Finnegan Harries Interviews Climate Action Illustrator Rachael Amber
In November last year we launched a challenge calling on artists from around the world to represent the facts of climate change through a creative medium. I was blown away by the quality and the diversity of submissions — which made choosing a winner particularly challenging. After great deliberation I selected “Suffocation” by Rachael Amber.
This illustration stuck out to me because it offers a powerful perspective on the impact that deforestation is having on our environment and our health. I connected with Rachael to talk further about her process and ask her a couple of questions about her work.
Finnegan: Your artwork finds the delicate balance between beauty and tragedy. How do you use your work to interpret data in a way that will make people listen?
Rachael Amber: Thank you! My goal always is to portray unpleasant issues in a gentle way that focuses on the beauty and the threat causing the risk of its loss.
I believe people are more likely to react more positively to a loss of beauty when they realize what’s causing it, than when they only see the sad truth. I try to focus on both sides of the subject because I don’t want my artwork to only be negative.
Although I am dealing with tragic issues that tend to be negative, my goal is to raise awareness and not just discouragement; I tend to focus on the natural world and all its benefits that are at stake, but also on the destructive forces. By creating that balance in my artwork, my hopes are that people are more likely to look at it and ponder before they walk away with what I hope would be a sense of what is happening and possibly a desire to stop it.
If my artwork were purely negative, perhaps more people would shy away from it — as many of us tend to be avoidant of uncomfortable situations, or leave with a feeling of discouragement. I want people to be drawn in by the beauty, be shocked by the reality behind the initial pull, and then leave not just with sadness for the truth, but instead a mixture of hope and call to action.
FH: It’s clear that your artwork stems from a passion for preserving our earth’s plant and wildlife. What made you decide to create about this issue?
RA: I have always loved nature and felt a strong connection to it since I was young and played in the woods often. Flowers, plants, trees, and animals were always positive things in my life. But I think my true appreciation grew when I moved away from my rural/suburban hometown and into the city.
Once I was there I truly felt a longing for nature, and my bond and effort to make it more prominent in my life strengthened. Now in an urban environment, I have become more aware of and surrounded by many environmental issues and threats to nature and wildlife. The separation made me want to bring more of this into the city.
Throughout art school, my work evolved and subjects tended to revolve around the things I loved, like plants and different terrains. I was also beginning to learn more about plants and educate myself on how we can help the planet — all of my research ties into my artwork. At times I was defined by a style, but I wanted my work to carry more of a purpose than just aesthetics. I love fun, purely visual artwork as well and have much appreciation for it, but personally I am only truly driven to create when it is speaking for something bigger than just myself.
The environmental crisis keeps worsening and therefore I get antsy and need to do something — my artwork is my outlet and my hope that my small single voice will multiply through it. When I create, I feel less hopeless about these issues, and I think that feeling can spread and bring people together.
FH: There are so many branches of climate action: how do you decide what facts and/or topics to focus on?
RA: Ah, focus is something I’m working on because I want to cover it all. Right now I feel that my work is focused — in the sense that it is all surrounding environmental or political issues, or just brings more nature and positivity into the world visually — but I definitely have a hard time sticking to one subject. I tend to bounce around, depending on what I feel is popping up in the headlines and needs the most attention.
I always start by reading, writing, and researching — words help me get to images. Then I sketch visuals and combine and conceptualize as I work on each piece. One of the biggest issues I tend to keep coming back to is that of the honey bees and Colony Collapse Disorder — I think it is one of the most pressing issues for the sake of our agriculture and all life on this planet that is part of the circle and web of life. I can’t stop drawing honeycombs!
When I feel so overwhelmed by an issue that I feel it needs more than just a single 2D piece, I will create an art booklet or zine — I did that for the honeybees, as well. At the end of the day, all these environmental climate issues are linked. When I can’t decide I just try to combine or at least realize that a focus on any of these issues will help them all in the long run.
FH: One of your pieces, “Suffocation,” shows the forest from an aerial view, explaining that we don’t have the same perspective of destruction on foot. How do you use illustration to show new perspectives while still being relatable?
RA: I aim to help mend our lack of connection and empathy towards these problems by visually juxtaposing aspects of human life with the natural life it affects. As humans, we tend to forget we are part of a web of life that is all connected. Because of this, I always try to include realistic and relatable aspects of humanity within my illustrations that visualize these less-obvious aspects of environmental destruction, which we tend to overlook from our narrow viewpoints.
In “Suffocation,” for example, the human homes and cleared lots are something that is familiar to us all — it’s our habitat and creation. But the destructive impact forest-clearing has on the bigger scheme of life is rarely visible for us. Even on an airplane, where we see it from above, we are not necessarily making the connection in our heads that a man-made lot means space for us, but lower oxygen levels and increased greenhouse gases.
That’s where I bring in the element into my artwork that strays from reality, in order to make that link more tangible and visible for people. In this piece it’s making the clearing into the shape of lungs — something we equate to life and breathing. When we realize that this poses a threat to our own human health as well as all other life on Earth, then we act. I try to make all my pieces relate back to us, even when it is more so about the environment, because we are a species that needs direct connection in order to empathize.
FH: While many artists are creating about climate change, we could always use more voices. How can we, as artists, inspire our communities to take action?
RA: As artists I believe our job is to spark awareness and empathy in our communities. We are a very sense-oriented species, and so creating visual or performance artwork to educate and grab the attention of others is an important step in healing and taking action on climate change. If people are not reminded of issues, no one takes action. It is our job to reinvigorate people with these issues and what they can do about them, and from there it is in their hands to take action. Yet never alone, because the more people influenced by artwork, the bigger the unified group, and the louder the collective voice.
FH: When we’re familiar with a topic, it’s often hard to see it/create towards it from a new perspective. How do you deal with creativity blocks and stay innovative with your artwork?
RA: When I am blocked I find it best not to force my art — I step away for a day or two and give myself space to breathe and recollect myself and ideas. Usually my blockages are caused by being overwhelmed. This is usually when I go to a park or find a trail to take a hike on — it’s important to get out of your head or computer and into the world when you’re stuck. Nature always helps. Once I feel rejuvenated and ready to draw and ideate again, I always try coming at the issue I am trying to address and illustrate from multiple perspectives.
Since I am trying to communicate to as wide an audience as possible — who may have little or no knowledge at all about what I’m trying to raise awareness for — I try to read from different sources and communicate in a way that is layered and readable. It’s an experimental process of using common symbols and imagery to illustrate a larger concept.
FH: What advice would you give designers who are just starting out and looking to produce meaningful work?
RA: Please create! There are so many ways to create artwork — whether it’s bumper stickers and buttons, or informational booklets with little drawings or full pieces. Words and performance are just as powerful. Combining words and imagery can be even more powerful, but perhaps you can figure out how to say it all with images only.
Meaningful work can start simple — just drawing an endangered species of bird to bring awareness to it is progress. But consider layering also — could adding a tree stump and fallen nest to the illustration add a layer of understanding that the endangerment is human-caused?
Find a process that works for you. For me it’s writing words, then sketching, then going to a final drawing or painting. Experiment with mediums and what you enjoy the most, but also works best to express what you want. Literal and factual work is just as good as more abstract and emotion-based work. You don’t have to know your exact style or categorize yourself to be a creator — just make work and don’t overthink it.
Don’t compare yourself to other artists — instead, gain inspiration from them to be your own unique self. Keep drawing. Practice drawing as often as you can and act on your impulses to create. Every voice counts and every work of art is a step closer to progress.