Exhibit Details

Jessie Wilber Gallery

A Year Without Summer by Courtney Blazon

Jessie Wilber Gallery
September 10 – November 26, 2021

Thursday, October 14
7-8pm (MT) | Zoom
*pre-registration is required*

Artist’s Bio
Courtney Blazon is an artist and illustrator residing in Missoula, MT. She earned a BFA in Illustration from Parsons School of Design. In Montana, her works have been shown at the Missoula Art Museum, Holter Museum of Art, and Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, and most recently at Northcutt Steele Gallery in Billings. Nationally, Courtney’s distinctive art has been shown in Seattle, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, Baton Rouge, San Francisco, and Jackson, Wyoming. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings (Western Edition), Studio Visit Magazine, and juxtapoz.com.  Courtney is the co-organizer of the popular Montana MADE Fairs, a series of art and craft fairs started in 2007. She is a past recipient of the Montana Arts Council Artists Innovation Award, and is represented by Radius Gallery in Missoula, MT.

Artist’s Statement

I created this series of stream-of-consciousness narrative drawings on the bicentennial of the April 1815th eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. It is considered the 3rd largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The eruption caused total devastation to the surrounding area with global repercussions reaching far beyond. Volcanic gasses caused a worldwide aerosol cloud that clogged up the sky. The following year, climate anomalies were recorded around the world. The volcanic winter and subsequent effects on European and North American crops caused 1816 to be known as the “Year Without A Summer.”  This eruption catalyzed a whole host of events that spanned from the horrific and tragic, to the literary and cultural. A long list of the amazing things that can be directly linked to the Volcano Tambora eruption include the birth of modern climate science, the birth of modern meteorology, the opening of the Northwest Passage, the advent of the Chinese opium trade, the birth of gothic horror, and American westward expansion.

These drawings link together the far-reaching effects of the eruption and demonstrate the global impact of this singular event, as well as making a connection to our current manmade climate state. My fantastical works form a chronicle that bridges the catastrophe with the inspired global impact that followed. The series is a set of interrelated “surrealistic, symbolist, and fantastical” drawings that touch on the resulting worldwide crop failures, disease outbreaks, scientific discoveries, and the birth of literary Gothic Horror at Villa Diodati in Switzerland where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. I depict “the dead and living” coming together to narrate a story with far-reaching cultural and social consequences. I populate the drawings with historical figures influenced by the effects of the eruption. Painter J.M.W. Turner’s luminous paintings may have been inspired by bizarre and eerie sunsets caused by the ash in the atmosphere. Founding father Benjamin Franklin was an early proponent of the idea that a volcanic eruption could affect global weather. Thomas Jefferson advocated for the importance of accurate meteorological recordings. The Royal families of Europe whose response to the cataclysmic event was criticized for being disconnected and callous. Scholar turned farmer turned poet, Li Yuyang, resurrected the ancient Chinese poetry form called the “Poetry of the Seven Sorrows” as a response to watching his people in the Yunnan province starve and suffer disease as a result of the volcanic gases. I also explore investigations into the further reaching aspects of the eruption including Manifest Destiny (in the form of the Donner Party), and a satirical look at our present climate state as depicted through the seven deadly sins.


1Zaman Hujan Au (Time of the Ash Rain)

Pen, Marker, and Oil Pastel on Paper  |  40”H x 50”W

·       The 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia was the largest in recorded history. It hurled 38 cubic miles of ash and cinders nearly 30 miles into the sky, destroying all vegetation on Sumbawa, and killing tens of thousands of people there and on neighboring islands. Untold numbers of domestic and wild animals, birds, and insects perished. Volcanic ash was injected into the stratosphere in amounts sufficient to alter the world’s climate for several years, with catastrophic effects for human populations in all corners of the globe.

·       Sir Stamford Raffles, the British Governor of Java (modern-day Indonesia), was a self-styled naturalist, who collected and catalogued specimens of all kinds. Among his menagerie was a pet orangutan that he would dress in men’s clothes. When Tambora erupted, Raffles was hundreds of miles to the west. The sharp crack was initially mistaken for cannon fire. The day following the explosion, however, two feet of ash covered the front lawn of the Governor’s mansion. When Raffles finally realized the full extent of the disaster, he responded by sending relief ships to Sumbawa, but for most Sumbawans, it would prove to be too little, too late.

·       A very few escaped. The Raja of Sanggar and his court were able to commandeer the best Sumbawan ponies, and ride away from the main lava flows to safety. But the verdant and prosperous kingdom of Sanggar was no more. Villages, fields, and forests were gone, buried in ash or covered in lava. For some, death came quickly, as they were engulfed by the lava, crushed beneath burning ash, incinerated by forest fires, or swept away by the tsunami that followed the eruption. Those who survived would face a slow death from starvation or disease. Only recently have archeological excavations begun to unearth the remains of those who perished in the cataclysm.

·       Although there had been some rumblings in months previous, Tambora had been dormant for very many years. Some attributed the shaking and bellowing to the anger of the gods, while others recalled an old story about a holy man who had the power to re-animate dogs, which, when invoked, would always be accompanied by some sort of volcanic activity.

2Détails sur la Fin du Monde

Pen, Marker and Oil Pastel on Paper  |  48”H x 96”W

·       In the Swiss Alps, glaciers advanced at a record pace, in one instance damming a river as it flowed from a narrow valley. Behind the dam, a new lake formed and grew rapidly. When the ice dam gave way, the lake water burst forth violently in a huge flood, sweeping away everything in its path for miles downstream.

·       Lord Byron and his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, rented the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland for the summer of 1816. Percy Shelley, his lover Mary Godwin, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont, were frequent visitors. The unseasonable stormy weather frequently kept them indoors, where they would amuse themselves by telling ghost stories. Two of the tales they came up with, The Vampyre, and Frankenstein, became seminal works of Gothic horror.

·       In Yunnan, in southwest China, cold weather and floods destroyed the crops. Famine was everywhere, and in desperation the people turned to growing opium poppies instead of rice. As commerce faltered, pirates prowled traditional trade routes across the Indian Ocean. A new strain of cholera took an enormous toll in India. No sector of society was spared. On Sumbawa, relief supplies from the British were unable to save the daughter of the Raja of Sanggar.

·       In New England, the summer of 1816 was so chilly that it was often referred to as “eighteen–hundred-and-froze-to-death”.

·       Death stalked the poor in record numbers as crops failed and prices for bread and produce sky-rocketed. Even former president Thomas Jefferson was driven further into debt. Desperate for an explanation for the repeated crop failures, many people turned to new religions. Thousands pulled up stakes and headed west, searching for a better climate and more fertile soil.

·       Across Europe, failed harvests led to widespread starvation among the poor, while the rich turned to religion in an attempt to explain the famine. In Germany, 1817 became known as The Year of the Beggar. In England, dust in the air from the eruption begat brilliant sunsets, providing inspiration for landscape artist William Turner. Showmen with a scientific bent developed elaborate pyrotechnics to mimic volcanic eruptions.

·       Here Lord Byron is shown shivering on the terrace of the Villa Diodati in front of an icy Lake Geneva, drafting his poem “Darkness” whilst having a cup of tea with a spectre of death.

3The League of Incest

Pen and Marker on Paper  |  20”H x 30”W

The League of Incest

There were 5 of them in the rather disreputable group at the Villa Diodari on Lake Geneva, all from England: George Gordon

(Lord Byron), a man of letters and a notorious rake; John Polidori, his troubled personal physician; Percy Bysshe Shelley, a rebel and a struggling poet; Mary Godwin, his mistress, a beautiful intellectual; and Claire Claremont, her willful, coquettish step-sister. Although some would declare the coterie to be “the most brilliant and romantic circle of poets, writers and personalities that Europe has ever seen”, their scandalous behaviour would soon earn the group the infamous sobriquet “The League of lncest” in the English press. Yet their youthful idealism and passion for art would revolutionize English literauire, by celebrating the individual, rather than some higher power, as the source of inspiration and creativity. The waves they made wash over us to this day.

Clockwise from top right hand corner:

·       Claire Clairmont (1798-1879) and Maty Shelley became stepsisters when Mary Jane Clainnont, Claire’s mother, married Mary’s father, William Godwin. Claire, a clever, if tempestuous, young woman, seduced Lord Byron in London, and became pregnant. In pursuit of Byron, Claire accompanied Percy and Mary Shelley to Switzerland in 1816, where she participated, with other members of the Shelley Circle, in the telling of ghost stories to amuse themselves while confined indoors by the bad weather. Her daughter, Allegra, was born in January 1817, but died shortly after her 5th birthday, after Byron had forced Claire to place Allegra in his custody.

·       Her mother had died when Mary Godwin (1797-1851) only 10 days old. And the memory of Mary’s first child, who lived for only 13 days, would haunt her dreams for many years aftenvards: “I dreamt that my little baby came to life again – I awake but find no baby”. On the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary’s dreams would take an even darker turn: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together – the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, & then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, & stir with an uneasy, half vital motion”. Frankenstein’s creature was being born!

