The Year Without a Summer Project (2016) by Courtney Blazon

  • Inspired by The Year Without a Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (2013) by William and Nicholas Klingaman, Courtney Blazon created a series of four large and dozens of small illustrations, which are collectively known as The Year Without a Summer Project. The work also drew on Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (2014) by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.
  • Blazon is a Montana-based artist known for her colorful, surreal marker and ink projects. Her illustrations from The Year Without a Summer Project explore death and illness, folklore and art, all in the context of climate change.

How is this related to climate?

  • All of the illustrations in the The Year Without a Summer Project are inspired by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora (map below), the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. The eruption sent sulfur dioxide and volcanic ash into the air, blocking out the sun and causing a volcanic winter in which average global temperatures dropped by 3°C. 
  • The art pieces explore the far-reaching short-term and long-term consequences of the eruption and the resulting volcanic winter: 
    • Cold temperatures, torrential rains and acidic ash that settled on agricultural fields caused massive crop failures, which then resulted in famine. 
    • People died from the initial volcanic blast, from starvation as a result of famine, and diseases, including severe respiratory infections from inhaling volcanic ash, diarrheal disease from drinking ash-contaminated water, and famine-related diseases such as cholera and typhus.

Map of southeast Asia with the location of Mount Tambora indicated with a black marker (from Google Maps, 2021).

Zaman Hujan Au (Time of the Ash and Rain) (2016); 40in x 50in (102cm x 127cm) (from Blazon, n.d.).

  • The illustration above depicts the immediate effects of the eruption in Indonesia and the surrounding area. 
    • The four people in the lower right corner, who are melting and dripping lava, represent the tens of thousands of people who were killed by the blast. The sick animals to the left of them represent the wildlife that was killed and the ecosystems that were destroyed. 
    • Sir Stamford Raffles, the British Governor of Java, who is standing in a red coat, sent relief aid to Indonesia once he realized the extent of the eruption and its aftermath.
    • The rumblings felt prior to the eruption were blamed on angry gods, one of whom is shown vomiting lava onto the land in the center of the piece.  
    • Crab-eating macaques, a common monkey in Indonesia, sit on a tree branch in the upper left corner. They symbolize “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” a warning about refusing to take action in the face of disaster, such as the current climate crisis.

Détails sur le Fin Du Monde (Details About the End of the World) (2016); 48in x 96in (122cm x 244cm) (from Blazon, n.d.).

  • The second piece in the series (above) depicts the strange climatic changes across the world that were caused by Tambora’s eruption. The piece can be viewed left to right, which represents geographic east to west. 
    • On the far left, lava bubbles up from the ground in Indonesia. 
    • Above that, leaves pour out of the stomach of a skinny horse with visible ribs, referencing the fact that people resorted to eating horses and ground-up leaves during famines. 
    • In the upper left corner is a depiction of the Chinese province of Yunnan, which was hit so hard by crop failures and famine that farmers turned to the opium trade for their livelihoods. 
    • In the center, Lord Byron sits outside the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, writing his post-apocalyptic poem Darkness and having tea with Death. In front of him, Lake Geneva is frozen over, even in the summer months. The summer of 1816 was cold and wet in Europe, and Byron, John William Polidori and Mary Shelley spent time at the Villa Diodati, writing works of horror inspired by the unpleasant weather, including Shelley’s Frankenstein, Polidori’s The Vampyre, and Byron’s Darkness
    • To the right of Byron is a barren agricultural field, another reference to famine. 
    • Thomas Jeffserson sits on the far right of the illustration. He is holding a rain gauge, symbolizing his passion for recording the weather, which provided a lot of data about the climatic shift after Tambora’s eruption. Jefferson also went into debt over crop failure likely caused by the unusual weather. 
    • Sunsets fill the top of the drawing, a nod to James Mallord William Turner who used the dramatic sunsets caused by the ash- and dust-filled atmosphere as inspiration for landscape paintings. 
    • Across the bottom is a colorful depiction of cholera-causing bacteria bubbling up in the water supply. Cholera spread quickly around the world as starving people flocked to market towns in search of food when their crops failed.

Poetry of the Seven Sorrows (2016); 48in x 96in (122cm x 244cm) (from Blazon, n.d.).

  • This piece (above) references famines and the 1832 cholera outbreak in Europe and North America. 
    • The sulfuric gases and volcanic ash that Tambora shot into the atmosphere delayed the formation of the Indian monsoon for two years, first causing drought and then late unseasonal flooding along the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal. As a result, the microbial ecology of the region shifted, giving rise to a new strain of cholera that people had no immunity to. The disease then spread outside of India for the first time and it wreaked havoc in Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe. Colorful cholera bacteria are shown in the bottom center of the image, seeping into the water supply. 
    • By 1831, cholera had reached western Europe. At a masquerade ball in Paris, France in 1832, several harlequin performers suddenly fell ill. They were rushed to the hospital, where they soon died. They were buried so quickly that not even their clothes were removed, represented by the dancing skeletons and people in colorful checkered outfits. There are seven harlequins in reference to the poetry of the seven sorrows, which describes suffering in the Yunnan province of China in the aftermath of Tambora’s eruption.  
    • Cholera reached North America in 1832. In the years that followed, people left crowded cities with rapidly-spreading disease for the rural western territories,  displacing and killing Indigenous Peoples along the way. The upper left corner includes images depicting this colonization and genocide.
    • The slaughter of horses for food meant that people had to find an alternate mode of transportation. This led to the invention of the bicycle, which is illustrated in the upper right corner.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (2016); 40in x 50in (102cm x 127cm) (from Blazon, n.d.).

  • The fourth and final large illustration (above) combines the voices and themes of the writing and artwork inspired by the eruption of Mount Tambora. 
    • The title comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan about the fraught relationship between humans and nature. 
    • There are seven figures, representing the seven deadly sins and different effects of the Tambora eruption. For example:
      • Pride is depicted by two children (in yellow boots), one of whom has their head turned backwards. This symbolizes the innovation and evolution that came out of this disastrous time. 
      • Greed, who looks like Frankenstein, is sitting on a pile of dollar bills (center of image), a reference to Benjamin Franklin. He was the first to propose a link between volcanism and climate changes in his “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures,” in which he hypothesized that the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland caused cooling in Europe. 
      • Anger (left center) is wearing a dress with bacteria printed on it and is emitting a green gas from her mouth, symbolizing the cholera outbreak. 
      • Laziness (in red dress; left center) is overdosing on opiates, a reference to Chinese farmers turning to opium trade after their crops failed. 
  • Welcome to the Pleasure Dome also references current anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation. 
    • In the lower left corner, a starving polar bear hobbles across a melting ice cap and an albatross has a stomach full of plastic. The drills may be a reference to the extraction of fossil fuels.
    • In the upper left corner, an airplane is dispersing cloud-seeding chemicals in an attempt to mitigate against global warming by replicating the cooling effects of Mount Tambora’s eruption. 

References and additional resources