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Meet the Scottish artist heading to Norway to explore the impact of climate change

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A SCOTTISH landscape artist is set to travel to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard with a team of scientists to explore the impact of climate change

Ellis O’Connor (30) is originally from Dundee and specialises in oil paintings based on her memories of the remote environments she has visited. 

Having studied at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, O’Connor then took up residency in Iceland where she produced some of her work. 

Speaking to The National, she said: “I left art school in 2015 after doing my masters and was thinking ‘I guess I’m an artist now’ as it’s always tricky starting out.

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“I applied for some residencies and got one in Iceland. I was in Ólafsfjörður which is one of the country’s northern-most towns and I got to teach art at the local college.

“It was the depths of winter and it was brutal weather but for me and my artwork it was the most inspiring time. 

O’Connor described her work as “abstract”

“It wasn’t a place for tourists. It was a town of 900 people surrounded by mountains and I didn’t see the sun properly for two and a half months.

“I specialise in oil paintings and a lot of my work is based on memories from really remote places so my style is quite abstract.”

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The trip to Svalbard, one of the world’s most northern-inhabited areas, is being organised by The Arctic Circle – an annual expeditionary programme. 

O’Connor has been before and was accepted onto the expedition again, which was delayed due to Covid.

She will arrive there in October and then travel around the archipelago until early November where she will be “away from society and any contact”. 

She continued: “There’s about 2000 people that live there so it’s an interesting place to go. My work will focus on the power and significance of the landscape.

“The reason I’m going is because it’s one of the places in the world where climate change is the most apparent so I want to see how the landscape has changed.”

O’Connor believes that art can lead the way in opening up a dialogue about climate change in a way that “scientific data or facts,” whilst of course important, are unable to. 

She added: “I think people connect with what’s going on with climate change and nature through the tools of sound, painting, poetry or music because it’s an emotional engagement as opposed to scientific data and facts. 

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“I think it’s important to tell a story with a deeper meaning and that’s a good way to open up conversations and dialogue.”

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O’Connor’s work is all too relevant, especially considering the Met Office issued an amber warning for extreme heat in certain parts of England and Wales on Tuesday. 

Although Scotland is expected to miss the very hot weather, last month saw the country record its highest ever temperature.

The National: O'Connor is set to head to Svalbard in OctoberO’Connor is set to head to Svalbard in October

Charterhall in the Scottish Borders reached a high of more than 35 degrees, beating an almost 19-year-old record.

“What we’ve seen isn’t lovely, it’s a scary heat we’re not prepared for,” O’Connor said. 

The artist used to live on North Uist, where she witnessed the consequences of rising tides first hand.  

“I was there for three and a half years and I think people think of climate change as going on in the Arctic. 

“They see photos of polar bears struggling and think it’s far away but I was living on an island surrounded by the Atlantic.

“There was a lot of people living there that said the tides were rising, of water washing over and coming closer to places where it previously hadn’t.

“It’s not a distant problem.”

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As well as discussing the impact of climate change, O’Connor also spoke about how the ongoing cost of living crisis is affecting those who work in her industry.

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She explained how artists have had to contend with people having less disposable income over the last few months.

“Throughout lockdown, myself and lots of other artists actually had a good year in terms of sales,” O’Connor said.

She adds: “I felt bad saying that for a little while because people had a bad time with income but some had disposable income because they weren’t travelling. 

“However, since about February or March, there’s definitely been a bit of a decline and that’s down to exceptional circumstances which I think I can correlate with the fuel and cost of living crises. 

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“I don’t feel too worried about it because I realise that when people are more stretched, obviously the first thing to go is things that are not necessities like paintings. 

“That’s not just myself, I’ve spoken to other artists who have seen changes since about March time.

“We still need art though. It makes the world more interesting.”

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