·       Percy Shelley (1792-1822) was staring at Mary as Byron recited the poem. Suddenly, perhaps fueled by the ever-present laudanum, Shelley was transfixed by a vision of a woman with an extra set of eyes, on her breasts, where her nipples should have been. He recoiled in horror, knocking his wine glass to the floor. He shrieked, put his hands to his head, and fled the room in panic. Polidori followed, and finding Shelley in a cold sweat, splashed water in his face to restore him to his senses. After ascertaining the reason for Shelley’s alarm, Polidori administered ether to calm him. However, the entire group remained shaken by the startling episode for several days thereafter.

·       To escape his creditors (and rumours of sexual depravity), Lord Byron (1788-1824) fled to Switzerland in April 1816, where he rented the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva for the summer. On the evening of June 18, Byron was reading from Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’, a tale of a shape-shifting demon who seduces an ingenuous young girl:

Her silken robe, and inner vest,

Drape to her feet, and in full view,

Behold! her bosom and half her side Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue –

A sight to ,fream of, not to tell …

find she is to sleep by Christabel!

These dread words conjured up a terrifying image in the mind of one of the listeners.

·       John Polidori (1795-1821) had been hired by Lord Byron to serve as his personal physician on his trip to Europe in 1816. But having to deal with the intemperate Byron every day took its toll, as did Mary Shelly’s rejection of Polidori’s advances. It was a dark and stormy night at tl1e Villa Diodati on June 15 when the five began to read ghost stories to each other. In response to Bryon’s challenge that each of them should create his own tale, the lovesick Polidori was able to channel his personal frustrations into The Vampyre, a novella which would spawn the romantic vampire genre of popular fiction.

4I Have Tasted Command

Pen and Marker on Paper  |  20”H x 30”W

I Have Tasted Command

(from a quotation by Napoleon Bonaparte)

The bleak weather of the year without a summer (and of the 2 or 3 years that followed) led to widespread crop failures, fomenting famine, disease, and social upheaval. The response of the ruling classes to the plight of their peoples was less than commendable, to say the least. Some sought actively to help, leading prayers for the weary and distributing food to the hungry. Others were cold-bloodedly indifferent or overtly hostile, turning their backs on the poor and desperate, or forcibly driving them away, to starve and die “somewhere else”.

Clockwise from top right hand corner:

·       In England, while thousands of his subjects were dying of starvation, the Prince Regent, a profligate libertine, would gorge himself on the fat of the land.

·       In 1830, he would ascend the throne as George IV, but his corpulence and mindless extravagance made him a national joke, and he would often be depicted in the press as a blubbery, bloated whale.

·       Beached and helpless, he lies oblivious to the hydra erupting from his nostrils, spewing chaos and corruption across a land beset by ever-worsening climate-induced calamities.

·       The grim reaper (shown here as a skeleton) had no need to dash about to claim his due. He could sit quietly, and wait patiently for the ill and under-nourished to expire.

·       Born to wealth, the Baroness Juliana von Krüdener (1764-1824) lived the life of a capricious socialite until her religious conversion in 1804. Thereafter she fervently embraced mysticism and re-imagined herself as a prophetess, with even the Tsar Alexander I of Russia falling under her spell. Like a multi-limbed Eastern goddess, she attempted to feed the hordes of climate refugees fleeing famine and disease in 1816 and 1817. She financed her efforts by liquidating her personal fortune, to the tune of 120,000 francs (about $1,500,000 USD in 2016). But her charity in Basel, Switzerland, soon ran afoul of civic autl1orities made nervous by the unruly mobs following her. Expelled from every Swiss canton she went to, she fled back home to Estonia.

“And thus it was that Man, believing he had ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl

of the air, and over every, living thing that moved upon the earth: came to know the meaning of hubris.”

·       In the fields, crops were left to rot, since seeds would not germinate, fruits would not set, and leaves would wither and die.

·       Cholera is a bacterial disease that causes severe dehydration, diarrhea, cramps, and vomiting. It is spread via contaminated water. The first pandemic began in 1817 in India. A decade later, the second would kill hundreds of thousands across Europe.

·       Typhus is a deadly disease that begins with a sudden fever, followed by a virulent rash, and inflammation of the brain. It is transmitted to humans by fleas and lice. In Ireland, nearly 100,000 perished in the 1816-1819 epidemic.

·       The dead and dying were inescapable, as “famine-friendly” typhus and cholera preyed on the starving multitudes.

5I Would Were I a Careless Child

Pen and Marker on Paper  |  20”H x 30”W

Would I Were A Careless Child

(from the first line of an 1807 poem by  Lord Byron)

Mary Anning (fossil collector), Charles Dickens (writer and social critic), Charles Darwin (naturalist and biologist), and Joseph Smith (founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) were all young children during the Year Without a Summer. This severe climate anomaly (and other consequences of the eruption of Mount Tambora) would touch their lives in a variety of ways, perhaps sparking the curiosity and skepticism which characterized their careers.

Clockwise from top right hand corner:

·       Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is best known for his work on the science of evolution. Based on his research, his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, provided compelling evidence that all species of all living things had evolved from common ancestors. The book also proposed a theory, called Natural Selection, to explain the mechanism behind this evolution. Whatever the constraints under which a species struggled to survive, he argued, “favorable variations [among members of the species] would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones would not,” the result being “the formation of new species.” Within twenty years, his theory explaining the diversity of life on earth had been well accepted by the scientific community, and by the public.

·       Joseph Smith, Junior (1805-1844), the founder of Mormonism, was born into a humble family in Vermont. But successive years of crop failures forced his parents to move in 1817 to western New York state, an area of intense religious revivalism. Soon thereafter, young Joseph began to have visions. In 1823 he claimed an angel had told him that a set of golden plates (and miraculous “seer” stones to translate them) were buried in a hill nearby. In 1827, he uncovered the plates, and began to translate them. He would begin by placing one of the stones in his top hat. Then, with one hand on a golden plate, Smith would gaze into the hat at the reflective surface of the stone, upon which would appear an English translation of the words on the plate, ready for transcription. In 1830, Smith published his translation, a religious history of ancient Americans, as the Book of Mormon, and that same year, founded his church.

·       Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the greatest novelist of the Victoria era. His works were immensely popular during his lifetime and are still widely read today. A keen observer of society, Dickens populated his novels with some of the most memorable (and evocatively-named) characters in English literature. The novels were published serially, in magazines, with cliff-hanger endings at the end of each episode to ensure reader interest in the next instalment. Dickens was a voracious reader as a child, with an excellent memory that would serve him well in his studies, and as a novelist. At the age of 12, however, his father was sent to debtors’ prison and Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a factory. The brutal conditions he endured there would remain a lasting influence on his fiction, and spark his life-long interest in social reform, especially the tragic plight of the urban poor.

·       Mary Anning (1799-184 7) was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist, renowned for her discovery of ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, pterosaur, and invertebrate fossils in cliffs along the English Channel near Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Her findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about Earth’s history and prehistoric life, providing key pieces of evidence for the concept of extinction. Although recognition and acknowledgment of her accomplishments in her lifetime were hindered by her poverty and her sex, she persevered to earn her rightful place in the history of science.

6Poetry of the Seven Sorrows

Pen, Marker and Wax Crayon on Paper  |  48”H x 96”W

The German poet, Heinrich Heine, working as a journalist in Paris at this time, filed this first-hand report:

“Cholera’s presence in Paris became official on the 29th of March, the start of Mi-Careme [a festive weekend marking the middle of Lent with revelry, sumptuous costumes, and processions]. The weather was bright and sunny, and Parisians streamed merrily to the boulevards to gawk at the merry-makers and their costumes. Their masks were monstrous caricatures of the livid color and sickly mien of victims of the cholera, mocking both the disease itself, and the revelers’ fear of it. Such bravado notwithstanding, the public balls were fuller than ever that evening, with insane peals of laughter periodically drowning out the roar of the music. People grew hotter and hotter whilst dancing the Chahut [the Can-Can], swallowing ices and cold drinks with abandon. Then, all of a sudden, the gayest of the Harlequins felt a strange chill in his limbs and took off his mask – whereupon, to the amazement of all, his face was seen to be violet blue. It was soon found that this was not a joke, and the laughter ceased. Soon thereafter, several carriages began conveying men and women from the ball to the Hotel Dieu [the central hospital], where, still dressed in their masquerade costumes, the victims died in rapid succession. Patients already in the hospital, fearing contagion, shrieked in terror, with the result that the victims from the ball were hastily buried in their costumes, now lying in their graves as merrily as they lived.”

Clockwise from top left hand corner:

·       Misled by reports of a melting polar ice cap, the British Admiralty embarked upon a campaign of Arctic exploration in search of a Northwest passage to the far east. It ended in total failure.

·       In the center, four cavorting skeletons stalk dancers at a masked ball in Paris in the spring of 1832. Four Harlequins and four Columbines succumb to the ravages of the second cholera pandemic.

·       The rapid glaciation induced in the Swiss Alps by the volcanic winter led scientists to develop a new theory: that glaciers, responding to climate change, were in fact responsible for shaping the earth.

