Emma Stibbon, Tabular Berg, 2014jpeg
Emma Stibbon, Tabular Berg, 2014

BN1 Chat’s with Emma Stibbon on her new exhibition Melting Ice | Rising Tides at Towner

Melting Ice | Rising Tides

Apparently, you need to be quick… Artist Emma Stibbon is telling me about her practice and upcoming show at Towner Eastbourne, Melting Ice | Rising Tides. Composed around the impact disintegrating polar glaciers have upon our own shores, it’s the culmination of years of field work in adverse conditions. But you can’t really draw with gloves on.

She tells me about one series of pictures created on the deck of a ship heading to the Svalbard archipelago, right up in the Arctic Ocean. “There were massive seas, and it was bitterly cold,” Stibbon says. “I was feeling a bit seasick, so thought I’d just draw. It was freezing, but better than feeling ill down below. Over the course of the voyage, which was about 3 ½ days, I made roughly 30 drawings. When I got back to my studio, and reviewed them, the earlier ones were straight-forward, but as we headed north, they’d started to show ice in the medium.” Rather than being an obstacle, this is what she likes about working in these environments. “There are things which you simply can’t control with drawing. They kind of take over the process.” 

Part of Melting Ice | Rising Tides offers an immersive experience for the audience, issuing a stark reminder that the seemingly remote issue of polar ice sheet melt has a very real impact on our lives. “I’ve also enjoyed using some of the materials from the Sussex coastline. I’ve ground up chalk and used that as pigment. There are elemental things which you experience while you’re out, and I’ve enjoyed bringing those into the work.”

Emma Stibbon, Dark Horizon, 2023
Emma Stibbon, Dark Horizon, 2023

This is a first large-scale show in a major UK institution for the Bristol-based artist. Its scope means we’re given an impressive overview of Stibbon’s entire practice, from the smallest drawings done out in the field to printmaking and installations. The majority is occupied with recording landscapes undergoing transition and change. “This is a culmination of the research I’ve been doing over the last years. I’ve particularly looked at glacier and polar ice retreat. For a long time, I’d been thinking about how you can connect these seemingly remote events with what’s happening on our doorstep.” Towner is a perfect venue for the show, not least because of the Eastbourne institution’s mission to reflect the environment it sits within – located within metres of a shore which will likely look very different in only 100 years. It’s relatively simple to make an emotional link amongst an audience between what is happening on the other side of the globe and the issues faced by the South East’s coastline. 

“Quite a lot of Sussex is low-lying, despite the many areas of elevation, so flooding is a risk. Fortunately, there is an Environment Agency plan for the area between Pevensey Bay and Eastbourne. It’s one of the largest coastal defence projects in England, which is working to reduce the risk of flooding to properties in that area.” Obviously, Britain is an island, so it isn’t just a single region undergoing accelerated cliff erosion and collapse. “These conversations need to happen. I think avoidance and ill-judged building…,” she tails off. “Perhaps that’s too political. Maybe we shouldn’t go down that road. I’m just an artist.”

“We need to make a connection between the ground you’re standing on and these global events, and think about our own actions. There is a responsibility to change our own behaviour. I’m not claiming my show will do that, but we are all part of big events.”

She’s always been fascinated with landscape, starting with a wider interest in those which are unstable or undergoing transition. This took her to a lot of volcanic and seismic terrain in places like Iceland and Hawaii. “Anywhere with a volcano basically. Of course there’s a whole tradition of artists representing that. I think we’re always being drawn to the dynamic and moving. Obviously the drama of it is quite spectacular. I had an amazing residency on Big Island, which has one of the world’s most volatile volcanoes.” There was also a big draw towards the built landscape, especially in cities witnessing huge change. Berlin, for example, has seen the turbulent events of the 20th century make a huge imprint on its topography. Likewise, Rome has visible marks left by various periods, from the imperial and ancient times through to the fascist years. “I’ve a preoccupation about how, as humans, we have an assumption that our time is somehow stable and going to continue, while ignoring that evidence shows otherwise. Right now, we’re in a very shifting landscape.”

Emma Stibbon, Antarctica sketchbook drawing, 2022_Ijpeg
Antarctica sketchbook drawing, 2022

Stibbon’s practice seems to draw from a proud tradition. The golden age of scouring the globe for scientific and geographical marvels took place before the advent of portable photographic equipment, so the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to exploration artists. People like Edward Wilson and William Hodges captured the sights of new territories and unwittingly consolidated a whole new art genre. “I’ve been fortunate to see some exceptional landscapes in the Artic and Antarctic. After witnessing these changes and seeing things happening over my own lifetime, as an artist I feel a responsibility to record that and present it to audiences.” 

Particularly on the polar journeys she’s made, she looked at the painters who travelled on similar expeditions throughout history, which also included military cartographers and people with topographical training. “I was fortunate enough to be an artist in residence with the Royal Navy down in Antarctica. It was bizarre to sit up on the bridge with all their devices. They’ve got infra-red, ultrasonic and all these recording machines whirring around you and I’m just sitting there with my watercolours, trying to do it with my eye and my hand. There’s something human about that though. Drawing has an incredible ability to connect people. We all draw. Even if we don’t do it as adults, we used to as children.”

