The Portland Museum of Art’s Biennial is full of dynamic pieces, but the images from Deanna Witman’s series “Melt” represent a literal kind of dynamism, the way landscapes are evolving due to climate change. We called her up to learn how the project came about, how she used a 19th century technique to illustrate a 21st century crisis and heard how she found her way to art after an earlier career in environmental consulting.

SUNDAY TIMES: The inspiration for “Melt” came from an article Witman read in the New York Times in February of 2014, about how many past sites of Olympic games might become inhospitable to future winter Olympics because of climate change. By mid century, as few as 10 might be cold enough, it said. Witman knew immediately what she was going to create around this concept. “It was instantaneous. I visualized what I was going to make and how I was going to do it.”

WE’RE MELTING: The images in “Melt” all started as satellite images Witman grabbed from Google Earth Pro. “The resolution is incredible.” But she doesn’t manipulate what she finds, so if there’s a blank area in the image, that the satellite data hasn’t or can’t fill in while she’s grabbing the image, she includes it. She then creates a digital negative and prints it using a 19th century process called salted paper.

IT’S KOSHER: Is there really salt involved? Yes, kosher salt in fact. She uses fine printmaking papers, immersed in a gelatin mixture, then dried and coated with silver nitrate. She puts the negative on the paper, exposes it to UV light, then develops it in a mixture of water, the salt and citric acid. “What I love about processes like these is that you are kind of using everything. Your hands, your brain, chemistry.”

DEFINING SELF: “I am a visual artist that uses the photographic medium.” She doesn’t consider herself a traditional photographer. “I am not out there on the street making photos.” Most of her work is lensless. “I frequently work with a pinhole camera.” She’s also a professor, teaching experiential courses at Unity College that delve into both still photography and documentary filmmaking and are, like the rest of the curriculum at the college, framed around sustainability science.

Images from Witman’s photographic series “Melt,” which relates to climate change and is part of the Portland Museum of Art’s Biennial, on view through June 3.

FIELD WORK: Witman didn’t plan on being a professor. She studied environmental science in college and took a job at an environmental consulting firm outside of Philadelphia. She worked as a field biologist, compiling information for things like environmental impact reports for building projects, including bridges, roads and airports. Even then, “I was aware of what might be disappearing.” She first visited Maine to complete a field training in Steuben. “From the moment my foot touched the soil, I was like, this is where I need to be.” It was “geological.”


DOUBLE LIFE MAJOR: Even as she was coming out of college, she had known she wanted to pursue both science and art, but she needed a job. So while she was working as a field biologist, she started building her own arts education independently, taking studio art classes here and there around Philadelphia. She found her way back to Maine via Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, first attending workshops, and ultimately entering graduate school, all while still working for the consulting firm. “They were really supportive of that. They knew I had this other side to me.”

COBBLING IT TOGETHER: Witman moved to Maine “permanently” in 2010, the year after she completed her graduate degree at Maine Media Workshops. She also met her husband there, just as she was about to head back to Philadelphia. “It was like, ‘Whoa, we are soulmates.’ ” She packed up, relocated and did “like anybody does here – you cobble it together.” That meant teaching online courses, working on summer programs at the Farnsworth and waiting tables at the ever-popular Primo, where she became a familiar face. “I still go places and people are like, ‘Do I know you?’ ” She started teaching at Unity in 2014 and joined the faculty full time in 2016.

SOME LATITUDE: Nine of the images that Witman is showing in the Biennial are former Olympic sites, or close to them (she let herself travel and stray, via Google Earth). She doesn’t identify them, beyond using the longitude and latitude. “Because I didn’t want people to focus on whether or not they have been there or how great a location it is.”

MAINE MOUNTAIN: The tenth image included in the PMA Biennial has nothing to do with the Olympics, although it is part of “Melt.” It’s of Katahdin. “I wanted to bring it closer to home.” But this is a fleeting image, destined to fade because Witman deliberately did not “fix” it (the process by which a photographic image is preserved). It connects to a 2015 project she did in the “Melt” series. She’d used grants from The John Anson Kittredge Fund and The Kindling Fund via SPACE Gallery to create and mail out over 250 packages containing an image of Katahdin printed – but not fixed – to acquaintances, teachers and random strangers. “I got an old-fashioned phone book and just started picking out people,” most within the state. The image was inside a protective black liner, and a note explained that the recipients could open it and thereby begin the process of it fading and eventually disappearing or keep it in the liner. Considering that ephemeral nature of the photograph was a way “to ask people to think about the choices that we make. And how these places that we know and have known are changing.”

TO OPEN OR TO NOT OPEN: She’s heard from recipients who never opened it. And others who reported on watching it fade. What would she have done, if she’d received such a package herself, with an invitation to essentially save a mountain view inside an envelope or bring it to light and let it fade? “I think I probably would open it.” Us too.

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