattern, a color card, which with all 38 colors, what else?

Emily
That’s about it, I think, and lots of support if you need support as you’re working on it.

Justin
Yeah, we have a Facebook group where people ask all kinds of questions and there’s lots of answers and it’s a pretty good community we also have add on. So if you need knitting needles, if it’s your first time knitting or our, our needle Wranglers, which is a product I designed several years ago,

Emily
And we offer to include precipitation data as well. If you want to include precipitation beads as part of your Tempestry Oh wow. And we have a system in place for that. so we get quite a few orders for precipitation. not everyone ends up using them cause putting beads on knitting is a little bit tedious sometimes, but it’s really interesting to see that, especially if they’re doing a collection for one place going back over years, you can sort of begin to see fluctuations in precipitation as well as temperature.

Jacquelyn
Okay, as another example, I work at the climate change Institute, and our 40th anniversary is coming up. Could I make a Tempestry that, say, represents how the climate has changed over the life of my Institute?

Emily
So each kit covers one year you could do, you know, an anniversary year versus the year it was founded. So you could do two kids and compare the data for those, if you wanted. or alternatively, we could do a New Normal for the state that the Institute is located in. And that would give you the annual deviation from average temperature going back to 1895 to the present where each row represents a year rather than a day. so for longer spans of time, the New Normals make more sense, but they’re not quite as specific to a town. We just go down to the state level for those.

Justin
And for the record, you could absolutely do 40 years, but that would be a massive project.

Jacquelyn
So 40 different people making 40 different years.

Emily
And we have had people do collections like that. One of our favorite collections is a group in Philadelphia, got together and got 30 something volunteers and knit 30 different years for Philadelphia going back to the late 1890s, I believe. Wow. And that’s a permanent collection at the school center for environmental education right outside of Philadelphia. And it’s just wonderful. So we do love helping support collections like that. Yeah.

Jacquelyn
Can you share some other examples of how folks are personalizing their projects? Do people ever use them for yarn bombing? Which for those who don’t know that’s when you put some crocheted or knitted work out in the world, like around a lamppost or a bench in a public park. .What kinds of cool things are people doing with their Tempestries?

Emily
Well, so there was a woman in Southern California who knit three of them for her town for different years and wrapped them around trees on her name street as part of a yarn bombing. I guess that was last year. So that was one of the coolest things is to have Tempestry it’s wrapped around trees on the main street of this town,

Justin
And protests, on like big banner poles that stand out above the crowd.

Emily
Yeah. So we take them to climate protests and people come up and ask us what they are. And we have wonderful conversations with people about them. We’ve loaned some to student climate organizations and they’ve used them in their demonstrations in their high school and in their town. I know some are exhibited in classrooms. We’ve gotten pictures from teachers. Who’ve made them for their statistics classes and their environmental science classes. we’ve had,

Justin
We’ve sent some to politicians.

Emily
Politicians, other participants have something to their government representatives as well. There’s actually one hanging outside of our congressman’s office, which we’re pretty excited about. So they’ve been in all sorts of different public places. They’ve been in public libraries, not exhibited in public libraries on occasion. And we’d definitely like to see more of that of course, because they are such good public conversations.

Justin
We had a woman sort of took off with our idea and, and has been organizing a national parks Tempestry collection. And so some of the ones that everybody who participates makes a pair for their favorite national park and some of those have ended up on display in the Parks. And so that started sort of as a fiber thing. And then there’s also morphed into a photography thing. so people are taking pictures of their Tempestry in the parks that they represent and there’s online jewelry. And then I think we’re working on publishing a photo book of those at some point.

Emily
That’s one of the coolest ones, for sure.

Jacquelyn
There’s something that’s already very place-based about this project and, and also really tactile. And that feels really powerful to me in terms of creating conversations with people, or even just really conveying in this really visceral way the realities of climate change. What kinds of conversations has the Tempestry Project evoked for you? I’m really curious to hear more about the kinds of folks who are motivated to do these projects and how that might change their own understanding of climate change.

Emily
One of our favorite stories, and this was from our first, Tempestry exhibit here in Anacortes, and this wasn’t a woman who had made one, but she came to the exhibit. She knew a lot of the women who had volunteered and made pieces for this exhibit. And at the time she was a bit of a climate change denier. And it’s easy to feel that way here in parts of the Pacific Northwest, because we don’t have hurricanes. We don’t have really hot summers. You know, it’s just sort of protected from a lot of the change. But she came to this exhibit and we had a wall of, of, of Tempestries going from the 1940s up to the present for our local area specifically. And she’d grown up here and she was walking up and down the wall, looking at these pieces that represented different years in her lifetime. And she kept going back to the older years when she was a kid and finally told us that she was sort of blown away to see all these darker blue colors in the winter of those older ones, because she had forgotten over the years that she used to go ice skating around here and you don’t go ice skating here anymore. The lakes just don’t freeze enough for that. You know, they might skim over a little bit, but not enough for ice skating. And she’d kind of forgotten that, you know, she’s in her seventies now and just hadn’t thought back to her childhood that much. And she just had this very visceral response to seeing her childhood in these colors. And especially as a knitter, she could relate to the process, but then it also brought up all these memories for her. So for me, that’s been one of the most powerful conversations I’ve had with anyone about this project.

Jacquelyn
It’s almost like you’re sort of traveling back through your own memories through time as you knit each of these rows. Who are the kinds of people who sign up for the Tempestry Project? Have you found that your audience is mostly people who care about climate change already or, are you finding that there are more and more stories like the one you just told where you’re really bringing people in who maybe haven’t really thought about climate change before? I feel like there’s such an opportunity here, because the fibers arts community is so diverse.

Emily
I would say we have two kinds of customers and participants. There are the people who know coming in that it’s really a climate activism project at its core. And then we have people who are really into the idea of commemorating just an important year in their life. They want to get a kit to commemorate, you know, the year they got married or the year their grandchild was born. And so for them, I think it’s not really climate related, but then sometimes they end up knitting multiple pieces over the years. And I think it begins to resonate a little more with them. You know, the first one when their child was born, you know, that’s just one piece, but then they knit their grandchild’s piece and all of a sudden that’s a lot warmer than the one from a generation before. So it seems like it, even for the people that are coming in just for the personal reasons and not the climate reasons end up sort of being more aware of climate as well.

Jacquelyn
Have you talked to Ed Hawkins about this transformation of the Warming Stripes into this New Normal kit?

Emily
Really, we didn’t want to start this without his blessing at the outset. And so we did reach out to him before we even, you know, finished putting together the idea for our kits. And got some advice from him. So every New Normal kit that we sell, we donate $5 to various organizations, mostly climate action organizations, both locally and internationally. So that made us feel good about using his wonderful visualization in this project and then taking some of that to give back to the, the work that he’s doing and that we all need to be doing. What we love about them is that they encapsulate obviously a century’s worth of data in one piece, rather than having to knit 30 different pieces for 30 different years to show warming over one location. So those have been quite powerful for knitting. In fact, I made the first one to give to my brother and his family as a Christmas present last year. And the more I got to the recent years I was putting beads on the years for our family members were born. And it was interesting, my grandparents were born in the 1910s and then my parents in the 1940s and then my brother and his wife in the 70s. And then my nephews in the 2000s and the nephews are all in red.

Jacquelyn
It’s like how anyone born after 1985 has never experienced a month with a below-average temperature. It’s one thing to hear that, but it’s something else to touch it with your own hands.

Emily
Well, I have to admit, I ended up not giving it to them because it felt way too depressing. So I have that one hanging on my wall and I ended up making just mini-Tempestries for my nephew’s birth months instead. I couldn’t quite bring myself to give them a gift that indicated that their children were boiling alive.

Jacquelyn
That really makes me wonder more broadly about the role that art plays in getting people to think about climate change, both to inspire reflection, like these personal stories that you’ve shared, but even more than that, to motivate people to act.

Justin
I think art is key in all of this. I think connecting these issues with our emotions is really the only way that we’re going to do anything about any of this. The science is very clear and scientists have been clear about it for decades. I’m heartened, finally seeing more conversations and more art being created around this issue and connecting to people emotionally and really kind of, I was listening to a previous episode of yours. And there was a lot of talk about gut punches. And I think it was specifically from scientists in the field, like experiencing this through their work. But I think those gut punches are what the public needs to feel. And I think traditional science communication has not done that.

Emily
And with art as a catalyst that could help that happen faster maybe.

Justin
Yeah.

Jacquelyn
How can people get involved or build on the work of the Tempestry Project? I imagine there are people who are going to listen to this and be fired up and ready to get stitching, so how can they get started?

Emily
They can reach out to us. Our website is Tempestry project.com. Easy to remember. Our email is just TempestryProject@gmail.com. We’ve got a fundraiser going at the moment to help offset some of this new yarn development. Because it turns out it’s a pretty expensive endeavor. We’ve got a newsletter to sign up for, with the link to other newsletters we’ve done so far with different bits that we’re working on, different little profiles of participants in the project other than ourselves. Because there’s thousands of people who’ve made these and it’s just a wonderful community to get involved in. We have a Facebook group they are more than welcome to join and we are more than happy to, very excited actually to work with people who are interested in developing collections for their own area. Whether it’s a collection of New Normals or a collection of the originals that show daily high temperatures for a year. We had one student group at the University of Pennsylvania get together and as a project, they knit New Normal Tempestries for each of their States and ended up exhibiting them together in one of the school dorms that they lived in. So they’re all different ways to get involved and we would love to help with all of them. The more, the better.

Jacquelyn
Justin, Emily, thank you so much for sharing this project with us. And I know I already have way too many ideas for Tempestries related to my university or my community or my family. I’ll probably be reaching out to you for a kit fairly soon.

Emily
Well, thank you so much. We’d love to work with you and figure out what will work. That would be wonderful.

[music]

Justin Schell
Hey everyone, this is Justin Schell, the producer for Warm Regards. As we explore the often unexpected stories behind climate data this season, we’re also sharing data stories from you, our listeners. This episode, we’re featuring a story from a Twin Cities visual artist, Molly Keenan. She called us after realizing how climate change has affected her own artistic practice.

Molly Keenan
Hi, my name is Molly Keenan and I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I am a high school history and human geography teacher in St. Paul, where I grew up. And I am an artist and my art, it goes under the name RetroFutures Designs, which there are a lot of ironies and all of that. I’m a collage artist and painter, and I work with all original materials, but I was completely motivated to call and leave this message because what I realized when I just saw a Facebook post saying “maybe you’re an artist who is grappling with climate change.” It was kind of like a shock to my system because for years, I would say probably four years at this point, I have been unable to stop making work that is specifically, specifically about the natural world with no human components. And the whole series is called “Dreaming Minnesota.” But then, you know, it’s black bears and woodpeckers and foxes and great blue herons and whatever on and on and on and on. So all of the natural life around me and I can’t stop. And my partner said, no, don’t worry about it. You’re not, you’re not stuck. You’re not in a phase. You know, it’s a period, you’re in a period, but I think a lot when I am making the work about how I feel like I’m, it’s somehow history, you know, it doesn’t, it’s not just like a celebration of what exists. There’s something very nostalgic and very painful for me about it and beautiful. And I can’t stop. So thanks for the opportunity to call you.

Schell
Inspired by Molly’s data story and want to share yours with us? We’d love to hear it. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com.

Jacquelyn
This might come as a surprise, but even though I’m a scientist, I love words a lot more than numbers. I actually had a lot of anxiety about coding until I realized that it’s a language, like Spanish or Mandarin, with its own grammar and syntax and vocabulary. Once I realized this, programming came a lot easier to me. I’ll never be someone who thinks in equations. But I love making scientific figures. I love taking spreadsheets and turning them into wiggles and dots, using colors and symbols to tell a story without any words at all. But my audience is usually still other scientists, and there are rules I have to follow, so I can only be so creative with the ways that I depict how plant species shift their abundance over thousands of years, or how bison or fire or people respond to a warming climate. These figures are not going to end up in any galleries. And when I talk to people who aren’t scientists, I still use memes or photos instead of scatterplots or bar graphs.

But our next guest manages, through some kind of artistic alchemy, to do both. She takes data — alarming, beautiful, frightening, hopeful data — and makes them come alive. Jill Pelto is an artist and a scientist, but really, she blurs the boundaries among these disciplines. She actually draws and paints datasets: her subjects are tree ring records and ice cores and caribou populations — literal graphs — but she also depicts the trees, the glaciers, and the animals themselves, merging subject and object to tell powerful stories about the environment. Her pieces show us that the world is changing, and that we should do something about it, but they also remind us of all that’s at stake. Like the landscapes they depict, her pieces are beautiful. Ramesh and I talked with Jill about her work, which recently made the cover of a Time magazine double issue about how 2020 has been a defining year for planet earth.

Jill Pelto
So I had an upbringing where my dad was a glaciologist. And so I always got to see that world, even if I didn’t understand it very much. And at the same time, just I think from the time I was born and had a huge interest in art. I have a twin sister and we’re both that way. And, you know, both had a natural talent for it and both really wanted to develop that talent. Having that knowledge and that firsthand experience of what climate change could look like from a young age was really helpful for me in kind of just understanding what I needed to be prepared for in the world and what I was interested in. And it was definitely unique. And getting to see landscapes that are, you know, different than those that you grew up in and experience why those landscapes are important to communities. I think it really developed in me a desire to take some sort of action. And I didn’t know if I would be a scientist or not, but the action could come in a lot of different forms. It made climate change a lot more tangible to me.

Ramesh
So when did you start to combine these two parts of your background, the art and the science?

Jill
When I went to the University of Maine for my undergrad, I originally enrolled as an art student. And that was what I knew without a doubt I wanted to pursue, but I didn’t know what it would look like. And then soon after, I think my sophomore year, I had been taking a smattering of natural science courses and decided to do a double major. And so it was over the course of that double major, where I was getting to go back and forth between departments that I started to see those connections even more strongly and developed in my senior year at the University of Maine that idea of using data, like I got to study in my science classes and putting that directly into my art to communicate with the peers in my art classes.

Jacquelyn
Did you have sort of a first moment of like, wait a second, these, these little graphs or wiggles or, charts there’s, there’s like an artistry to them, or was it more that you were compelled to create art about the natural world, but wanting to convey this sense of urgency about global change?

Jill
I had been doing field work in Washington state in 2015 and the drought and the forest fire activity that summer were really bad out there. And so I had been working out there in Washington and I came back to Maine and I really wanted to communicate my experience with my peers who hadn’t lived through that. And I saw the data from the field work I was doing, which was on the mountain glaciers out there. And the way that data just dramatically declines as the glaciers are retreating. And It was data that to me was really emotionally relevant because it was a project that I’d been a part of since I was a teenager and had helped him do fieldwork out on the mountain glaciers. And so that data showing the way the glaciers have lost a certain amount of ice over the last 30 years. For me, there was that emotional impact of what that actually looked like when you were there. I just realized like, okay, I’m used to looking at this graph and it communicates really clearly to me, but for a lot of people that isn’t the case, and this can be just a nice way of telling a simple story of change over time using the visuals.

Ramesh
That’s really amazing that you were able to see the data differently because you had the visual and emotional experience of seeing the phenomenon that the data was describing. Those data were more than just numbers for you it seems?

Jill
It’s a way for me to directly include information and the data that scientists are taking so much time to research and collect. And so there’s all this important data out there, and that’s the truth of what’s going on in our natural world, but it can be difficult to digest it for the average person and understand what that data means. As someone in the sciences, I could kind of recognize that and see both sides. The data has a beauty, it is such a good storyteller. And I loved the idea of using it as a compositional component in my art. So it was really that one experience that kind of pushed me into that idea. That was the piece that I first wanted to get out there. And as soon as I created that, I could see the impact and the understanding from my fellow art students and teachers and the way that they could like better click with what I’d been experiencing in the field.

Jacquelyn
One of the things I really love about your data pieces is that they contain a lot of diverse visual elements, like swimming caribou, or jagged sea ice meeting a turbulent ocean. When it comes to making data come alive, what’s your process? How do you decide on a visual element to design your paintings around?

