Blazin’ Blazon: Artist Courtney Blazon’s exhibit shows viewers what it’s like to spend a year without summer

By on November 1, 2017

In 1815, a volcano erupted in Indonesia the third largest eruption recorded in history. It unleashed an aerosol cloud that blanketed the planet for a year, which became known as the “year without a summer.”

The eruption changed the weather, and the changing climate birthed cultural ideas and movements that changed history: the spread of diseases like cholera and typhoid, the advent of Mormonism and the creation of important works of literature and art.

Courtney Blazon learned about the global changing while listening to a podcast on Mary Shelley, who created “Frankenstein” during that summer when she and friends couldn’t go outside because of the weather and instead told ghost stories.

“When I heard about it, I just knew I had to make work about it,” the Montana-based artist said.

Blazon spent six months studying the eruption and its immediate and long-term repercussions. She made 40 pieces inspired by the historical eruption, some depicting events directly tied to the event, others more tangentially linked.

Those pieces hang in the Center Theater Gallery through Nov. 12. The series, created in pen and marker, features two eight feet pieces and three four-feet works, as well as a 20 portraits.

“Details sur la fin du monde,” one of the largest pieces, is strictly about the summer of 1816. The geographical portrait travels from the East in Indonesia, then to China, Switzerland and the rest of Europe. It reads left to right across the page.

In it, Blazon documents cholera’s arrival in India as well as Lord Byron sitting on the steps of a villa composing “Darkness” in Switzerland.

“Poetry of the seven sorrows,” another large piece, features dancing skeletons and dying dancers at a masquerade ball. The piece was inspired by a story from a German journalist who in 1832 attended a masquerade ball just as cholera hit Europe.

At the time, people believed it was a disease of the poor, Blazon said. All day people dance and drank water. Soon people began to collapse. By the end of the night there was a funeral pyre for the stacks of dead bodies, Blazon said the journalist recounted.

“That image struck me so intensely of that party turned devastation,” Blazon said.

Many scientists believe cholera wouldn’t have hit Europe if it weren’t for the eruption, Blazon said. A freezing period followed for several years and the resulting melt and flooding helped cholera fester.

Some links are even less direct. One piece depicts the Donner Party, the famous group of settlers that resorted to cannibalism when they got stuck moving west in the winter in the mid-1800s.

There are links between the volcano and westward expansion due to the changes in weather, Blazon said.

Blazon also draws a line between the eruption and Joseph Smith founding Mormonism. A child in 1815, his family moved when their crops suffered after the volcano.

“If this event hadn’t taken place, he might not have gone into the forest and seen the spirit he claims he saw,” Blazon said.

Some of the links might be more tenuous, but the work is meant to explore the idea of how a single event can change the course of history and how linked the world is—especially when it comes to climate changes, Blazon said.

There were so many links to the eruption that Blazon couldn’t contain all the stories in the narrative drawings. That’s why she also created a portrait series featuring renderings of writers, scientists and explorers from the era.

Blazon works with pen and marker to create her art. It’s a medium that is archival but fast and easy, while also creating a painterly look. They dry immediately, which forced Blazon to hone her skills. Blazon started drawing as a child in New Hampshire, but by a young teen all she wanted to do was draw. She attended college in Boston and then studied illustration at Parsons School of Design.

Her work is distinctive, partially defined by how she renders people with rosy cheeks, but even more so by her composition, she said.

“My compositions are chaotic, but also organized well enough that people are able to read them,” she said.

From a distance a work might look crazy, but on closer examination there is order, she said.

There is also, like her series “Year Without a Summer,” almost always a storytelling component in her work.

“I can’t get my spirit behind it unless there is something else to it that makes me intrigued,” she said. “It can’t just be a scene or an object. That isn’t quite enough.” PJH

Courtney Blazon’s exhibit, “Year Without a Summer,” hangs through Nov. 12, Center Theater Gallery, free

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