Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Betsy Byers talked with fellow Rosalux artist Areca Roe about painting, collaborating with scientists and artists, slow waterfalls, and how glaciers smell and taste.
I'm very interested in your last show at Rosalux that was cut short in March, and your approach to making art about climate change in particular, so I'd love to learn more about that. But first off, did you always think of yourself as an artist? Or was there a certain point where you felt like, oh, this is where I want to go?
I didn't imagine I was going to be an artist when I was a kid. I loved drawing, and I loved being by myself and exploring. When I was young, both my parents were teachers and so I was lucky enough to have a lot of freedom in the summers, either up at my grandma’s farm or at my other grandma’s lake cabin. I was the youngest of three girls and there was quite an age range. So I was often by myself. I would pack up a backpack and go on a walk to take observations and draw, so I thought of myself more as a naturalist. I knew and loved animals in the environment, and I would draw them a lot. Going into undergrad, I intended to be pre-med at a small liberal arts college. But then I ended up taking painting my first year and falling in love with it because it was so difficult. I figured out in that first class that there was so much that I could explore about things I was curious about through this one thing (painting). So when I declared myself an art major, I think my family was quite surprised. But I was thinking, I'm going to be practical-- I'm going to become an architect. And when I took an architecture class that was offered for the first time, my senior year of undergrad, I was like, no, I cannot do this on the computer. So it ended up being a more circuitous route to becoming an artist. When I look back at the things that I loved as a child, all of those things are there in art. The exploration, observation, communication, but in a slow, internalized way.
Thinking about the naturalist aspect, I feel one of the best ways to really study and get to know something is to draw it. Is that part of what compelled you?
That's part of what I would do all the time. I'd sit down and draw a plant or I would look at the Peterson Nature books. I would draw the animals out of it. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was get up early and go down to the dock and draw. I drew that horizon line so many times and tried to draw waves. I was out painting on the dock yesterday because I had a little free time, and I just felt like a kid again. It does seem like the curiosity and drive to see things clearly. You also are learning about yourself or your perception.
One thing I love about your paintings is that I think of them as being both abstract and referential at the same time. They're so open, but also concrete in certain ways. Do you think about striking that balance as you’re painting, when you're making that horizon line?
I do. I always ask students this question about whether true abstraction can exist, if it's not always referential in some form? Whether that's ephemeral or formlessness, I feel like it's still referencing some human condition. And I think that there is an argument for and against that. But I think that the truth that I've come to find in my practice is that it's hard to separate referring to the real when you're still trying to translate through abstraction. In the last couple of years, it's gotten much more observational in terms of specificity. A couple of years ago on my sabbatical, I went out to Glacier National Park and that's where I started trying to get more concrete about some of the scientific changes related to climate change. I was looking at and referring to actual glaciers, the specific glaciers and their changes, whereas before I had done work around water, swimming and perception. And then I moved into this idea of ice, land and horizon and how these big systems are entwined and entangled. But it was kind of loose. Now I've gotten a lot more specific because I've been working with scientists, and this recent show [at Rosalux] was with the National Science Foundation team. We were working with the Hermoso Glacier on Cayambe in Ecuador.
Yeah, I have several questions about that, about your show “Reservoir,” particularly since it got cut short in March. I looked at that glacier on Google Earth yesterday just because I wondered about it-- it's amazing that it is just this white patch in the middle of lush green surroundings. In your statement you refer to it as a tropical glacier, which seems like an oxymoron.
It's incredible, I can't even tell you. I think that people don't know they (tropical glaciers) exist, and they're going to be gone in 50 years. But there is a swath of them around the equator. When I came back from my trip, people would ask how it was, and I couldn't really talk, I couldn't form words. Because I think for me, the physical experience of seeing these two ecosystems sitting a mile apart was stunning and it took me a long time to process what was happening —where the watershed ends and where the ice begins are so close. And the color palettes are so incredible. It's astounding and it's hard to explain. But it is so sad too, to be honest. The scientists have a hard time being able to talk about it because they are supposed to be doing their research and maintaining strict guidelines. They are aware these glaciers are dying, it's just so obvious that we're losing them. They're such incredible geologic and geographic features.
Does that drive part of the reason why you paint glaciers? And was there a moment when you realized you wanted to paint glaciers, or with it a gradual thing?
It was gradual for me. Growing up in the Midwest, we understand snow. The glaciers are beautiful, and I had climbed on glaciers in Norway in my 20s. I think that there was always a bodily connection to water for me. I think it also has to do with being human and our reliance on water for survival. With climate change glaciers are a canary in the coal mine. I am interested in the dynamic and complexity of them, but in the physical beauty of them, and then also the clarity of how they can tell us what's happening. It's interesting because they're isolated from other things, so that makes them easier to study.
Because they're like an object, almost.
Yeah. The hard thing is measuring their mass. Part of what the team I was with was trying to understand is the complete water system, which is very complex. The water is going up in the air, it's going down through the rock, and it's also going down as runoff. So they're measuring all these different areas. This glacier acts as a reservoir for farmers down the mountain, but soon they’ll have to build their own reservoirs. Cayambe is where the biggest rose greenhouses in the world are located. And the glacier is the people’s resource, if they don't have enough rainwater, they get irrigation from the glacier. But that's going to change in the next 30 to 50 years. A lot of the people clearly rely on that water, sustenance farmers as well.
Yeah. It's going to change everything.
That's why people are migrating from tropical glaciers; it’s getting too difficult to farm. There'll be more change to come.
Can you tell me more about that collaboration with scientists on that trip or other trips? How do you incorporate what you learn from the scientists? Or how has that back and forth happened?
This is the first NSF grant I've been on. It was really important to go into the field and to be able to see how they work. I was on an interdisciplinary team, which most NSF grants are, so we had a botanist, a hydrologist, a geographer, and a geologist. They all came with their own agendas, too. As the artist, you're like this linchpin between them and trying to figure out what they think is the most important to communicate. I was working collaboratively with Emily Dzieweczynski, who was a former student of mine, and we're still working together. We as a group developed guiding questions and objectives. Mine and Emily’s biggest guiding question was, “How do you create empathy between humanity and glaciers?” Followed by, “What does that look like? What does it feel like to be a glacier? And then what action could that invite?” At the same time we are also trying to express the broader impacts of their study, which is about the water in this glacial system.
Did you have to train for it, and what kind of equipment did you bring?
We were roped up on the ice and did a lot of training. Like, how to maintain a safe distance on a rope team and how you throw down an ice axe if you're falling. I learned to tie several knots. I worked out intensely for six months on a stair stepper with a 30 lb pack because we had to be prepared to help haul equipment. At 16,000 feet walking is intense! We helped drill in ablation stakes, and we were with them when they were doing G.P.S. measurements. We were down in the watershed when they were checking on and fixing their meteorological equipment as well as taking flow measurements in the melt water stream and measuring vegetation coverage.
Every location we hiked to we had a 360° video camera and we captured sound. I brought paints, so we were drawing, painting, and taking sound snippets. We were gathering as much sensory data as we could. And then at night, we would all come back to the reserve and work on our own things. It was great because as they (the scientists) were crunching numbers, labeling samples, or just reading, we were able to get them to tell us more about what they were working on. In the end our big goal was to create a VR piece of a sensory experience of a water droplet moving through the entire tropical glacial system- from falling down, to becoming ice, fern, snow to melt and then expiring back into the air.
Another thing we learned and felt was important to convey was the complexity and ambiguity of the scientific process. When the researchers went back to the field a second time we asked them to give us some sensory information, like what do you hear, smell and see in the watershed, on the ice or near the ice? Then we took their quotes, and made work that was drawing, painting and overlapping multi-media pieces inspired by their responses, for example, the sound of drilling an ablation stake. We made a wall that overlaid these pieces in our exhibition. It was abstract, but hopefully had this kind of perceptual or sensorial grabbing, that people could understand.
