She Chases Storms … With a Paintbrush
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When storms approach, most people head for cover. Rachel Walter turns to her canvas.
By Sohini Das Gupta
- Rachel Walter is part of a rare breed of artists who capture storms — big and small — live.
- The 29-year-old took to painting storms almost as a form of therapy. Today she’s a storm chaser — from her studio.
There was a storm raging inside her head — one she knew well. But amid a
“blinding battle with chronic migraines” in the summer of 2016, Rachel Walter found unlikely solace in the raw power of real-world storms. Glaring lightning and pounding rain were visuals that Walter wanted to “tie metaphorically to the pain” she was facing. So she picked up her paintbrush.
Five years and one pandemic later, Walter still battles recurrent headaches, but what started out as therapy and evolved into a hobby has now become a small, social media-propelled business.
People gravitate to storms.
All over the world, there are artists who paint their interpretations of weather phenomena. But Walter is rare: The 29-year-old paints storms live, from the vantage point of her studio in Dallas, a city that’s no stranger to atmospheric theatrics. She may not hop into a minivan like traditional storm chasers when the sky frowns and grumbles, but very often, she will gather her own equipment — stretched canvas, oil paint, palette and brushes — to observe and document them on paper in real time. Storm lovers across America turn to her paintings to add depth and drama to their walls.
Which means there are others who share her obsession, right? “People gravitate to storms — their power, their beauty and their ability to create and destroy,” she says. “People want to feel the danger. I think that’s why they chase them and perhaps it’s also why people want to see them represented in artwork and bring that same sense of awe into their homes.”
To be sure, that danger is deadly real. Hurricane Ida, which barreled into Louisiana’s coast late last month — on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation — has killed at least 82 people. Through her art, Walter — who describes herself on social media as “a Realist painter inspired by the intersection of physical science, philosophy, and the skies” — gives enthusiasts a chance to experience the thrill of storms without exposing themselves to danger.
Glancing through her work on Instagram or her website, it’s impossible to miss her intimacy with storms. Dandelion whites, dazzling blues, and then, sudden as a storm, slabs of violet sliced in uneven fragments by a thunderbolt. Sometimes, stormier frames show a more menacing gray. The more you look, the more real they become. Almost as real as masterful photographs of nature when it decides to unleash violence.
Denver-based Jim Tang, who chases storms to photograph them, reckons that the urge to capture nature in flux is largely the same for both an artist and a photographer. “The only difference is that I’m constrained by what exists in front of me, whereas the painter would be unlimited in their creation,” he remarks, perhaps referring to the poetic license that exists when you’re transferring an unfolding scene onto paper, filtered through the prisms of vision and imagination — that darned old chasm between life and art, between art and science.
Indian visual artist Dhara Mehrotra, no stranger to seeking inspiration from elements of nature herself, feels that the chasm can be bridged. Her art, chasing the transcendence of weeds, pollen or dragonflies, focuses on doing just that. As does Walter’s.
Why paint the sky that can be photographed, perhaps much more “accurately”? “Art and science are two means to the same end … the pursuit of truth,” Mehrotra says. “Illustrating atmospheric phenomena artistically makes a larger-than-life view of the knowledge, the perspective and ways of knowing the phenomena, bringing it closer for the viewer.” The aesthetics of the art — the dandelion whites, dazzling blues and sliced-up violets I wouldn’t have noticed in the real sky until Walter painstakingly painted them — appeal to a large viewership by “minimizing the seeming distance between art and science.”
What can’t be minimized are the very real risks to life and property that storms pose. Walter knows this all too well. In 2017, she undertook a three-hour solo hike in the Icelandic highlands in the middle of winter. “About halfway up the mountain, a hunter informed me about a coming storm, but given the language barrier, I didn’t fully grasp the severity of his warning,” she recalls.
As she reached the summit, thick white clouds began dumping snow. She was unable to see her own hand. “I sledded on my backside, slipping and tripping blindly down the rocky cliff face, all the while praying I could avoid succumbing to injury or hypothermia,” she says.
The prayers worked. As Walter has since shown, there are many ways to chase storms. The canvas can capture them just as well as the camera can.
- Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Author Contact Sohini Das Gupta