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The Color of Ice
Peter Wasilewski Peter in Antarctica during the 1988-89 summer season. Image courtesy Peter J. Wasilewski.
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Wasilewski's 'Frozen Sun' “Frozen Sun.” Image courtesy Peter J. Wasilewski.
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NASA geophysicist-turned-artist Peter J. Wasilewski sees the color of ice. “I want to make people see color in ice. The only way you can make ice expressive is through color,” says Peter.

Why ice? Peter’s first job as a scientist, and first trip outside of his local area, was to the Antarctic. He participated in a 1,000 mile traverse during which he measured the magnetic field and ice thickness. Since then, he has made a total of six trips to Antarctica. A volcano on the Antarctic Peninsula is named after him. Peter explains that “the Antarctic experience had a profound impact on me. Once I totally adapted to the cold, then I began to see and hear things. When the wind stops, there is no noise. I could actually hear my body work.” He likens being in a white out to “being immersed in a cloud.” He could not see where he was walking. The surface was defined by shadows. Peter insists that the experience is not one of sensory deprivation, but one of sensory enhancement. As a result, Peter “looks for what white ice can tell me, or what the wind-sculpted surface of the ice cap tells me. Wind becomes the artist.”

Peter created an art form he calls Frizion, meaning “frozen vision.” Frizion is based on the same techniques and principles that scientists use to study ice in Antarctica. Essentially, scientists make holes called ice cores deep into glaciers and ice caps, which are actually formed from crushed snowflakes compressed over time. These ice cores can reveal the atmospheric composition at the time the ice was formed hundreds or even thousands of years ago. According to Peter, “All of my art has its origins in science.” However, the application of these techniques and principles to art is unique to him.

He begins by placing a small amount of water on its way to freezing in a glass Petri dish. He puts the Petri dish between two sheets of polarized filters. He then places the sandwich on a light table. Peter explains that “the color comes from the thickness of the ice.” Other influences on the color are the time given to the water to begin freezing, different light sources, additional freezing mediums such as liquid nitrogen, and the level of water purity. Peter uses an inexpensive digital camera with 10X magnification to photograph the images and relies on Photoshop to enhance the brightness but not the color. He relies on a high quality printer to produce images up to 30 by 40 inches. For Peter, “the composition configures the Frizion and is the most difficult part of the process.” Peter concludes, “There are enormous landscapes and characters to see in a six inch diameter Petri dish.”

Peter is careful to differentiate the scientist from the artist. For example, when Peter is asked how he names his images, he replies, “You have to realize that this is not scientific, this is artistic and the names emerge from perceptions and imagery. So what do the images look like?” Another example involves magnification. Peter’s response is that “if I were publishing in a scientific journal, the magnification would be critical. But here, who cares? It’s the composition that is most important here.” Yet the scientist remains. When people ask Peter if he can freeze other fluids, they will be treated to a dissertation on the thirteen forms of water ice; only one form of which on Earth is hexagonal and is the only form able to produce both snowflakes and the color of ice.

Not too many individuals can be both a scientist and an artist. Explains Peter, “As I get older, I’m probably more of a nonlinear than a linear thinker. Science is creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. I also think there are a lot of creative thinkers in technical areas who are able to make leaps in thinking.” His scientific background makes him very particular about his art and the creative process. Says Peter, “Some days I wake up and can only write on yellow paper and with a certain kind of pen. It’s the same way with my art. Some days I want to do a certain sort of picture. You have to make it speak to you. It’s the material. You have to focus on it.”

As an artist, Peter’s Frizions have been on exhibit from Juno to Vail to Lake Placid. As a scientist, he is a standing guest lecturer for the annual Lake Placid History of Winter Program, which uses snow and ice as teaching tools to improve the quality of science teachers. He, however, has no plans to return to Antarctica; he prefers the comfort of a nice hotel with a good TV.

Once he retires next month, he will convert to an Emeritus status as an educator focusing on the History of Winter Program. Peter now wants “to bring the color of ice to people who deal with ice in a scientific or artistic manner.” In whatever his capacity; be he scientist, artist, or educator; Peter will continue exploring the color of ice.

For further information about Peter and his Frizions, visit: