Why California Artist Danielle Nelisse Paints the Wildfires That Almost Took Her Studio

The fires couldn’t stop Danielle Nelisse from painting. Now she’s bringing her work — and message — worldwide.

Amy Brady
5 min readMar 17, 2019
Photo by Michael Held. From Unsplash.

Danielle Nelisse is an immigration attorney, private investigator, and a painter. Her “Wildfires” series was inspired by nine wildfires that surrounded her California art studio in May 2014. The paintings will be on view at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain through July 2020. In this interview we discuss the wildfires that nearly took her studio and how they inspired her to think about art as a way of getting more people to think about ecological problems and climate change. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Amy: What inspired the “Wildfires” series?

Danielle: My “Wildfires” series was first inspired in 2014 when nine wildfires simultaneously surrounded my art studio in Southern California. While I stood in my art studio creating the first “Wildfires” paintings on two canvases side-by-side, my family members checked in over the phone. I just kept painting. The sky became dark with charred ash.

The massive wildfires were fed for days by hot Santa Ana winds that blew in from the desert. To date I have completed nine wildfires paintings and luckily I haven’t been ordered to evacuate my art studio yet.

Amy: What led to the “Wildfires” series being shown at the US Embassy in Bahrain?

Danielle: When Justin Siberell was appointed as Ambassador by the President, he sought artwork from a California artist to exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain. His staff contacted me and told me that he connected with my artwork because he is originally from California and as a former fire fighter he wanted to share his memory of the wildfires in California with the people of Bahrain.

“Wildfires V.” by Nelisse. 36 x 36 oil on canvas. Photo credit: EgoID Media. Courtesy of Danielle Nelisse.

Amy: What do you hope viewers will take away from “Wildfires”?

Danielle: I often use art to depict imagery associated with climate change. I feel that a majority of people are overwhelmed with emotions regarding the negative impact of climate change, and the fact that solutions are too complex to implement quickly or easily by any one person or any one government or any one country.

I know when people feel they are not free to express their emotions it compromises their emotional and physical health. By creating abstract paintings that address climate change, I invite viewers to vent their emotions about what is interpreted as a devastating and staggering problem for an international community to solve.

Amy: Many experts say that California’s wildfires are exacerbated by climate change. Do you think about climate change beyond what you paint in the studio?

Danielle: I worry a lot about the negative impacts of climate change. Living in Southern California I am exposed to the consequences of long term drought conditions and see lakes dry up, see mudslides take place after the fires, see lawns removed in favor of xeriscape landscapes, and see wildfires all year round.

These days wildfire firefighters are facing situations they have never encountered, such as a 100 foot wall of flames and triple digit heat for 25 consecutive days.

Wildfires burned through the Western United States this past year, but I can’t help but notice that global warming has resulted in wildfires worldwide. Europe just recently suffered its deadliest fire season in more than a century.

According to Stanford University climate change scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, “We now have very strong evidence that global warming has already put a thumb on the scales, upping the odds of extremes like severe heat and heavy rainfall. We find that global warming has increased the odds of record-setting heat events over more than 80 percent of the planet.”

Amy: What role do you see art playing in our larger conversations about climate change and ecological disasters like wildfires?

Danielle: For about ten years or more, artists like me have been expressing our concern by creating artwork about climate change and ecological disasters. Making my “Wildfires” painting series allows me to release anxiety and express my emotions about climate change. I can only hope that if my art is in the right place at the right time it might provide an opportunity to impact policy makers by sparking productive conversations.

Just a few days ago, the United Nations officially recognized climate change as a cause for migration, outlining ways for countries to cope with communities that are displaced by natural disasters as well as “slow onset events” like drought, desertification, and rising seas. I believe that artists can help keep this issue at the forefront by constantly reminding the public that climate change needs our immediate attention.

Amy: What’s next for you?

Danielle: Within the next month I’m moving my art studio to the Hawaiian island of Maui. Rising temperatures, king tides, shifting precipitation patterns, warming and acidifying oceans and other climate change impacts are already affecting the islands in ways that will change them permanently. Given the rise in sea levels, it may be my last chance to experience and artistically record island life.

Danielle Nelisse is an Artist, Private Investigator, and Immigration Attorney. Growing up in the sixties in the gritty city of Detroit influenced Nelisse’s social values and she has a deep commitment to human rights issues like civil rights, equality and fairness. Nelisse has formal training in art, law, criminal investigation, and urban planning. Her experience as a private investigator specializing in homicide cases provides her with an informed perspective on human action, human interaction, and how economic and environmental factors influence human behavior. As an immigration attorney she has years of experience with the impact of climate change on her international clientele as they migrate. Her art is exhibited by museums, universities, and fortune 500 companies. You can contact her by visiting her website, www.daniellenelisse.com



Amy Brady

Amy is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books. Read more at AmyBradyWrites.com.