Climate Grief and Embracing Beautiful Confusion: Daniela Molnar Interviewed

A portrait of Daniela Molnar standing in front of a white wall with one of her paintings projected on her and the wall. Her shadow casts a dark void behind her, the colors of her painting cross her body. Her eyes are closed.
Daniela Molnar stands in front of a projection of New Earth 12 in a photo published in the LA Times in January 2020. Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times.

It’s devastating to be living through this era of destructive climate change, watching record-breaking forest fires and natural disasters unfold around us, scorching and changing the earth. I struggle with intense climate grief, alternating between feeling very motivated to act and feeling lethargic.

Portland-based artist Daniela Molnar’s work hits me in the middle of both of those feelings. She has immersed herself in the difficult work of confronting how confusing and sometimes hopeless it is to be living during a global catastrophe of this magnitude. Her recent “New Earth” series, which “envisions how climate change is reshaping our planet and our embodied experience of it,” is abstract and ethereal, illustrating how difficult it is to explain this grief while also witnessing the beauty of the planet.

During a Zoom conversation in October, Molnar told me the stories behind her series like “New Earth,” which was inspired by looking at how glacier melt reveals odd shapes in areas that were once permanently covered by ice and are now displayed to the world. She talked about her recent month-long residency at Mission Street Arts in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, and how her connection to place impacts how she creates art about climate grief. —Taylor Griggs

A photograph of an artist studio set up in a sunny, long and narrow room with skylights.
Daniela Molnar’s outdoor studio in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, during her art residency at Mission Street Arts, 2020.

Taylor Griggs: Because your work is so connected with physical places and how climate change is impacting different geographical regions, how did your temporary move from Portland to New Mexico impact your art?

Daniela Molnar: My “New Earth” paintings rely on natural pigments and local water sources, so I gathered a lot of materials from the soil and rocks, which are full of pigment. The color palette is different from the work I do in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s also a different experience to be working on this series in the desert and thinking about the impact of climate change in a place like this. I’ve been working on a related series called “Topography of Water,” which deals specifically with riparian systems and how rivers are shifting due to climate change. The entire Southwest is fed by the Colorado River, which has been drying up due to overuse and poor management.

TG: How did you adapt to the drier climate in New Mexico?

DM: It’s interesting to be in a place where water is so scarce. One of the things that I love about the Northwest is how water heavy it is. I gravitate to water, and I rely on it heavily in my painting process, both materially and symbolically.

The water that I use is drawn from intentional sources. In New Mexico, I used river water, snowmelt, hot springs water, and rain water to make my paintings. In Portland, I use gathered rainwater and dew in the summer. On the Oregon coast, I used water from an estuary and ocean water. I also use tap water everywhere, just like I use both synthetic pigments and natural pigments in my paintings. I believe that the wilder sources of water are similar to the natural pigments, carrying a unique energy of the places they come from, and they sometimes react with the pigments in fascinating, unpredictable ways. Climate change is drastically shifting water systems of all sorts, so sourcing the water is another layer of research in my work.

Water is no less important to human survival in the Southwest, and it’s no less important to the ecosystem, either. There’s just less of it. So, in a way, it becomes that much more precious.

Daniela Molnar, New Earth 17, 2020.

TG: Your work shows a very strong connection to place and how climate change alters environments. Can you give any examples of some of the places you have powerful relationships with in the Pacific Northwest?

DM: It’s intense to think about that, because some of my favorite places in the vicinity of Portland burned during the recent wildfires. One of my favorite places near Portland is near the headwaters of the Clackamas River where there’s a lot of old growth. I like to visit a particular cedar tree that’s probably hundreds of years old. I don’t know what that area is like now, after the fires, because I left for New Mexico before it was safe to explore them and haven’t had a chance to go back yet.

I would like to work on my “Words in Place” project, a collaboration with poets, at some of these sites near Portland. The project aims to activate public spaces with poems referencing those spaces, considering poetry’s political and social agency as something that lives in the world rather than just living on a page.

For the project I plan to collaborate with people who have been affected by the fires and talk to them about the places they love and how they changed. I’ll ask them about their connection to the place that burned, and why it was and is important to them. Then I plan to translate part of our conversation to words that can fit on a kite, and fly the kite in that person’s chosen place.

The kites will be an ephemeral place-based installation. One of the parameters of the project is that they won’t stick around for very long.

Kites also make the air visible, which is what was happening with the fires. Over the last several months, with the fires, the pandemic, and the tear gas from the protests, there’s really been a heightened awareness that, wow, we all breathe. The air is a living medium that connects us all.

Daniela Molnar, New Earth 16 (Bolivia), 2020. Natural and synthetic pigments and rainwater on paper, 22 x 36 inches.

TG: What do you think it means to have a “strong connection” with a particular place?

DM: I don’t think there’s one right way to have a connection. I think of place as a nexus of personal, emotional, cultural, social, and political forces, not just the ecological or physical land.

I think that we all can and should have a connection to the land, which is different from ownership of the land, or cultural appropriation of the rituals and ways of life that existed on the land before settler colonialism took over.