Jill
Yeah. So my process in creating a painting is usually pretty similar. I would say that the planning stage where you’re having to come up with an idea you’re creating is definitely the most difficult part. It’s not, I think, creating the art itself. I mean, I guess that is creating the art, but it’s like formulating that idea, like coming up with something new. And so for me, that starts with a lot of initial, very loose like sketching and like writing of ideas kind of tied in with some of the research that I’m doing. And so, you know, I have some kind of baseline of a topic that I found, something that, you know, has caught my attention and I’m learning about it and, you know, what is the most important story about it. And then I just draw all these little ideas, kind of just put down anything like good or bad to get it out of my head and, you know, just do dozens of those and just kind of think about the story that they’re telling. Once I have one that I’m feeling more strongly about, or few of them I’ll, I’ll kind of do a little more detailed sketch and get a feel for how they’ll actually look. I will research, you know, a lot of different images. I make these like kind of, almost like collages of photographs, or images on my laptop and, have that as like my inspiration for when I’m like sketching out the piece. But there’s always that link with like, the data is supposed to be a part of the composition and where it is matters. And so, those visuals are supposed to, you know, like enhance it and play on that.

Ramesh
When I first saw the TIME magazine cover I was struck by it as a piece of art and I didn’t initially notice the graphs. Only after looking at the cover a little longer did I see the data embedded in the piece. Can you tell us a little bit about the creative process behind making that piece in particular?

Jill
Yeah, I was contacted by the creative director of TIME, D. W. Pine. He said that, you know, they’re doing this climate issue for July and asked if I was interested and creating a piece for it. You know, it could be inside, it could be potentially on the cover. It might not be used, but would I be interested at least like going for it? And so of course I was. And he said, he told me what the premise of the magazine that it was going to be based on, the necessity to take really drastic climate action now and why that was important this year. And so I knew it had to address kind of big picture, climate stories. So I pitched him several ideas, and the one he ended up choosing was using the major global data sets: sea level rise, average global temperature rise, land ice volume loss, carbon dioxide emissions, and then I also included global renewable energy consumption to introduce the storyline of global action and hope. And so I wanted people to understand, like, to see and all those visuals, like what was going on and how much change has happened. I wanted them to see that data. But at the same time, seeing that one data line about renewable energy, that there are individuals and businesses and countries that are finally becoming more united and in action and realize that we now have to be part of that collective change if we want to leverage those trajectories and change them.

Ramesh
It’s such a powerful conception of many types of data. Maybe this is an overly simplistic question, but how did you start putting this piece together?

Jill
It begins with tons of thumbnail sketches of different compositions and ideas. Like I have a general idea of the data I’m going to use, but I think about how that can come together to tell a story. Once I have that, I research the data, which is always a bit of work to kind of find data sets that all work together that I, you know, am very confident in. If necessary, I reach out to, you know, scientists sometimes depending on the dataset, about its use. And, I just want to really make sure that I’m telling the story the best way I can in that moment. I tested out my pallet ahead of time. So it’s like, okay, these are approximately the colors I’m going to use. And anytime I got to a new section, like, when I did the sea level rise section and I’m thinking about how am I going to paint the water? You know, I’d do a little test on a scrap of paper and like try a few different methods before committing on the page. And so there’s a lot of kind of back and forth, so that I’m happy with the composition and the colors and the patterns. Because it was a cover piece, I tried to make it really pop and be pretty clear and pretty graphic, even a little more than I usually do, really make the data points pop. The turnaround for this piece was two weeks, which is a pace I could never normally do, so it was a really great challenge. And, I was just really proud that he thought it was, you know, strong enough that when, when I sent it to him, he was like, “I’m going to really push for this to be on the cover.”

[music]

Ramesh
Can you talk about the kinds of reactions that you get to those data pieces? Do you notice any patterns say among how scientists or nonscientists might react to your work?

Jill
Yeah, I’ve gotten quite mixed reactions. And, I would say that, without any sort of like, premise of knowing my art, that a lot of people definitely don’t realize that it’s data right away or on their own. And sometimes, sometimes they do, if they spend a few minutes and look at it, but it doesn’t always come across initially. And I think that’s okay, because they are still a story, but I do prefer to include, if I show my work anywhere like a caption, because I do want them to have the option at least of learning that there is data there and what the data is. And then they can look at the visual again and like, think about like how that’s connecting with the story. And then sometimes from scientists, I’ve had different comments on like how I depict the graph. And if I should, you know, kind of have axes with captions and make it even more graph-like, or have grid lines. I feel mixed about that. I think it can kind of take away from the visual. I definitely get the point, and I will include, you know, what the data is in my caption. And then anytime like I have it online, I will include a link to the data and try to be very open about like this is exactly what the data is, you know, it’s accessible and real, and here it is. So, but yeah, people have a really varied reaction in what they see and pick up in the communication of the piece.

