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Desirée Patterson, the photographic artist combining arresting visuals with troves of climate data

Former Whistlerite’s piece from Anomaly series incorporated temperature graphs into photo of Himalayan glacier

One challenge you sometimes hear in the fight against climate change is that environmental issues often lack a compelling narrative for the public to latch onto. The problem, taken as a whole, can seem too big, too scary, too abstract, and, for some at least, no amount of environmental data and research sounding the alarm is going to move the needle. 

Former Whistlerite Desirée Patterson has, over the course of her career, landed on a nexus between art and environmentalism to create compelling and urgent narratives around the degradation we hear about so frequently these days. The Vancouver photographic artist blends raw, unfeeling data with a visual aesthetic you can’t help but be moved by. 

Take her Anomaly series, inspired by a 2018 trek through the Himalayas, which fused Patterson’s glacial photographs with dual layers of colour, moving from cool blues to warmer reds, meant to highlight the delicate fragility of these glaciers. Produced as asymmetric diptychs, these compositions referenced the same colour scheme used in climate graphs generated by the University of Reading’s Ed Hawkins, who simplifies decades worth of temperature recordings into colour bars that demonstrate global warming trends. In this case, Patterson drew from more than a century’s worth of recordings from Nepal, and the resulting graph will be depicted as a mural or as a light projection directly over top of the works once the series goes to exhibition, which was originally slated for 2020 at a Vancouver gallery before being postponed by the pandemic. One of the works from the series also auctioned last month at the Audain Art Museum’s annual fundraiser, the Illuminate Gala, a touching moment for the Vancouver artist who spent five years living, working and taking photos in the resort between 2006 and 2011. 

“I’m really grateful there was a collector in the room who was new to my work and really saw the value of what I’m creating and decided to acquire that piece for their collection,” Patterson says. “I’m still buzzing from the experience. It was a really heartfelt and big moment for me.”

Nomadic visions

Although she’s been making work with an environmental bent for years now, it was a circuitous route for Patterson to arrive at her current practice. Her story should be readily familiar to other nomadic Whistlerites who needed to venture out into the world to discover themselves. With a camera in her hands from a young age, Patterson graduated high school without a clear idea of what she wanted to do. So she decided to go travelling, which turned into seven years of exploration through dozens of different countries. She worked as a stewardess on private yachts that took her to Florida and the Caribbean; she was a divemaster in Australia for a year; she spent time in the U.K., Italy and even helped build Swiss chalets in the Alps. In Paris, her first digital camera was stolen, and she couldn’t help but feel like an essential piece of her was lost along with it.  

“That was a really important thing that happened, even though I was devastated at the time and had a limited budget as a backpacker for a year on end,” she says. “I never realized how much in my life that meant to me because I always had the means to make an image, to make a capture.” 

Eventually, she got a new camera, and in Whistler, much of her time was spent teaching rock climbing at The Core and capturing the jaw-dropping feats of her adventurous climber and snowboarder friends, a time that helped nurture her love of the outdoors.  

“Most of my time in the Sea to Sky was spent immersed in these really beautiful environments with these really epic athletes. That’s what I thought I wanted to do, be a sports photographer,” Patterson recalls. 

Although she was working full time, picking up commercial gigs wherever she could, Patterson still wasn’t convinced it was the career she wanted. It was actually another silver lining from an otherwise dark cloud that nudged her to where she is today: a car accident that left her with long-term injuries to her neck and shoulder. Without the same capacity to lug her heavy camera bag around, Patterson focused on two separate tracks: architectural and commercial work that allowed her to better control her environment and rely on tripods instead of a travel bag, and her photographic art, which drew heavily on the archival images she had already captured on her past globe-trotting. 

Diverging paths

At a certain point, however, Patterson had to make a decision between the two paths. 

“I chose to go into the art direction because I felt it was less demanding of me physically,” she explains. ‘Then, by the time the summer [of 2015] rolled around, I decided I needed to make work that was really authentic to me and not something generic that had the promise of easy saleability, which I had banked on up until then.” 

Getting to that point didn’t come easy, however. Patterson was initially reluctant to tackle environmental concerns in her art because she feared the potential backlash. “I wasn’t really prepared to have conversations that might offend anybody with challenging subject matter,” she says. 

But the more she learned about the climate crisis, the more she knew it was the kind of impactful work she needed to be doing. She began making changes in her life that would lessen her personal impact on our oceans, a cause near and dear to her after her scuba years. 

“That eventually permeated everything and I wanted to make art about it and talk about it,” she says. “That’s where that longing came from, but then I was really scared to go that route because I didn’t see a lot of people doing it, and especially in the realms I was exhibiting in, I didn’t think it would be saleable, and I had this fear. Eventually I just bit the bullet and made a body of work.” 

The rest, as they say, is history, and today Patterson is a highly sought-after visual artist and muralist whose works can be found in galleries around the province—including the Whistler Contemporary Gallery, which is exhibiting two pieces featuring Mount Currie: one with the mountain fused into a cityscape, and the other where majestic Mount Currie appears to be melting down the canvas. 

“That work and that narrative really does [drive] home a lot of what I feel,” she describes. “It was inspired by an Einstein quote that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. In saying that, I hope humanity rises to the challenges that we need to in order to sustain things.” 

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