We need to be fully aware of and internalize that we are on Indigenous lands, and settler colonialism is still happening. This ongoing awareness can be part of a connection to a place; a connection to place and land is essential to feeling fully human.

I’m a first generation US citizen, so my connection to this continent is really tenuous. My mom is from Transylvania and my dad is from Hungary, but they’d probably just say they’re Jewish. Their place-based connections are really connections to the Jewish cultures that existed within these places; a cultural place rather than a physical place.

TG: You say that your recent work has been focused on the complex topic of climate grief. How would you define the term, which people may not be familiar with, and what has your grieving journey looked like?

DM: While preparing to teach a class on climate change at the Pacific Northwest College of Art for the Art + Ecology program that I founded, I was neck-deep in climate change research for over a year. I was so depressed. I didn’t know what to do with the overwhelming information. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was dealing with really intense climate grief, and the effects of how climate change is represented in most of the media we tend to be exposed to.

This is a really common reaction to a life-threatening emergency that has a different relationship to time than other social issues. It’s an emergency, it’s happening right now, but it’s also the effect of decades of abuse and will be a crisis for decades to come. We can’t just keep working on it until the moral arc of the universe bends in its direction.

We need to figure out how to move forward with it and not dissociate, and that’s really challenging. This awareness of true urgency combined with an awareness of how little is being and has been done can easily lead to overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and, ultimately, grief.

It’s deeply necessary to acknowledge that what you’re experiencing isn’t wrong. Grief in our culture is problematized, it’s turned into something that needs to be fixed. Climate grief is a rational, normal, natural response to climate change.

Daniela Molnar, Topography of Water 1, 2018–2019, (detail) . Rainwater, river water, ocean water, egg, natural pigment, synthetic pigment, charcoal, and sign-painting paint on handmade paper, 29.5 x 41 inches.

TG: How do you think art can help people deal with this climate grief?

DM: Pauline Boss is a psychotherapist and a researcher who has dedicated her career to this idea of ambiguous loss, the type of grief that doesn’t have closure, and I think that’s what climate grief is. We’re going to continue to live with it, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut down and be sad all the time. It means that grief is a normal, natural part of being alive right now.

Boss recommends responding to ambiguous loss by embracing ambiguity rather than seeking closure. We need to become okay with multiple, conflicting truths existing at the same time.

For example: the planet is gorgeous. The world is so beautiful. And our planet is also exhibiting clear symptoms of dying. These things are equally true.

It’s really hard for most people, myself included, to reside in ambiguity. Rather than trying to find a fix for what we’re feeling in relation to climate change and resolve the confusion, I’m working on helping my students embrace ambiguity. That’s where art comes in, which often resides in ambiguity and doesn’t try to tidy it up.

My own reckoning with climate grief has led to my current project, the educational, place-based art and ecology residency I’ve been developing since I left PNCA. Art is so unique in its capacity to change culture by changing how we feel. Reckoning with complex issues cannot be done solely through the intellect, so the residency will focus as much on emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth as on information, intellectual growth, rigor, and artistic production. Place-based connections to diverse human and non-human communities will also play a big role in the learning process.

Daniela Molnar, Topography of Water 1, 2018–2019. Rainwater, river water, ocean water, egg, natural pigment, synthetic pigment, charcoal, and sign-painting paint on handmade paper, 29.5 x 41 inches.

TG: You’ve talked about confusion as a natural response to climate change, and your paintings representing a “beautiful confusion.” How would you describe the feelings of confusion that you see people experience when trying to conceptualize climate change? Did your art process clear some of these feelings up for you?

DM: There’s absolutely no doubt that climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuel to make money, and that some humans are exponentially more responsible than others, which is a distinction from the Anthropocene theory that implies all humans are dealing with this equally. The confusion is about what to do, how to take this abstract knowledge and do something with it. There’s also a confusion with personal culpability, what the past meant, and what the future is going to look like.

Working on the “New Earth” series didn’t clarify the information for me as much as it clarified a lot about the necessity of acknowledging what’s happening in an embodied way, and acknowledging the confusion.

Climate change is occurring in deep time, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which are petrified fossils from some 300 million years ago. We’re dealing with timescales and scopes that we have no way to understand; they go beyond the capacity of our consciousness. I love that the theme of this interview stems from Donna Haraway, because she addresses the idea of the “thick present,” the idea that everything we’re experiencing goes all the way down to the core of the Earth and all the way up into the stratosphere.

A lot of people are fixated on their carbon footprint, which is not something we should be focused on. That’s an advertising and PR scheme by BP, and it’s a very effective delusion.

TG: If not examining our personal carbon footprints, how do you think we can move forward from here?

DM: I think we should be dedicating our energy to creating systemic change instead of obsessing over consumer choices. Dedicating yourself to learning about these issues and making art in response is meaningful work that can lead to systemic change.

Naomi Klein, the climate change author and activist, says that neoliberalism’s single most damaging legacy is that it has “isolated us enough from one another that it became possible to convince us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but that we are fundamentally not worth saving.” That quote has been really powerful for me. I see the need to redefine what it means to be human as an amazing opportunity. A reimagination of the self is a political act.