Intensely sublime: An Interview with Frontrunner Magazine by Shana Beth Mason by Leigh McCarthy

I am excited to share a recent interview published by Frontrunner Magazine.

‘crossing’ (2017). Dye sublimation print on metal. 48 inches in diameter. Courtesy of the artist.

‘crossing’ (2017). Dye sublimation print on metal. 48 inches in diameter. Courtesy of the artist.

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 asyour 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.

‘harmony in blue’ (2017). Dye sublimation print on metal, 48 inches in diameter. Courtesy of the artist.

‘harmony in blue’ (2017). Dye sublimation print on metal, 48 inches in diameter. Courtesy of the artist.

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.


‘the great escape’ (2010). Ink on paper, 20” x 16”. Courtesy of the artist.

‘the great escape’ (2010). Ink on paper, 20” x 16”. Courtesy of the artist.

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 escapewhere 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 (2008). Found wood, pencil on watercolor paper, antique glass, and antiqued hardware 30″ x 15”. Courtesy of the artist.

sailor’s valentine (2008). Found wood, pencil on watercolor paper, antique glass, and antiqued hardware 30″ x 15”. Courtesy of the artist.

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 couldnot see myself.

Hoisting the GRMI flag at Fjortende Julibukta. Photo credit courtesy of the artist.

Hoisting the GRMI flag at Fjortende Julibukta. Photo credit courtesy of the artist.

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.


Opening Reception by Leigh McCarthy

Friday August 11th
5-8 pm
Samuel Owen Gallery

Opening Reception // Friday August 11th  
5-8 pm @ the Samuel Owen Gallery

I am delighted to exhibit new work from my porthole series at my favorite gallery on island, the Samuel Owen Gallery. My new porthole series of dye-sublimation prints on metal are inspired by summers on Nantucket and the journey to and from the island that has become my second home. The 1947 International Dragon sailboat, ELSKA, featured in the print above won the Opera Cup in 2008. To preserve this beautiful place, I will donate a portion of my sales to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.

For more information contact the gallery at 508.680.1445 or email

Samuel Owen Gallery 
46 Centre Street
Nantucket, MA 02554



WEEK 1/ The High Arctic by Leigh McCarthy

Day 1 / 3 October 2016/ Longyearbyen 78°13.7 ́N, 015°36.3 ́E

The moment has finally come. We are sailing out of Longyearbyen on the Antigua, a 165 foot Norwegian tall ship. As we depart, snow dusts the deck and dolphins swim in our wake. I am on a boat with 29 other artists for the The Arctic Circle Autumn Art & Science Expedition.

During this two week expedition, the night will last 20 minutes more each day. By the time we disembark, daylight will have collapsed by six hours, the sun rising at 9:59am and setting at 3:23pm disorienting our sense of time.  

It's a rough start. As soon as we sit down for dinner the boat really starts rocking. Three people get sick. What was I thinking? I pop two pills and head to my cabin. They make me feel dizzy and sleepy. 

Due to a big swell and wind, we are forced to make a course change of 180° degrees and head back into the bay. Sailing North East.

20:40 - Sails up, engine off. Northern lights! I am below deck knocked out by sea sickness meds and feeling woozy. 22:50 - Anchor down, Bjonahamna.

Day 2-3 / Bjonahamna 78°23,6'N, 016°51,6'E - Tunabreen

In the morning we have a Zodiac briefing by the Captain. Our guides, toting rifles and flare guns secure a perimeter before we make a landing at Bjonahamna. There are more Polar bears than people on this island.  



Afternoon - 14:05 - Anchor up, sail to Tunabreen. 15:55 – Anchor down 78°23,1'N, 017°23,7'E.

I look towards Tunabreen and am swallowed up by the immensity of the glacier. My attempt to capture this place is futile. There is no way to express the sublime feeling with a picture, a video, or words. It is unphotographable. Ineffable. Exquisite.