·       Starving children sat in snow drifts, waiting to die, as fierce storms battered England, uprooting centuries-old trees.

·       Westward ho the wagons! The term “Ohio Fever” was coined for the mass exodus from New England.

·       Manifest Destiny and the Grim Reaper joined hands to force the Cherokee nation to migrate to Oklahoma, along the cruel “Trail of Tears”.

·       As Chinese society collapsed in the face of flood and famine, the poet Li Yuyang recorded events in a set of poems, which followed a traditional Chinese genre known as the Poetry of the Seven Sorrows.

·       In Switzerland, starving mobs rioted, robbing bakeries for flour and food.

·       The slaughter of horses for food prompted Karl Drais to develop an alternate form of transportation, a prototype of the bicycle.

·       The new strain of cholera claimed millions of lives in India, in 181 7. Bodies were burned in funeral pyres, or hauled to the river by elephants and dumped.

·       By 1830, cholera had spread to Northern Europe, reaching Paris two years later.

7Seeing the Elephant

Digital Print of Original Pen and Marker drawing on Paper  |  40”H x 50”W

Seeing the Elephant

“Seeing the Elephant” was a popular expression in the middle of the 19th century in the United States, especially along the Oregon, the California, and the Mormon Trails. It refers to the gaining of worldly wisdom by overcoming hardship and adversity, often through an experience that may not have delivered as much as it promised. Newspapers at the time made use of the phrase to hail the excitement and mystery that awaited those making their way west to California.

Clockwise from top right hand corner:

·       The Reed family was one of very few who made it through the ordeal intact, with young Virginia especially showing resilience and strength of character. When the group was forced to abandon most of their material goods, she sewed her favorite doll, a family book, and a silver spoon into her petticoats. Once, she and her small brother set out with other members of the party to try to secure relief. When it became clear that the snow was too deep for him, she turned around and they returned, alone, to the desolate winter camp at Truckee Lake. She felt certain that death was at hand, and so she promised God that if He would spare her and her family, she would convert to Catholicism. Her prayers were answered, and she went on to live a happy and prosperous life. She died, a Catholic, some 74 years later.

·       Alas, their repeated attempts to traverse the pass were thwarted by the weather, and soon the madness of starvation descended upon them. And so, in desperation, the group began to eat their fallen brethren in a horrifying attempt at survival. Rescue parties eventually reached them, but only 48 of the original 87 survived to see Sutter’s Fort in California. Not all of those had eaten human flesh, but many who had, including several children, found their lives and future experiences to be fraught with sadness, remorse, and guilt.

·       The Donner Party is best remembered for its reputation as the “cannibalistic” group of pioneers who trekked across American west in a wagon train in 1846, hoping to find a better life in California. On the advice of someone who had ‘certain knowledge’ of an easier and guicker route, the group decided to risk the infamous “Hastings Cutoff’, and that would prove their ruin. They faced one tragedy after another, losing cattle in the Great Salt Lake Desert and guarreling violently amongst themselves. Dissension and death broke their spirits, and repeated delays led to their eventual sojourn at Truckee Lake, 3 miles from the summit of Donner Pass. Here they made a winter camp in November 1846, hoping for a break in the stormy weather. Their energy and supplies exhausted, they were desperately in need of a miracle

8Welcome to the Pleasure Dome

Digital Print of Original Pen and Marker drawing on Paper  |  40”H x 50”W

The opening lines co Kubla Khan, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless co man

Down co a sunless sea.”

Clockwise from top left hand corner:

·       GLUTTONY treats herself co a hot bath, while indulging in donuts, cupcakes, strawberries, and cherries.

·       Bionic LUST rides a horse with no name off a cliff.

·       Ubiquitous screen cams record and re-display everything.

·       Coyotes and turkey vultures (and deer) move to the city, and learn how co get more comfortable with humans.

·       On the island of Sulawesi, north of Sumbawa, a large mound-building bird called the Mako uses geothermal energy to incubate its eggs.

·       Sumbawan children are exploited as child jockeys in pony racing.

·       Meanwhile, back on Sumbawa, Ken the surfer has come to take on the big waves.

·       SLOTH overdoses on synthetic opiates, while GREED is counting his Benjamins.

·       The albatross feeds plastic garbage to its young, who perish.

·       Loss of habitat from the melting ice cap at the North Pole means lean times for polar bears.

·       WRATH, wearing the latest in cholera-inspired fashion, always wears the coolest earrings.

·       ENVY displays the latest in gold-digging prosthetics.

·       In an attempt to combat global warming, airplanes seed clouds with sulfur, hoping to mimic volcanic winter.


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