Jacquelyn
Is there still field science in your future, or do you see yourself as more using your scientific background to inform your outreach?

Jill
I do want to, you know, move towards science communication through art full time when I’m able. And for me that looks like certainly a lot of collaborations with, you know, whether that’s science teams or, with, you know, folks who do environmental outreach and activism and with, you know, school systems. That’s the kind of path I see for myself. One of my big interests that has been manifesting as a result is, working directly with science teams. And so in the past, you know, was able to do some of my own research projects as a student. And now that I’m diverging into science communication through art, I’m no longer, you know, doing my own fieldwork and research. And so it’s a really cool opportunity for me because I can work directly with research groups and fields outside my own too. And, but my role is as like the artist and communicator. And so I can perhaps be on the science grant, but, you know, be in the, you know, outreach funded portion of the grant and, you know, make, make a group of work for them that communicates that. And so I’m actually doing that with one, paleoecology group in Scandinavia, and that’s been a really fun experience. And just to know that they want me, you know, on board because they think I will add value to their study.

Ramesh
Have any scientists sent you their own attempts at visualizing their own data as a piece of art? Has your work inspired scientists to send you any bad art?

Jacquelyn
Or good art!

Jill
Not really. I, well, I guess I have communicated with a few other like crossover peopleI, who I didn’t know. So that’s been really cool, like people who, you know, who are also pursuing art and then some, some like form of science, some of those people have reached out to me like, Hey, like, this is what I’m doing, you know, and this kind of related field. And I think most of them have, have been young adults. So it’s been cool to just see, okay. So like there’s more of us that are realizing we can combine these. But no, I don’t think that, I don’t think from your question that that’s happened.

Jacquelyn
Okay. Yeah. Now I want to send you like datasets. You incorporated a lot of different data sets into that TIME cover art, some of which are pretty recent. How do you keep up with the science? What’s your process like? Do you have like a folder on your computer where you just dump all these articles about things like wildfires or sea ice cover? That feels really heavy — to not only keep up with this barrage of information, but to then channel that into something that will evoke an emotional response in people and drive them to action.

Jill
Yeah, I like that. And I think it’s made me think too about the type of stories that I am communicating, because I want to stay true to the reality of the data and the reality of things that, you know, are scary or are, are changing really rapidly and will drastically affect all our lives. And, but when one other thought going forward is I’ve been thinking four kind of like current and future work is to create more paintings that share data about also about positive environmental changes that we are making or have made, to like bring a few more messages of hope. So even if I did create a painting about sea level rise, it could also communicate like, okay, but there are these collective actions that people are taking around the world of all different types to address it. You know, there’s always so many that we know, and for everyone that we know, you know, there’s hundreds that we don’t of positive change. And so I also want to make sure I’m communicating some of those stories. And, I think perhaps also bring humans into my work a little bit. Cause then I’m, I don’t tend to do that. And it’s a little bit separate and I think it’s clear that we’re to blame in my work, but I’m not directly pointing the finger. And so kind of making us a little bit more a part of the story and maybe literally showing people in some of my work. So, for that I envisioned perhaps like a new large series of data paintings, say like 10 paintings. And, you know, they’re all telling the story about, global climate data, but they’re also telling stories about people behind that and, you know, people that are doing things to help.

Ramesh
So do you think, as you’ve talked about wanting to incorporate more people into your pieces, do you think that your process will change? Is there something about representing humans versus representing caribou or tree rings or ice that changes things from like an ethical perspective or even just a messaging perspective for you? Do you think your process will change?

