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BACK 40: ‘The Last Glacier’

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An artistic collaboration

By Nancy Mahoney Explore Big Sky Contributor

“The Last Glacier” project is a collaboration of three artists seeking to capture the fading majesty of the remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park. At the time of its founding in 1910, the park contained 150 glaciers; today only 25 remain, and the U.S. Geological Society predicts that these will be gone by 2045.

Before the park’s name becomes a tragic irony, Todd Anderson, Bruce Crownover and Ian van Coller decided to spend three summers hiking into 15 of the park’s glaciers to create artworks that challenge conventional representations of glaciers as sublime and stoic landscapes. The three artists have produced reductive woodblock prints and large-format photographs that convey complex stratigraphy within the ice masses, as well as a sense of perpetual motion.

Though the works are aesthetically beautiful, “The Last Glacier” series invokes a contemplation of wonder and loss in the face of seemingly powerful and pristine landscapes, ones that have revealed themselves as inherently fragile and more subject to human impact than we had imagined.

Ian van Coller, the photographer in this collaboration, has contemplated why glaciers are so notoriously difficult to photograph.Ian van Coller_Jackson Glacier “They possess immense size and depth, yet have a deceivingly subtle and monochromatic surface architecture,” wrote van Coller in his research, adding that this makes them an artistically formidable technical and intellectual challenge.

With the help of his collaborators, van Coller carries 50 pounds of gear 20-plus miles into the backcountry to get close to the retreating masses of ice, ultimately creating panoramic photographic prints that capture more detail than the human eye can absorb. Unlike landscape portraits by Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, which are meant purely as poetic contemplations of nature and the sublime, van Coller’s work physically connects the viewer with the terrain. His work is minimalist, often eliminating the horizon and sky so that we have to engage with the piece to decipher the depth and scale of the landscape.

Printmakers Todd Anderson and Bruce Crownover use woodblock techniques to make original lithographs inspired by the glaciers in the park. They created layered landscapes that go beyond realistic presentations. Their prints portray a larger truth about the glacial texture, mass, and subtle colorations, as well as their antiquity, than can be captured in scientific prose.

Anderson and Crownover reconstruct what they witness first hand from memory and imagination.Todd Anderson_Blackfoot_Glacier Their original imagery for the project is loosely sketched and colored in the field, and then painstakingly transferred and carved out of woodblocks.

“Woodblock prints are like jigsaw puzzles,” says Anderson, whose prints typically require two days of carving, then up to two weeks of inking and printing the various layers of colors in multiple runs.

The glaciers themselves are evoked in the reductive nature of the medium, as well as the slow and repetitive woodcut process itself, which –like retreating glaciers – are carved and recarved, resulting in a block that cannot be printed again. The final prints portray subtle shifts in line and color that convey texture and accentuate light, allowing us to contemplate details we might otherwise miss.

This collection of work will come together in a large-scale, limited edition artist book. With the help of master book binder Rory Sparks, the three artists will make 15 editions that are 24 inches by 37 inches when open,Book_photo the monumental scale of the book referencing the monumental scale of Glacier National Park’s landscape.

The work in “The Last Glacier” project challenges our perceptions that glaciers are remote and irrelevant, or merely obscure curiosities as the last remnants of a distant ice age. But rather than creating art that serves as scientific documentation or political bludgeon, Anderson, Crownover and van Coller effectively translate our understandings of the impacts of global climate change into a comprehensible, human scale.

Many of us in Montana have made the magnificent hike to Grinnell Glacier and felt awed by its beauty, but most of us will not make the trek to the more distant glaciers. With this work, we can contemplate their waning grandeur, and why it is that we should care about them.

Nancy M. Mahoney is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Montana State University and a doctoral student in American studies. She is a contributing writer and researcher for the “Last Glacier Project,” as well as other collaborative projects involving climate change and geographical remoteness.

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