It's really challenging, I think, to deal with trying to translate scientific data, but make it felt, make it embodied and still communicate something real. And finding the balance between not making it simply a pretty graphic and making an exhibition. I don't think that Emily and I have solved that by any means. I think that we're just working around, trying to come at the edges of knowing.
I think in general my work is still trying to connect with people in this way, that feels like a perceptual inkling. Something rises in their body that makes them recognize a relationship to landscape. And I think I understand more now that I had a naivete to how much people are connected to the natural world. There are these assumptions I had growing up in the Midwest, I thought people had this relationship to the landscape like I did. Of course, that's not necessarily the case. Growing up in L.A. or New York or wherever, it might be different. And also I had the privilege of freedom in natural places as a child. I now know that this metanarrative that I created in my youth is false. I hope that my work is in some way connecting people to their body and the surrounding environment in some form if possible.
I really appreciate that you're trying all these fresh perspectives and the sound elements, to give a different experience that is more embodied. I remember listening to the sound element of your last show at Rosalux, and loved the opportunity to close my eyes and visualize it in a very different way than the actual visuals.
Yeah. One thing that was really interesting, to get up to the glacier every day, we had to hike over a mile in really thick glacial till. So it's like walking in sand at sixteen thousand feet with twenty five pounds on your back. To walk over a mile takes two hours. And you are hiking in a chain, stepping, sinking back down 12 inches with every step and struggling to breathe. You could hear your heartbeat pounding at the base of your neck. It was just like being in this tunnel. And the heartbeat and the breath and the mist. To me, sound and smell is one interesting way to connect people outside of the visual that I'm glad I'm stepping into. I think the harder thing is giving people the permission to interact with auditory and olfactory works.
People are afraid to touch things in a gallery.
Yeah. I think we're getting there.
People are being retrained to interact a little bit more. I was going to ask you about the scents, because in this recent show, and I think the show before that at Rosalux as well, you had the test tubes where you were meant to open them and smell the contents.
I’ve learned about research that’s been done on empathy through my collaborative partner, Emily. Smell is one of the senses that skips the frontal brain lobe. It has a direct connection to the memory and to making memories. And so in one study that has been done (I think it's Dr. Daniel Batson’s empathy altruism hypothesis), they found if you can help connect to another memory, you have a chance of raising empathy. So smell is one of the best ways to do that.
One of the amazing things about being on tropical glaciers is that they're mostly on volcanoes. So we got up there and I was like, “Oh, my gosh!” This is sulfur. You smell sulfur and you're on ice, and it's wild. So we made one of the smells in our piece sulfur, which is really intense. Some of the vegetation smells like ammonia in the watershed. Polylepis, one of the oldest trees in these tropical watersheds, has the smell of ammonia in the bark, so we made that one of the scent pieces. We worked with trying to make the smell of cold. We talked to some chemists, and really the closest you can get is menthol. In another tube we had melted ice we collected from drilling an ablation stake. I thought it (the ice) would be quite a bit older, but it was probably about 400 years old. I ate it when we were up in the glacier and I was like, “I'm eating thousands of years old ice!” And I was so excited. And they (my scientist colleagues) were laughing at me, and they were like, Betsy, I'm sorry to tell you, it's not that old because the tropical glaciers turn over faster. But it was still cool, I was pretty jazzed. They thought I was ridiculous.
So did it have a taste?
It tasted like ice. I was still excited, like I’m eating ancient air! That was one of the things that struck us when we talk about this glacier receding and it's receding fast, four centimeters a day. It's revealing ancient ground. And it's such a strange thing to think about, like, oh, this hasn't seen the light of day in thousands of years.