Oregon artist Daniela Molnar with a painting about climate change and grief.

Portland, Oregon, artist Daniela Molnar projected into one of her climate change grief pieces from the New Earth Series.

Julia Rosen has probed the myths of America’s deepest lake, looked down on Prince William Sound from a floatplane and joined a quest to scour the Bronx for jumping worms. But when it came time for a climate-change story she’d long wanted to tell, the science reporter found it somewhere she didn’t expect: a Portland, Oregon, art gallery.

The resulting Los Angeles Times story begins as a profile of artist Daniela Molnar, whose paintings reflect climate change. The story probes Molnar’s creative process, then blooms into an exploration of climate-change grief itself.

Rosen discovered Molnar when she attended an event at Vernissage Fine Art a little more than a year ago. A friend of Rosen’s was among the exhibitors, as was Molnar. Rosen was drawn to Molnar’s vibrant, abstract work, but grew especially intrigued when she learned that they represented landscapes that have been drowned or exposed by climate change. The paintings don’t just reflect the literal and physical manifestations of climate change; they reflect the maelstrom of feelings, including grief, brought forth by a changing world.

Freelance science journalist Julia Rosen

Julia Rosen

“She intended for the paintings to be a way to illustrate the impacts of climate change, but as she worked on the series, she found herself on this intense personal journey,” Rosen said. “That’s what really grabbed me.”

Once grabbed, Rosen — who has since returned to freelance work — looked for the best way to chronicle the journey of an artist through the emotions of climate change. Her story is its own hybrid — part profile of the artist and her process, part reminder of the ravages of climate change on the Earth, and part an exploration of shared grief. As a written piece, it has to juggle literal fact, accessible description and metaphor, and a writerly grace that tries to echo the grace of Molnar’s art.

Here are a few techniques that Rosen uses to make that work:

 

Crafting an enticing lede

The lede immediately whisks the reader into Molnar’s creative process:

It had been a long day and Daniela Molnar’s mind was wandering when she saw the shape. The shape of what was already lost; the shape of something new that had just come into being.

The lede entices with its sense of mystery, as if asking the reader to squint through mist to discern something solid. Who wouldn’t want to read on to discover the shape Molnar imagined and was compelled to paint on canvas?

Rosen said the story behind the lede was prompted by a question from editor Steven Padilla that was posed even before she started her reporting.

“He asked me how Molnar got the idea for the series,” she said. “I didn’t know but I made a note to ask her when we met. I was surprised when she told me this very clear origin story of how it all began with the shape of one specific glacier on Mt. Hood. It seemed like a natural way to start the piece.”

While the first sentence stayed the same throughout writing and editing, Rosen said a second sentence was added later to orient the reader.

Little did she know, it was a shape that would expose a profound feeling of grief within her — and then help her process it.

“We realized that we needed to signal to readers somewhere up high that this was ultimately going to be a story about grief,” Rosen said. “So I suggested adding the second line of the story, which sort of foreshadows the fact that this one shape would lead Molnar on a surprising emotional journey.”

The piece takes readers along on that journey. Accompanied by photos by the Times’ Genaro Molina, Rosen describes everything from the “nodding hellebores” planted outside Molnar’s studio to the transfixing landscapes of her paintings.

The shapes are vibrant and beautiful — culled from scientific studies and satellite images — and they cover the canvas in a colorful confetti of ruin.

Widening the story’s scope

As it unfolds, the scope of the story expands. It doesn’t confine itself to Molnar, but opens to explore grief brought on by climate change. Rosen spoke to a climate scientist who broke down in tears during a public talk, and interviewed a psychotherapist who writes and speaks on the mental-health consequences of climate change. That further grounds her piece in select moments of science and universal emotion even as she focuses on the artistic process. Rosen writes:

And though some may mock it, grief can be a powerful tool.

“From the beginning, I saw this as a story about climate grief told through the experience of someone who happened to be an artist,” she said. “But then I started to read more about climate-inspired art. There are so many people doing amazing work in this area, and there is all this fascinating research about how art can enrich our discourse about climate change. I totally got sucked down the rabbit hole.

“I tried working more of this material into early drafts, but ultimately pared it down to keep the piece more focused on grief. I talked to experts on climate grief and to others who have experienced it themselves. All of them echoed Molnar’s belief that we have to let ourselves feel the losses of climate change in order to confront it. That’s the idea I really wanted to put front-and-center here.”

Rather than have that psychology bog down her main piece, Rosen put much of it into a companion piece about managing climate grief.

“Whenever you write about difficult things that readers may be experiencing — and especially if the story itself might trigger upsetting feelings about those issues — I think it’s responsible to provide some resources for how to cope,” she said. “However, the story was already running long. So my editor and I decided to pull out this practical information and put it together into a sidebar.”

Waiting for the “right way to tell it”

Rosen said the experience of reporting the story on Molnar’s art and climate-change grief was a useful reminder that, despite the fast pace of the news, journalists need to practice patience. She always kept on alert for fresh, accessible ways to write about climate change. But she needed to wait until she found a story she really wanted to tell. And the L.A. Times waited through other events, inside and outside the newsroom, to tell that story.

Rosen’s initial reporting — interviews with Molnar and other sources and some necessary research — took about a month after she first saw Molnar’s art. The draft from that work had wait for about six months as the editor worked on more immediate deadline projects. After photos and a final round of edits, they found  a break in the hectic news cycle (“Always a challenge these days,” Rosen noted) for the story to make its debut.

Frustrating as that must have been, Rosen said it was also a good reminder:

“It’s often worth it to hold off on a story until you find the right way to tell it. I have been interested in the psychology of climate change for a while, and it certainly would have been possible to write something more newsy about the emerging science around climate grief or climate art. But using Molnar’s story as a gateway into those subjects felt more compelling and helped make these abstract ideas more concrete and familiar …

“At least from a writing perspective, it’s much easier going when you have a central character whose personal experience carries the narrative and naturally opens the door to concepts you want to cover.”

 

Oregon artist Daniela Molnar works on a painting about climate change

Artist Daniela Molnar in her studio in Portland, Oregon, working on her New Earth Series about climate change and grief.

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