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Anna McKee's "Easton–Stratal." Image courtesy of Anna McKee.

Anna McKee's "Easton–Stratal." Image courtesy of Anna McKee.


Anna McKee Makes Art About Ice

Marcie Sillman

Anna McKee makes art about ice. Her paintings and prints are part of a new art exhibition about climate change and polar environments at the Convention Center in Seattle. KUOW's Marcie Sillman has more.


Anna McKee leads the way into a freezer on the University of Washington campus. She unwraps a cylinder swathed in frozen plastic sheeting.

McKee: "Here's a piece of ice core."

This ice was taken from about 30 feet deep in a British Columbia glacier. The core sample is a foot long and four inches in diameter. Scientists will test it to find out what gases were trapped in the ice centuries ago. Those gases provide clues about the climate when the ice was formed. For artist Anna McKee, the ice holds other mysteries.

McKee: "One of the things that I really loved about this is the fern pattern, when you light it from behind, is really beautiful."

McKee has always been interested in the frozen landscape.

McKee: "I always had this nerdy fascination of Antarctica. One of my first books that I read was 'The Endurance,' I've always been fascinated by that big, white space, in a way I can't explain in that child pre–memory, pre–verbal way."

Anna McKee didn't plan an art career about ice. She started out drawing more traditional landscapes. Then, in 2007, McKee took a trip to Alaska. Looking out at the layers of snow and ice, she thought they were the perfect metaphor for memory.

McKee: "There's something about the frozen, the quality of the freezing and capturing things like atmosphere, capturing somebody's breath, I had all these fanstasies, does it catch the voices and hold those?"

McKee's visit to the Alaskan wilderness revived her childhood fascination with Antarctica. She wanted to see it for herself. But you can't just pop down to the South Pole. The National Science Foundation has a grant for writers and artists to travel there. Before she submitted her application, Anna McKee decided to find out more about the scientific research going on in Antarctica. She called University of Washington Professor Eric Steig. Steig studies the relationship between glaciers and ancient climates. He's done a lot of field work on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Although ice fascinates him, Steig didn't understand why an artist would be interested in it.

Steig: "I like to joke, I didn't say this to her, but in my head I said, 'ok, lady, if you want to come in and paint white stuff in our lab, be my guest.'"

Despite his skepticism, Steig welcomed the artist, and answered her questions. More than a year later, in late 2009, Anna McKee finally stepped off a plane in Antarctica.

McKee: "When you first get off, it's a bit daunting. Like, oh, it's white, there's these tents and trucks and, barrels of fuel sitting around. It all sort of feels a little bleak."

After two weeks on the ice sheet, McKee's perception of the vast whiteness started to shift.

McKee: "If you were to have taken a piece of paper, when I did take a piece of paper out, if you held the paper out to this white landscape, you realized, no, this isn't white, it's these various shades of blue, purple, green blue. Endless."

McKee brought her sketches and memories back to her studio, and set about trying to reproduce the colors, and the emotions they inspired in her. She's painted large canvasses that depict sweeping vistas she saw. McKee's prints are like looking at a cross section of ice through a microscope: wavy layers of color, rendered in many shades of blue and green.

Back at the University of Washington, Professor Eric Steig's team has spent months analyzing the ice samples, some taken from the same Antarctic glacier that inspired McKee. The utilitarian beige and gray of their lab is relieved by a framed print on the wall.

McKee lab: "It's one of mine. It's good that it's here because it's one of the images that was when I began to cross into ice."

Like many of McKee's prints, this one is a mix of colors she saw in Antarctica: vivid peacock, light–green and a clear marine–blue. Eric Steig admits McKee's interpretation has given him a fresh perspective on what he does.

Steig: "There's no question that having her imagery around has made me look at stuff again. If you think about how scientists might communicate, they're looking at a bunch of data, and yes, there are formal ways to analyze stuff. But the process always involves kind of looking at things, looking at a graph and saying, 'I wonder what that's about?'"

Just as Professor Eric Steig has opened up to the art inherent in his subject, McKee has deepened her appreciation of the relationship between Steig's science and her art.

McKee: "I'm really interested in looking at the world and figuring out 'what is this?' Scientists in a very different way, with very different tools, are asking the same question. What is around us? How do we understand it?"

For Anna McKee, each ice–inspired artwork she makes helps her understand her relationship to the past, and to current environmental changes. She's working on a sculpture now, made of vials of melted snow from the Antarctic glacier she visited.

McKee: "I continue to be really, really drawn to this blank space. It's not blank, but there is a blankness. It continues to hold my interest. And I feel like I've barely begun to get at it in the art."

Anna McKee says, for now, she'll plug away in her studio. And dream about the possibility of another visit to the frozen continent that has captured her imagination.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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