It Started On Hampstead Heath

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

I have worked for most of my career as a medical and scientific illustrator, which means a lot of time spent in front of a computer screen. But early in 2016, I dusted off my much-neglected art materials to return to my first love: painting and drawing. I love my Adobe programs but though it was a bit unfocused, I shed my digital chains and felt I was back to where I had left off before Photoshop took over my life!

Then fate lent a hand. I began walking on Hampstead Heath early every morning with three friends. The Heath is an exquisite, ancient heathland only 400 yards from my house and just under four miles from the centre of London. By coincidence, the new walking regime started not only at the same time as my return to painting but coincided with the completion of the Hampstead Heath Ponds Project. All the large ponds on Hampstead Heath are man-made, built as reservoirs over 300 years ago to provide water for the rapidly expanding population of London. Three of the ponds – the Model Boating Pond, Men’s Bathing Pond, and Hampstead No. 1 Pond – are still classified as “large raised reservoirs” under the 1975 Reservoirs Act and the 2010 Flood and Water Management Act. In 2011, the City of London Corporation, which manages the Heath, was advised that should an extreme rainfall event occur, the ponds might overflow (or “overtop” to use the technical language) and flood residential communities south of the Heath. The Corporation was legally required to rebuild and reinforce the dams between the ponds.

Leaves on the pond.

Research has shown that although extreme rainfall events in the UK are not unprecedented, their frequency will increase as climate change raises global temperatures. The project involved a huge amount of work with much disruption to the peace and quiet of the Heath. Local organizations were consulted and there was some dissent and plenty of negative newspaper headlines. At that stage, I remained unconvinced that the work was necessary. But as time went on and I learned more about the Ponds Project and how it would protect and enhance the environment, I came to understand its value. The peace and quiet of the Heath was finally returning when my merry band of walkers and I began our route marches. I became fascinated with how the flora and fauna was recovering. This was my lightbulb moment…

Since my daughters Sara and Tor were little children, the Model Boating Pond has been one of our places. We have spent many hours, in all seasons, walking and watching the pond. Now the walks were fueling my mission to put my paints, pens, and pencils to work and record what I was seeing. This was to be where my creative journey would start.

It would have been easy to limit myself to these paintings and drawings, but I wanted to find out more about the work that had been carried out, the history, the geology, even the archaeology behind it all. After some research, the answers started pointing me in the direction of climate change. Again, I wanted to find out more. My painting project jumped to a different level.

Wildfire at Medicine Lake.

Another journey to another continent showed me the impacts of global climate change on another key place in my life. My younger daughter Tor lives in Jasper, Alberta in Canada. After I visited her, she urged me to go further north to the Canadian tundra. I packed up my paints and, in November 2016, travelled to the small town of Churchill on the Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba.

Churchill’s nickname is the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Every year, after months of fasting inland, bears migrate to the bay – hence the nickname – to wait for sea ice to form, which will allow them to start hunting seal again. The vast flat tundra was awe-inspiring, but seeing that the frozen North is not so frozen anymore was disturbing. This was a seminal moment.

Waiting for the sea ice.

The climate issues in Canada brought to mind some friends, thousands of kilometers to the south, in Mandeville, Louisiana – a place where I worked in my early 20s. I still spend a lot of time on the Gulf Coast of America which, particularly over the last decade, has been increasingly threatened by intense hurricanes and resultant flooding. I realized Louisiana had to be part of the story.

I call London, Jasper, and Mandeville “My Places” because they are cities and regions where I have deep emotional connections. They are also intimately linked by climate change. I needed to pull it all together.

My painting projects and the book that accompanies them are the result. The book, It Started On Hampstead Heath… An Artist’s Journey Into The Science Of Global Climate Change, is an exploration of “My Places” and their connections. Of course, these three places are not the only ones linked by climate change, but they are the three closest to my heart.

Pages from It Started On Hampstead Heath… An Artist’s Journey Into The Science Of Global Climate Change.

I have always had an interest in environmental issues, but it has taken me until now to find the time to study them in more detail. I hope my paintings and drawings have captured the ephemeral nature of our ecosystems, and the words I have written will provide some insight into it all. I hope to remind us all of the beauty and precious qualities of the environment around us, wherever we live.

My projects focus on “My Places,” but we each have our own corners of the world that we love. We have a responsibility to protect them.

(Top image: Oaks & Cones.)


Dee McLean studied Illustration at Harrow School of Art, London, and went on to a career in medical and scientific illustration. Taking a break, mid-career, she had an opportunity to return to painting and drawing, having several exhibitions and taking on private commissions. She then returned to medical illustration specializing in artwork for medical education. Dee is now bringing her love of science and art back into painting, drawing and writing. Journeying through the places that she is emotionally attached to and looking at how they are all intimately linked by the changing global climate, Dee hopes that through her art she can remind us all how beautiful and precious our environment is. All Dee’s projects have a local charity attached to them.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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