Emma Stibbon conducting fieldwork in Svalbard, 2022.Photo by Tristan Duke
Emma Stibbon conducting fieldwork in Svalbard, 2022

Most people will never be able to experience those landscapes in person, so Stibbon tries to capture the beauty and wonder of our planet, and the extraordinary things which we stand to lose. These things are changing. I hope there’ll be a beauty to the show, and people will be absorbed in the way drawing presents these landscapes, but also to provoke some thought and an underpinning of the critical situation we’re in.”

While the Arctic regions melt has contributed greatly to rising sea levels, if Antarctica begins to shed mass into the oceans it’ll be a massive turning point for our futures. “Some sections are definitely melting, with glaciers retreating. With the main continent, if the ice locked up in that was to go, we’d be seeing metres of sea-level rise. That would be absolutely catastrophic. Which is what we’re risking.” So, have we gone too far? Are we just looking back at a tipping point for climate change? “I think if we could limit global warming, that will influence the way things are going. Science has shown that the severity is down to our carbon emissions. It’s something which needs to change.”

Emma Stibbon, Ice Floe, 2023 watercolour 152.5 x 226cmjpeg
Emma Stibbon, Ice Floe, 2023 watercolour

When out in the field, Stibbon works figuratively – drawing from observations and constructing a reaction to what she’s witnessing. “Antarctica is a mesmerising other-worldly place. Responding to that as an artist is a privilege. Increasingly, with locations I’ve revisited, like the European Alps, there’s glaciers that I can see retreating quite dramatically in only a decade.” Seeing something like this so close to our own shores is what compelled her to focus on the melting ice and rising sea levels. “It’s the most critical issue of our time. If I can present that in my work, in a way which gives people an insight and a sense of how fortunate we are with the beauty of nature. Even with the Sussex coastline.”

Emma Stibbon, Beachy Head, 2024. Ink, 153 x 238cmjpeg

As a nation, we’re probably at the more temperate end of what’s happening and about to come. There are extremes happening in places like Bangladesh, where rising sea levels have been devastating for communities. But incidents around the world still have implications in Britain, whether that’s rising migration, crop failures or regional instability. But Stibbon wanted her work for this show to be anchored in the immediate and familiar. “I think this coastline, with places like the Seven Sisters, is quite iconic. As part of the show, I’ve been collecting postcards, and we borrowed some materials. Towner has some interesting historic works representing that coastline.” 

She delved into the work of artist Elizabeth Smith Paget, who was a regular visitor to Eastbourne over a 40-year period. “I selected some of her works in the Towner collection to make comparative drawings of those locations today. So, you can look at the two side by side.” It was initially quite hard to assemble comparative images because many of the original scenes were captured by photographers standing on the edge of cliffs. “Of course, that’s now in the sea.” Fortunately, Eastbourne’s Racquet Studios were able to assist with some drone work taking a camera to where land no longer lies. “It is dramatic. It’s tens of feet out, in just 20 or 30 years. So now, people can really see what’s happening…”

Recording out in the field, instead of the controlled calmness of a studio, does present its own challenges. “Part of the reason I like drawing from observation is the elements and adversity. Often working in a sub-zero environment, it does evidence itself in the drawing.” But it’s this exact experience which informs her work back indoors, when creating on a larger scale.

Emma Stibbon, Hope Gap, 2022 (1)jpeg
Emma Stibbon, Hope Gap, 2022

As an exhibition, Melting Ice | Rising Tides gathers many of the sketchbooks accompanying her expeditions, alongside huge pieces detailing the rugged beauty of the natural landscape. It also recreates a local beach, packed with rocks and materials borrowed from the coastline. “It’s facing a drawing of a large breaker coming at you, so hopefully visitors will feel a bit trapped between the sea and the rock.” The Towner’s collection is rooted in this landscape, with a really strong representation of artists who’ve worked in the area. “They’ve been great to work with. Nothing is too much. In fact, the more of a challenge, the more they seem to enjoy it.”

As modern life gets busier, it’s increasingly difficult to make these messages resonate. The power of lobby groups working on behalf of the energy industry is enormous, so even the most fervent of voices get drowned out by white noise in our traditional media outlets. And many feel powerless or fatigued by the situation. So, is art perhaps a better way to elicit positive action? 

“I think we need to make people feel emotionally connected. It’s personal. It’s part of my familiar landscape. There are places I care about which I can see changing. Until we’re actually feeling with our heart as well as our head… I think creative processes can do that. There’s data and science, which is of course critical and we’re all too familiar with, but it often doesn’t move us to change our behaviour or think more proudly about our everyday lives. …myself included.”

One keen supporter of Melting Ice | Rising Tides has been Caroline Lucas MP, who features in a film being shown as part of the show and wrote the foreword to an accompanying book. “We’re also having an ‘in conversation’ during the show. I think she can speak better than me, but I think it’s important to say it has to be a message of positivity. Particularly with the younger population, who have got a lot at stake. I think they’re incredibly active, and that’s something we need to build on. I want the show to remind us of our planet’s beauty. And what we stand to lose.”

Emma Stibbon’s Melting Ice | Rising Tides runs at Towner Eastbourne until Sun 15 Sept.



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