Artist and environmental activist
by Dawn Wolfe
From the May, 2018 issue
Barely five feet tall, thin, and fifty-six years old, Leslie Sobel doesn't look like the kind of person who'd hang out in one of the most extreme climates on Earth.
There are "people who will look at me and say, 'Oh, you're a middle-aged woman--you can't possibly be doing this interesting, crazy stuff,'" she says. To which she responds, "Why not? What precludes it? Answer--nothing."
A year ago, Sobel boarded a single-engine plane in the Canadian Yukon for the remote Eclipse Icefield. The lone artist in a group of two climate scientists and two grad students, she spent eight days on the glacier in the St. Elias Mountains. She took 5,000 photographs, journaled, and helped with the work of the camp: pitching tents (and digging tents out after snowstorms), cooking, and, every few days, digging a new latrine.
The weather was so cold--as much as thirty below zero--that despite wearing double gloves, her hands hurt for weeks after she returned. Though she'd trained for six months to join the University of Maine Climate Change Institute's expedition, the thin air made everything harder. "You know how it feels when you're lifting weights and you get to that point where ... you know you're not going to do another rep because there's nothing left?" she asks. "Well, it's like that."
Seth Campbell, the University of Maine researcher who invited Sobel to join the expedition to Canada's Kluane National Park, says that artists can help scientists "translate" the work they're doing. "A lot of us have figured out over the years that having some type of story people can relate to is really important when you're trying to communicate science to folks who don't have a science background," he says.
"I think the thing that impressed me the most [about Sobel] is she's very active in trying to communicate what we're trying to do in any capacity she can. She is so motivated to get out onto the field
and do this. This is a big step, to go out on a glacier 10,000 feet above sea level." Sobel's willingness "to just go for it, with just minimal training or background in that environment, really stood out to me," Campbell says.
In addition to her physical training, Sobel says, she "did do a lot of reading--his papers, other scientists' papers--and I spent time on the websites of the sponsoring entities and went and got my wilderness first aid certificate. I'd had advanced first aid before, but it seemed like a good idea." She also did extensive fundraising to cover the $4,000 she needed for travel, food, and the specialized gear necessary to survive the extreme cold.
In addition to photos, she documented her "lived experience of the ice field" in encaustic (hot wax) paintings and 2D and 3D mixed-media pieces. An exhibit of her work from the expedition, shifting terrain--my sojourn on the ice, opens May 4 at Ypsilanti's 22 North Gallery.
While some images show "river poaching"--where the receding ice field diverted the course of nearby rivers--she explains that no single visit can show the "before-and-after" effects of climate change on the glacier. "That's why the scientists are going there year after year after year, because what you see one time won't show the changes." What artists can do, she says, is help others "experience places they're not likely to get to and that may never be the same" as the world warms.
"There's an Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, who coined the phrase 'solastalgia,'" she says, "meaning grief for a place that you may not have ever been, but that you know is disappearing."
Sobel's passions for both art and science started early. "My mother was a chemist who became a middle school teacher," she says. "My father is an electrical engineer and physicist who invented some of the earliest flat-screen panels. And my brother's a geologist." Growing up in Chicago and New York, Sobel enjoyed her art and photography classes but also relished experimenting with the microscope her parents gave her.
She came to Ann Arbor to attend the U-M art school, where she earned her BFA in 1983. Two years later, she married Bill Worzel, who'd traded his U-M studies in Chinese for grad work in computer science at Cambridge. For years she juggled running a software company with Bill, raising the couple's three children (Rachel, Anna, and Sam, all now grown) and working on her art as time allowed.
A full-time artist since 1998, she's exhibited at several locales and also sells items online such as phone cases, calendars, and T-shirts that she designs. Although she's long been concerned about climate change, chaperoning a high school field trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina proved a turning point.
"There's just something about seeing a high-water mark thirty-two feet up the wall at a Home Depot" that brings the reality into sharp focus, she explains. Her first response to the trip was a series of encaustic monotype works on the Mississippi watershed.
The Yukon trip wasn't Sobel's first experience as a wilderness artist. In 2013, she participated in a U.S. Forest Service program which sent artists to work with scientists across the U.S. and Canada. "We spent a month working, camping, and hiding from the weather--because I was in Colorado the year that Boulder suffered $2 billion in storm damage."
Dodging the effects of a 1,000-year flood, camping on a glacier at an altitude of 10,000 feet--doing art about climate change isn't easy. But despite the hardships, Campbell hopes Sobel will join an upcoming expedition, to the Juneau Icefield in Alaska.
Sobel is enthusiastic about the idea. "The work I want to make," she says, "has more 'oomph' if I go and do something like that."
This article has been edited since it was published in the May 2018 Ann Arbor Observer. Sobel's age has been corrected.
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