Rivers and Tides: Lucy Holtsnider in the Studio

January 4, 2019 by

In a canal in Moorehaven, Florida, the engine of Lucy Holtsnider’s sailboat broke down. It was a 34’ homemade wooden catamaran, a little over twenty years old, with no insulation or windows. Holtsnider and her partner, Zion Klos, whose family had built and lived on the sailboat when he was in middle school, had been sailing for the past seven months. “It was kind of like being in a floating shack,” the artist remembers, “We were holding it together with epoxy and duct tape.” While Klos began researching diagrams of Yamaha engine from 1996, Holtsnider listened to meditation tapes. It was only the latest adventure on the year-long Climate Odyssey, an art-science collaboration which sent them 3,000 miles, through 13 states, to document and share the devastating effects of climate change.

The outdoors has always been important to Holtsnider. She grew up in a suburb of Littleton, Colorado, spending her time catching crawdads in the Platte River. At Colorado College, she learned to letterpress and began making prints and artist’s books. Shortly after graduating, Holtsnider moved to rural Idaho where Klos was completing a doctorate in hydrology and climate change communication. Suddenly, she found herself immersed in scientific research. At the same time, she wondered what role art could play in these conversations. What if we could combine my interest in art and his knowledge of climate science? she asked.

When Holtsnider accompanied Klos at a logging conference in Idaho, she saw firsthand the resistance to acknowledging the realities of climate change. “As soon as Zion introduced his talk, shoulders tensed up, hats pushed down, and there were audible guffaws and sounds of irritation,” she recalls, “They didn’t want to be there at all.” But over the course of the lecture, as Zion discussed the facts of climate change—the evidence that logging areas were experiencing significantly less frozen ground, which is necessary for harvesting timber—she saw the loggers come around. “People were saying ‘we’re witnessing this,’” In communicating the urgencies of climate change, Holtsnider believes, it is important to shift the narrative away from one of consumer guilt to how climate change is impacting specific, local communities. “They wanted to know what the future held and they wanted to know what changes could made,” she says.  

From there, the idea of the Climate Odyssey was born. Beginning in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in July of 2015, the couple sailed from the Great Lakes and through the Erie Canal to the eastern seaboard, where in many of the coastal cities the impacts of climate change have been most dramatically felt. They traveled through the Intracoastal Waterway in Virginia and all the way down to to the bottom of Florida, while listening to the stories of river-keepers, city officials, sailors and fishermen along the way. With these stories, Holtnsider then created an interactive map and artist’s book. The powers of art and storytelling, she says, is far more effective at conveying environmental urgencies than sterile graphs and charts.

After the year on the boat, and having completed her MFA at the University of California—Santa Barbara, Holtsnider now finds herself drawn toward less didactic work. In her current “River Series,” she creates ethereal abstract collages using handmade paper. While the collages explore formal questions, they still reflect her visceral experiences of climate change. They capture the beauty of places that are rapidly changing. In delicate, ghostly layers, “Caloosahatchee River” depicts the river in South Florida where two tornados tore through the swamplands within miles of the couple’s boat.

At the Women’s Studio Workshop, Holtsnider had the opportunity to create handmade paper, experimenting with different blends to make different kinds of paper. During the residency she found “the ideal ratio of cotton to abaca fiber,” she says. “This blend creates paper with abaca’s stretching and shrinking qualities, while keeping cotton’s ability to absorb ink and allow prints to dry.” After making the paper, she then pigmented them with a variety of colors before monotype printing on top. The first few collages of the new series, she says, are titled Trestle I – III, after the railroad trestle on the trail near WSW.

Living in Poughkeepsie, Holtsnider has now traded the catamaran for a canoe. “It’s a much more manageable boat,” she laughs. She is still thinking about climate change, and how to communicate a message for our collective survival. “It’s hard to come up with good news, especially when you consider the political climate,” she says, “But I couldn’t just talk about the darkness all the time—it was incongruous with the joy that I feel in making art.” The future is dark, she says, but it is also still important to hold onto what’s beautiful.

Lucy Holtsnider combines monotype prints, handmade paper, and found objects to create collages that consider climate change impacts and sense of place. In 2016, she completed Climate Odyssey, a year-long sailing expedition and art and science collaboration her partner, hydrologist Zion Klos. She is an adjunct professor at Colorado College and the Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University in New York City. Lucy lives and works near the banks of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York.