Tornadoes as inspiration, not necessarily being glorified

It’s been a positively nutty tornado season so far this year, the exclamation point being the so-called super outbreak this past week in the deep south, in Dixie Ally.

Contrary to what viewers of my own process and artwork might think, my creating sculptures of supercells and tornadoes does not necessarily equate to glorifying these storms. While an artist’s subject matter is can usually be tied directly to personal interests or experience in some way or another, that which the the painter or sculptor portrays is not necessarily the same thing as what he believes in or wants to commend.

Let us remember artwork that has portrayed objects, ideas and situations that we would not call good. Guernica for instance, among other depictions of war. Mountains, in context, were not something always considered beautiful or pastoral, but thought of in the traditional understanding of the sublime they were feared. Thunderstorms are what I’d also call sublime. They are also something I think of as a part of our fallen world. Such violent storms are not the “world that ought to be” to use the words of the International Arts Movement.

From a distance, the form of a thunderstorm billowing up into the sky can be absolutely stunning. And they can also produce destructive tornadoes. Part of what I’m drawn to is the contrast of this beautiful form and its colors — as the sun sets on the towering anvil — with the unyielding power under the meso.

Tornadoes have been a part of my life since I was very young. As a child I was afraid of them, actually, until I was about 12 years old. That said, I don’t create storm-related artwork to glorify these destructive natural events.

As storm chasing has become ever more popular, I have to wonder if some people do chase, photograph and take videos of these monsters in order to glorify them. From what I can tell, this seems to be the case with amateur chasers more often than professionals. The professionals have a much better grasp of what they’re dealing with. I had the chance to talk with photographer Ryan McGinnis — who tagged along with the Vortex II team — last month which helped confirm this assessment. Pros like Ryan have a much better handle on the science and risks associated with supercells and tornadoes than some of the rabble posting crazy videos to YouTube. Even professional showboats like the Discovery Channel’s Reed Timmer keep the science a priority (which you can tell from his Twitter feed). Although I sometimes wonder about Sean Casey.

Something very fascinating which stood out about yesterday’s event is that, aside from their very violent nature, so many of the tornadoes had numbers of horizontal vortices coming from the sides of the tornadoes themselves, as well as satellites from above. This is not something commonly seen, with maybe one or two tornadoes per year displaying these characteristics, and usually more subtly than the examples from yesterday. Obviously, the environment over northern and central Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia was perfect for these kinds of freak tornadoes.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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