Jil
Yeah, and I, it sounds really difficult to me to incorporate humans, but I think it could be a really, really powerful story in my art. So it’s, I’m definitely heavily considering it. And I, I just want to make sure I’m doing it, I’m doing it well. And I’m telling the story right. For people to that, and then not putting a finger. And I want to make sure that, you know, in that and the people that I’m including, I’m including different, um, perspectives and I’m making sure to include diverse, um, people from different backgrounds. Like I would love to, you know, have people with all different skin colors in my painting and make, I think that has, I don’t, I don’t see how that could not be a part of the story if, if I’m making it about humans and climate change. And so, um, I think that for any sort of endeavor like that, I would need to have not collaborators, but kind of people I can, um, like discuss the project with, and, and people from perspectives outside of my own, who I can, um, learn from and think about how to communicate. So I think that that project will be difficult for that reason, but, you know, also important to bring in more of that disconnect between like who’s, you know, affected more by climate change based on who they are and where they live and all that.

Ramesh
What do you think the role is for art in the climate change conversation and in communication and advocacy?

Jill
Yeah, I think that art is a really powerful platform. Art can really encourage an audience to connect with science in a way that, you know, is more emotionally relevant to them and digestible and approachable. And for a lot of people science is that, but then for a lot of people it’s not. So I think it’s really that emotional component that is unique about art and always has been, I think art has always been a force for communicating powerful topics, you know, difficult topics or wonderful topics, whatever it is it’s, it’s, I think always had a connection with just communicating what’s most important for people at a certain period of time. One of the primary goals and in my art in particular, it is that is to reach new audiences. And so that can take so many different forms. And that my research and communication couldn’t necessarily take in the science world alone. There’s a lot more environmental artists now. It’s definitely a growing field and of course that can take the form of writing, but the form that I, you know, in the form that I’m a part of is the visual arts. And so I’ve definitely seen that kind of niche field become more major and important. And, you have artists like Zaria Forman kind of spearheading it, who’s a major artist in New York who does these huge pastel landscapes of Antarctica and Greenland, and is renowned for that now. And so it’s really inspiring to see that this is something that people are now paying attention to, and is obviously communicating successfully with a lot of people, as they realize and recognize climate change, where they live, like no matter where they live, finally. And so I think for them then there’s that emotional component where they may be struggling with what the changing world is like. And I think art can just be a piece of addressing that for them.

Jacquelyn
I really like that, because oftentimes there can be this sense that you know, climate change is this abstract but very existential threat, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are things we can do collectively to make positive change. It sounds like your work isn’t just raising awareness, but inspiring action. So, what’s giving you hope these days? What helps you stay sustainable?

Jill
Hmm. Oh, there’s so many little stories or, or big stories, but I think for me personally, and in my like daily life, when I engage with like, go into classrooms and engage with, you know, whether it’s elementary or like up through high schoolers, when I engage with them about climate change, like there’s a whole mix of reactions in terms of like, you know, just wanting to learn or not understanding or, you know, being afraid. But it gives me a lot of hope to see the understanding and the caring kind of just like across the board. It feels like, and, and I know a lot of what I’ve been seeing because it’s what I can do in person is largely in Maine. And so there’s that little, I guess, like quadrant that I’m, you know, witnessing students who do know about climate change in our state at least. But that’s what has given me the most hope because I come away from those meetings or those presentations just feeling like, okay, finally, like everyone is on board and this in these generations, you know, and, and generations before mine have been like, you know, building, building those building blocks and taking so much action, but there were so many amongst them who were not. And so that was debilitating. And so that’s what that’s, what’s given me hope is to like, younger folks and that inspiration.

Jacquelyn
That was a really inspiring message and I, I know that your work really speaks to me, as a scientist who creates the kinds of data you represent in your paintings. And, it’s just, it’s amazing to me to see that data come alive in a way that’s so accessible, and communicates the urgency of climate change while still being something I’d love to hang on my wall. I’ve just really enjoyed hearing about your process and the ways in which you’re using art to change the world. This has been really fun. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Ramesh
Yeah, thank you.

Jill
Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it.

[music]

Ramesh
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Joe Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find a transcript of this episode, listen to previous episodes, and find links to subscribe via the podcast platform of your choice on our website, WarmRegardsPodcast.com. Also, something that really helps more people learn about our show is if you could leave a quick review or rating, especially on Apple Podcasts.

You can reach us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com our find us on Twitter at @ourwarmregards.

This season of Warm Regards is made possible by our patrons on Patreon. Their donations help pay our great team members Justin, Joe, and Katherine for all their hard work. If you’re interested in supporting the show, you can go to patreon.com/warmregards. There’s also a link to the page in our show notes and website. From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651