I wish i could make time stand still — and capture this moment for you. But my photos can’t capture the vastness. The scale. The cold. The smell. The crackling sounds. The feeling swallows you whole. You're just this tiny little speck in this infinite space.

There is a loud quiet – the water makes noises like a fizzing glass of 7up as air bubbles escape from the glacial ice melting in the water. As soon as I step on deck, I hear the crash of glacier falling into the sea. It sounds like an explosion echoing across the water. Our guide tells us polar bears aren't afraid of the sound of gunshots because it sounds the same as a glacier calving. 

Landing at the newly discovered  ́Jægerøya ́ island after our guide, Kristin Jæger Wexsahl, discovers what once appeared as a spit of land connected to the glacier Tunabreen is actually an island. A large group of Belugas swim by the ship through the shallow shores. I take a few photos, but the belugas only appear as white specks. 

I thought I would be lucky to capture glaciers calving. I didn't realize that it would happen with so much frequency and ferocity. The ice falling displaces the water so violently it creates a set of surfable waves crashing on the shore. Our guide, Sarah, said she has never seen anything like it.  

Tunabreen Glacier


Day 4 / Ymerbukta, 78°18,0 ́N, 013°57.2 ́E

I wake up 5:00am to the boat rocking like a see saw. I push my legs and arms against the cabin walls to stay in place on my upper bunk. We attempt to make it out of Isfjorden and enter the open ocean. The boat heels up to 30° which makes water splash against my porthole. 

The captain decides to turn around at 6:30am because of the strong SW swell. By 8:30 we enter less wild waters. 9:50am – Anchor down, Ymerbukta, 78°18,0 ́N, 013°57.2 ́E.

-2°C, 2m/sec, some clouds but mainly bright sunshine and strong colors. Wind picking up from the South at the end of the morning – increasing swell. Overcast during the afternoon – 1°C.

Ymerbukta looking towards Alkhornet.

Sunrise 09:13 – Sunset 18:15.

Morning – Stationary, short, and longer hike to or towards the glacier Esmarkbreen.

Afternoon – Landing on the land spit in front of Esmarkbreen.


18:00 - Anchor up. Moving to the other side of the fjord — strong winds from the South are expected.

19:20 - Anchor down, Ymerbukta, 78°16,6 ́N, 013°57.6 ́E.

Day 5 / Ymerbukta 78°16,6´N, 013°57.6´E

Today we were ´værfast´ — stuck due to weather. It is impossible to make a landing because of high winds. Despite using two anchors and 270 meters of chain we are still traveling half a knot per hour. I learn that anchors are not what hold you in place, rather it is the weight of chain.

Most of the women on the ship decide to so "swimming" which means they use the ladder to take a microsecond dip off the side of the boat wearing nothing but a leather belt so we can pull them back on board. As we are conserving water — it also serves as a makeshift shower. 

Day 6 / Ymerbukta – North! - Blomstrandhalvøya

3°C, 10m/sec. Sunrise 09:29 – Sunset 17:58.

09:20 – 2nd anchor up. We finally sail out of Isfjorden! Morning sunshine on Alkhornet.



11:45 – sails set.

16:30 – Abandon ship drill. 17:20 – Fire drill.

21:14 – Anchor down, Blomstrandhamna, 78°59,6 ́N, 012°04.6 ́E.

Costume party above the 78° parallel north! 

Day 7 / Sunday 09.10.2016 / Blomstrandhalvøya - Blomstrandbreen

0°C, 5m/s. Overcast. 2°C, overcast and a little bit of rain in the afternoon. Sunrise 09:37 – Sunset 17:49.

Morning – landing on an island in front of Blomstrandbreen. 10 years ago, the glacier was still connected to the larger island called Blomstrandhalvøya,  'flower beach peninsula'. When the glacier retreated it became clear that it was an island in stead of a peninsula. The small island we land on was still covered by the glacier about 7 years ago.



