Capturing the vast beauty of the Arctic with just pastel on paper

Story highlights

Zaria Forman creates photo-realistic drawings of polar landscapes using pastels

She was inspired by her mother, Rena Bass Forman, who photographed remote regions

She hopes her work can raise awareness about climate change

CNN  — 

Brooklyn-based artist Zaria Forman’s pastels of polar landscapes, massive icebergs, and crashing waves are impressive enough at first glance. The result of three to eight weeks of drawing – not to mention thousands of photographs and rough sketches – they immediately suggest a process that’s both time-consuming and complex.

But the story behind them adds an unexpected poignancy. Forman’s practice is inspired by her mother, the late fine art photographer Rena Bass Forman, who had a life-long passion for the Arctic.

Over the years, Bass Forman’s sepia-tone photography took her to deserts, monsoons, and the Arctic – sometimes with her family in tow. Forman remembers being taken out in sub-zero temperatures while her mother worked, staying until “the family’s toes had gone numb.”

“We would whine and complain, urging her to call it a day so we could return indoors and have a warm meal, and she wouldn’t budge until she knew she had captured what she wanted,” she says.

A mission of love

"Greenland no.74" by Zaria Forman

One of her personal goals had been to travel through the northwest coast of Greenland, following the route taken by American painter William Bradford in 1869, the world’s first Arctic art expedition. However, she died of brain cancer in 2011 before making the journey herself.

To honor her mother’s legacy, Forman decided to complete the journey herself in 2012.

Since then, Forman has continued to capture frozen landscapes around the world. In 2015, she traveled south to complete a four-week residency in Antarctica aboard a ship with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions, her first trip to the continent.

“In all my travels I have never experienced a landscape as epic and pristine,” she says, describing massive “iceberg graveyards” – points where icebergs have become lodged in shallow bays – purple-gray skies, and silences that felt almost reverent.

Lessons on the environment

Forman has taken on another mission: raising awareness about climate change.

“Artists play a critical role in communicating climate change, which is arguably the most important challenge we face as a global community,” she says. “I have dedicated my career to translating and illuminating scientists’ warnings and statistics with an accessible medium, one that moves us in a way that statistics may not.”

Rather than highlighting the devastation of threatened places, she aims to highlight the beauty that the world is losing.

“Among the many gifts my mother gave me was the ability to focus on the positive, rather than dwell on the negative. If people can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps they will be inspired to protect and preserve them.”