Leigh McCarthy: Intensely Sublime

Have you ever heard of a “Pizzly”? Do you know what a Sailor’s Valentine looks like? Ever tried a glass of gløgg? Nope, me neither. But in a whirling, sensational fashion, filmmaker and photographer Leigh McCarthy has spun these seemingly alien elements into a critical lens on a very real, very fragile environment: the seas.

Have you ever heard of a “Pizzly”? Do you know what a Sailor’s Valentine looks like? Ever tried a glass of gløgg? Nope, me neither. But in a whirling, sensational fashion, filmmaker and photographer Leigh McCarthy has spun these seemingly alien elements into a critical lens on a very real, very fragile environment: the seas.

Reaching down from the poles into the shores of Nantucket Sound, McCarthy’s photography documents both the melancholia and simmering hope provided by the majesty of the environs surrounding the Arctic and the Alaskan straits. McCarthy is refreshingly funny, straightforward, and candid about her experiences stemming from her studies at the University of Colorado (Boulder) to Goldsmiths in London stretching into her professional artistic practice.

I must say, your Arctic series struck me as slightly morbid, as if these were images we may never see again with the encroachment of climate change and relentless human activity.

(Laughs) I like to think of myself as an optimist. I wouldn’t call them morbid, because you can’t see the process of change in a static photo like wheelhouse. But it is a watershed moment, so I really lucked out to have the opportunity to visit the Arctic aboard a tall ship last October during The Arctic Circle residency program.

The Arctic feels intensely sublime, not just in the philosophical or aesthetic sense of being swallowed up by the immensity at the same time as your nothingness, but in the physical sense of witnessing a moment when something is about to transform from one thing into another. The climate of the poles changes at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, so the opportunity to document this fragile ecosystem feels more urgent than ever.

In 1990, I traveled to Prince William Sound a year after the Exxon Valdez disaster. As I looked at the landscape I heard stories about what I could no longer see: otter rafts in their breeding grounds, blue mussels previously lining the shores, and birds missing from the sky. The landscape, on the surface, looked pristine. But during the clean up, they used fire hoses to wash the rocks which pushed the oil a few inches below the surface. Every now and then I would see paper towels and Windex bottles, remnants from the clean up. But the damaging effects of the oil spill were ever present. Experiencing this devastating loss profoundly impacted how I saw the Arctic.

Instead of me listening to stories, I would be the one telling the story of the disappearing landscape for those who will never have a chance to witness it, firsthand. We live in the Anthropocene, so whether or not the landscape looks majestic or not – it is shaped by man. There is no untouched landscape. Like the changes in Alaska, it is easy to miss the radical shift in the Arctic if you only look at the surface.

Do you feel a bit helpless and/or fatalistic when you’re confronted with beautiful, natural scenes or does it have the opposite effect for you?

Thinking about the Arctic before I went, in the abstract, just felt inherently melancholic. Looking at a photo of glaciers crumbling into the sea aches with loss, but in person it’s like watching fireworks go off. There really is nothing like standing in front of a massive glacier, on the deck of a 165-foot tall ship that could capsize at any moment if a large chunk of ice fell into the sea (glacier #7 and blomstrandbreen). It’s exhilarating, a little bit terrifying, but mostly awe-inspiring. I felt like a little kid sticking out their tongue to taste the wonder of snow for the first time. I felt a sense of agency being there and documenting the place. Really different than being a landlubber just thinking about all that is wrong in the world.

My mission was to document this place, so I was frustrated that my photos were never going to do this place justice. The first day I wondered if I should just put my camera down. What’s the point? The vastness. The scale. The cold. The smell. The crackling sounds. It is un-photographable.

What moved you to choose the “tondo” method for your Nantucket photographs?

I wanted to make prints at a large scale that felt like portals to somewhere else. I just made an artist proof of ‘harmony in blue’ as big as possible (48 inches in diameter). At that scale, it looks like your looking through a big window but people often mistake my photos for a paintings.

My first print from the Porthole series was crossing, which came about accidentally when I was took a picture through a window of a ferry. The porthole series of dye-sublimation prints of Nantucket are circles inscribed in squares to both point to the porthole of ships, as well as make the frame evident in order to reveal the limits of our perception. My work goes back and forth between digital and analog quite a bit. The perfect border emphasizes the imperfect images blurred with salt crystals, water droplets, and dust. I think the blurriness can relate to memory – where the viewer fills in the rest.


Specific to the “tondo”, is it me, or do you suppose that there’s an undercurrent within contemporary art that yearns for the mathematical precision and crispness of the Renaissance/Mannerism?

Hmmm. Can we talk about “Pizzlies”?

One of the most fascinating harbingers of climate change are “Pizzly” Bears. The collapse of the Alaskan and Canadian ecosystems where Grizzlies and Polar bears roam has forced grizzlies north and polar bears south. In rare cases, they mate and create “pizzly” or “growler” bears that can reproduce. If a male polar bear mates a female grizzly bear and create pizzly cubs, the female would teach them how to hunt. As the pack ice dwindles, so does the polar bear’s opportunity to hunt for seals. Grizzlies are omnivores. If cubs learn how to hunt from a grizzly mother their chances of survival are much higher. It reminds me of the print I made years ago, the great escape, where people create unexpected escape hatches.

Nice one. I see what you did, there! Tell me more about the work “Sailor’s Valentine”: there is a fine cadre of photographers and painters who are keen on the metaphor of mirrors/duality as representative of the mariner.

sailor’s valentine is a contemporary take on an old sailor’s tradition dating back to the 1830’s. There is an e.e. cummings quote, “For whatever we lose, (like a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” I had the frame fabricated in found wood, and used antique glass so there is a ripple when you look at the message. I saw antique versions during the summer in Nantucket. They are usually octagons with ornate designs made up of tiny shells saying things like “Love thy giver”, “Everthine”, and “Forget me not when far away”. Sailors brought them back for their sweethearts. For years, I thought the sailors had made them, but they actually commissioned them from local artisans. A double sailor’s valentine is two octagons joined by hinges; when they are folded together, the glass front is protected along the journey as they traveled by ship. Nantucket was the base for whaling, and sailors would travel for years at a time.

Going from Boulder to Goldsmiths must surely have been a seismic shift for you in both theory and practice; I had a similar experience coming from Florida and doing my Masters in London. Could you pinpoint how those two modes of education has shaped your practice now?

Moving to England was like discovering I had been speaking a tonal language and was born tone deaf. I lived in Australia when I was a child. When I moved back to the States with an accent, kids asked me where I was from, which was really confusing to a 5 year-old. I had experienced culture shock early on, and that still influences my work.

During my undergraduate at Boulder, I studied cultural anthropology with a strong theoretic component. Little did I know that understanding cultural relativism helped me cope with living in England!  

Goldsmiths College in London is well-known for creating a slew of conceptual Young British Artists (YBAs). My background in theory was incredibly helpful. But education is much more self-driven and I felt adrift, at first. Basically, I had to readjust all of my American touch points. I attended classes with folks from all over: Brazilians, Icelanders, Brits, Japanese, the list could go on. I made a video there that referred to something from a US film; during my critique, I realized that everyone was clueless about what I was referencing. It forced me to reorient my work towards an international audience. It has been brilliant for my practice, but there were some intense growing pains along the way.

I was lucky enough to have a few studio visits with Cerith Wyn Evans. The first time I met him, I showed him some half-baked ideas and he responded by writing down the title of Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, which discusses the organization of models of human perception and knowledge shifting from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. Up until that point, I really felt I was foundering in my studio visits. This one felt like a gift. He drew a line through to my anthropology background, which I could not see myself.

Back to the subject of the Arctic, what is the Glacial Risk Management Institute? The homepage appears bitingly, brilliantly cynical. Or not?

The Glacial Risk Management Institute (GRMI) is two person collective that I formed with artist Angela Ellsworth in 2008. She’s hilarious and smart and we were both members of the LA Art Girls (LAAG) and in the midst of a six-month project. The Getty commissioned the LAAG to be a part of an ambitious six-part representation of Allan Kaprow’s performance of Fluids all over LA. There were a lot of moving parts to Overflow: A Reinvention of Allan Kaprow’s Fluids, and it was a little overwhelming to work on a project of that scale with such a big institution. So, we decided we would join forces, improvise, and poke some fun at the absurdity of it all. That is how the GRMI was born (via the Getty Research Institute GRI…wink wink, nudge nudge).

That project required creating an ice structure 30 feet long, 10 wide, and 8 high. Kaprow’s performance took place in 1967 and the structures stood for almost a week; our structure lasted less than an hour before it started to collapse. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be one of the hottest days on record and the structure completely melted by the end of the day.

Humor can be very subversive and is key to approaching big issues in a way that is palatable. Angela and I have continued to propose a lot of GRMI interventions that have gone unrealized. My favorite is ‘We Might be Snowmakers’. In order to reverse the retreat of Europe’s largest glacier, we proposed setting up a bunch of snow blowers. Angela made beautiful watercolors of the snow blowers, and I made a map showing where the snow machines would be placed. We never heard back from the folks we originally applied to, but our map and watercolors ended up on e-flux.

Angela couldn’t make it to the Arctic, but we did spitball the approach. We had a tradition of improvising, so it was left open-ended. I knew I wanted to serve gløgg, a magical, Nordic mulled wine concoction, to everyone on the boat, but I didn’t know when. I kept the booze under the bed in my cabin and when the boat would really rock, you could hear the bottles clinking. Luckily, none of them broke. On an especially hard day, I decided to serve the gløgg. I took out all the spices and booze and got to work after dinner, with some help. I hung a GRMI flag outside the porthole attached to the kitchen, and asked everyone to join me on deck for a GRMI-sponsored cup of gløgg. Someone surprised me by putting disco lights outside and it turned into an impromptu dance party, as well as one of my favorite nights.

I spoke with the Captain that night about raising the flag and he thought it was sacrosanct to fly it from the back of the boat, because that indicates which country the boat hails from. I don’t know how she did it, but somehow, the second mate convinced him to wrap up the Dutch flag and fly my flag instead the next day. He said he would take it down that night, but it flew on the back of the boat until the end of the trip. I’d giggle to myself when I looked up. I’m not so great at sewing and the “I” in GRMI had flew off during a gale.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *