INTERVIEW with Arctic explorer Galya Morrell

Galya Morrell, ColdArtist

Galya Morrell, 1961, is a polar explorer, adventure artist, and motivational speaker. Under the stage name ColdArtist, Galya explores the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind in the harsh environment of the Arctic. She works in a rare genre of visual synthetic performance on drifting sea ice floes in the High Arctic. Arctic has been Galya’s home for over 30 years. As a polar correspondent of Soviet Pravda, she reported from the Soviet polar drifting stations “SP” (North Pole) since 1984. She lived, travelled and learned from  Chukchi, Nenets, Yukagirs, Yupic and other  peoples of the North. Galya participated in many polar expeditions – both on the sea ice and on land in the Arctic. Many of her works are being kept in private collections, including Mikhail Gorbachev Presidential Library. As a descendent of Pomor sea mammal hunters and Komi caribou herders, Galya strives to ensure that both the ancestral and contemporary voices of Arctic peoples are heard.

Below, the Eco Green Committee’s Matilda Lee interviews Galya Morrell

Q:     How has your travel in the Arctic made you more aware of humankind’s relationship to nature?

I would like to make two points. First in our everyday life we rely on so many different gadgets. In nature, it’s the opposite. In nature we rely only on our five senses. In nature, we listen to our instincts.

When we live in big towns, we become really very dependent on comforts. Just imagine that if something is taken away from us, even a small thing, we become miserable. But we are humans, we shouldn’t be miserable. We can survive with so much less than we have if we listen to nature and think of ourselves as part of nature.

Secondly, when I first started traveling to the Arctic, one of the things that struck me most is that it is the most pristine, distant place on earth, where there should be no pollution at all because nothing is being produced there. What happens there though is that the waves and the sea currents work in a way that we can’t really control. I have seen the physical signs of human presence – such as oil barrels on Arctic shores. These barrels start leaking oil and then pollution starts to spread, but to clean it, is almost impossible. In the Arctic, it takes so much more time to get rid of impurities than anywhere else. In Greenland, they don’t produce anything, they don’t pollute, yet the people who live there have some of the highest levels of POPs (persistent organic pollutants; toxic, long-lasting organic chemicals) and other toxics in their bodies. These things are really scary.

Galya Morrell, ColdArtist
Q:     Why did you become an explorer?

That’s a tricky question. I really believe that exploration is just another basic instinct. We need to explore to survive. If we don’t, you know what would have happened in the olden times. In the modern world, if we don’t explore, we become slaves to gadgets. We see that a lot in our ‘civilized world’. Not too many people say they are ‘explorers’ by profession, but I think that every single person should explore the things that are just in front of our eyes. We often, however, don’t see them because we think, or we are told as children, that they are not important. Then we start not to notice them at all.

For example, when I was a little girl, I would venture in the swamps near where we lived. I grew up in Rublyovskoye shosse. There used to be swamps there, but now it’s another Paris. I would put my alarm for 3 am in the morning, and wander in the swamps. Luckily for me, my grandparents taught me the art of walking in the swamps. I would observe birds waking up and other animals. I wanted to become a biologist, but instead I became a journalist. I was covering wars and local conflicts as a military journalist. I was shocked to understand how people can kill each other for nothing. The earth is so beautiful and there is enough for all. I was bawled over with what I was seeing in Moscow at the end of the 1970s- early 1980s. So I wanted to get a job that we take me far away from the politics, so I became an Arctic and military journalist.

Q: What are the things about your job that make you miss a 9-to-5 desk job?

First, I never had a desk job in my life. When I was a journalist, the general rule was that if you are hanging around in the editorial office, you are not doing your job. I was a reporter. I always had to be away. From distant lands, I would dictate my story with Morse code, there were no telephones, nothing.

Up until the age of 31, I never celebrated New Year’s or any other holiday with my family because I was always on duty. There were no Saturdays, no Sundays. You couldn’t predict your life.

I don’t know what a 9-to-5 job is like, but because I know a lot of people who have one, I believe it’s a very different life. I was so lucky because what was a vacation for other people was a job for me. I could travel for free.

The other thing is that a 9-to-5 gives you money to buy a house and a car but I was never interested in buying a house or a car. I wanted to travel around the world, and not around the four walls of my house.

Q:     What advice would you give students considering a career in the environmental arena?

I would say firstly and most importantly that they should passionately love our own planet. I mean it. Secondly, they need to be in great physical shape. It’s very hard to stay in big cities and not travel. If you don’t spend time in nature, then you really will not learn. To learn you have to go to very distant, inaccessible places. You have to be ready to walk a lot in this profession. You have to use your feet, your eyes, to rely on your own senses. You also have to be unafraid of excessive cold or heat. What most people call ‘extreme’ places, is just in our heads. People can adapt to everything.

The most important thing for students considering jobs in the environmental field is to accept and adapt.

Q:     As a representative of the Northern People what can you recommend city dwellers do to become more aware of the environment and our impact on the environment?

Northern People nowadays are going through a very difficult stage. Just in front of our eyes, they are leaving all the traditional knowledge and values and becoming more like others. When I walked with my kids in New York, when I was taking them to and from school, every single day they would see how much food is being thrown away. Every day they would see how much plastic, how many different gadgets, some of them barely used, were thrown away. We consume too much. We would sometimes see crazy kids in the store, they could not stop buying and trashing. It seems to be a cyclical thing. They can learn from people in the North, who don’t really throw away anything. The mirror is broken – they find different multiple uses for it. A small piece of old rope – they don’t throw it away because they can use it. They repair, repair, and renew, that’s why they don’t have dumpsters, and they don’t have huge mountains of trash like we do in our big cities. I think we really have to learn from their great attitude, ability and desire to repair and reuse. It would bring about such a great change to our planet.


This Saturday February 14th at AAS’s Bolshoi Theatre meet Arctic explorers Gayla Morrell and Ole Jorgen Hammenken, who will share their stories of exploring the extreme north in Greenland and Siberia. They will speak following the screening of ‘Chasing Ice’ at noon.

1 thought on “INTERVIEW with Arctic explorer Galya Morrell

Join the Conversation