13:20 – Anchor up. Passing through uncharted waters – zodiac measuring the depth in front of Antigua. We make it.

14:55 – Anchor down, Blomstrandbreen, 79°00,2 ́N, 012°13.1 ́E.

Afternoon – Landing close to Blomstrandbreen. We hike to look at the glacier from another vantage. The fog rolls in and we might not be able to see anytthing. But as we approach it disperses and we can take in the immense view of glaciers in every direction! 

The far edge of the world by Leigh McCarthy

The Great Escape (2010), graphite on paper 

The Great Escape (2010), graphite on paper 

Today, the inimitable author and activist, Rebecca Solnit, releases the paperback edition of her book, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. The book begins with a dispatch from an arctic expedition she embarked upon in 2011 from Svalbard: 

"Far. That first morning, there was out the porthole of my cabin a little blue iceberg. We were in Magdalenafjord, the bay at the end of the earth, the northwest corner of Svalbard in the high Arctic, more than a dozen degrees north of the Arctic Circle. Beyond it were stony gray hills with glaciers curving down the valleys in between most of them. The idea of being so far north was exciting enough, and then there were all those things I always wanted to see: icebergs, reindeer, polar bears, along with all the things I’m always happy to see: water, sky, spaciousness, land forms, light, scale. More than anyplace I’ve ever been, this one imposed a dependency: there was no way out except by this boat, and no way to communicate with the outside world except by this boat. Which was also an independency, from the rest of the world. Times when the view went all the way to the horizon and no land was visible on that side of the boat, when the sea was a delicate blue-gray and the sky was the same color, the sea smooth with billowing ripples that did not break into waves, the sky smooth, and only seabirds coasting along the surface of the sea, coming close to their own reflections, bending but not breaking the smoothness and vastness. The far edge of the world, at the back of the North Wind, east of the sun and west of the moon, as far as far, at the back of beyond, out of reach, out of touch, out of the ordinary, beyond the Arctic Circle, beyond so many things. Far. "

Solnit headed to the Arctic to witness a disaster in slow motion -- the disappearance of the ice pack as it melts. I will follow her in October of 2016, but have meditated on the weight of that symbolic loss for years as depicted in the drawing (posted above), The Great Escape (2010).  Solnit's words resonate with me, "I see disaster everywhere; I also [...] see generosity and resistance everywhere." Solnit's resistance is her story. My resistance is my art.


dreaming of the Arctic Circle by Leigh McCarthy


I am thrilled to announce I was selected to join The Arctic Circle Autumn Art & Science Expedition in October of 2016. This unique residency program takes place aboard a Norwegian tall ship that embarks from the Longyearbyen, SvalbardAs the Arctic ice pack rapidly dwindles, the chance to travel with a group of artists and scientists to document this fragile ecosystem feels more urgent than ever. 

In 1991, I traveled to Prince William Sound on a month-long sea kayaking expedition two years after the Exxon Valdez disaster. I heard stories about what I could no longer see: otters in their breeding grounds, blue mussels that previously lined the shores, and birds missing from the sky. High powered water pushed the oil a few inches below the surface but its damaging effects were ever present. Experiencing this loss first-hand influences the themes and subject matter of my work which depicts landlocked cargo ships shipwrecked like beached whales that have lost their way. My work seeks not to treat these incidents directly, but rather to evoke the yearning for the sublime that lay at the heart of these journeys, and others like it. 

Sailing through the Arctic archipelago, I will explore one of the last untouched ecosystems in the world. During this residency I will create an art project that tells the story of what soon disappear from this majestic landscape for those who will never have a chance to witness it first hand. 


Happy Holidays! by Leigh McCarthy


To celebrate finishing my new website I'm offering a friends + family holiday discount on all my work. You will find seascapes and shipwrecks, prints and drawings, doppelgängers and double exposures. And because I love you, until midnight Dec. 20th EST you can save 20% off.

Hope you have a great holiday and a happy new year!

sending big love to you and yours!
leigh xx