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.
I saw that you had St. John's Wort too, as one of the smells.
It was similar to some of the plants from the watershed. I forget the name of it… the ecologist Daniel Stanton made things come so alive, he just loved plants so much. And some of the things he talked about were smell and color. It made me thrilled!
I had that experience with bogs-- every time I go to a bog, the smell is overwhelming. And different depending on the bog. I wish I could somehow figure out how to include that in a show-- I tried but it didn't work.
Yeah. I mean we, we tried. We've tried a diffuser. I think that containing it is hard and keeping it consistent is hard. But the test tubes, they work for a while.
You also had the melting projections. Those are animations? Those are referencing that Ecuadorian glacier as well?
I did a large watercolor on a big scroll. But I wanted it to be ephemeral and not there. So that's why we wanted it to be projected, to convey this idea of something that is not permanent. We tried to make it move really slowly at first. One thing that struck me is one of the scientists, my friend Jeff, described the glacier as a slow waterfall. I loved that image so much. And I'm still working through it in my mind--what does that look like?
You can kind of see it at the edge of the terminus of a glacier, you'll see ice fall off or a serac will fall over. There'll be these vibrations and sounds and it's always wet and dripping. We were thinking about that. We also embedded some of the data points; they have measured four centimeters loss a day in the last five years.
I found those mesmerizing, I felt compelled to sit and watch those animations for quite some time.
We wanted it to be a longer projection, so I think it’s something we have to still work on continuously. There are always issues with the space and the limits that you have to work within. Interestingly enough, I got so many comments from visitors that they wished there were more of my paintings in the show. But I was trying to do something different, which is what I love about Rosalux. I feel like I can play in that space.
Well, that's probably a testament to how much people love your paintings! I think it’s refreshing to see this really different direction for you. So I guess that leads to the question of what are you working on now?
We’re still working with the Cayambe glacier, but right now actually making a digital model of it, that people will be able to move over and under, and click on different moments, for instance to hear sounds, or an animation of a painting--more interactive features.
The other thing that we're starting to work towards is travelling to Svalbard (Norway) with another NSF grant. We would work at the terminus of a glacier off of the coast of Svalbard, but that’s four years out.
I'm always balancing on this spectrum of making either work related to climate change and science on one end, which I think is very specific, and making big abstract paintings about senses in the landscape at the other end which is much looser.
This is a tangent, but with teaching, I often like to ask students, “Do you believe artwork has intrinsic value?” It’s this question we can talk about time and time again. And my students inevitably say, “Yes! It does.” They're young and idealist and they want to believe what they make has purpose, and maybe it does. We can argue about it and that's good. The truth is, I am really happy working alone in my studio. I'm a happy little painter. I'm an introvert, and it makes me feel good, I love the experience of it. But also, as I've gotten older and lived longer, that just can't cut it anymore. I don't think that's quite enough. I don't think we can not share our work or not think about being in communication with other people, about that kind of value-making. That's also part of it for me when I'm working with the science component and thinking about how for me, art has always been about communication in an internalized way. But also there is this external component of, “This is what I'm feeling about the landscape, here's what I see.” I feel like I'm actually doing something with what I love that feels like I'm giving back, in a way.
I can definitely relate. I often, ever since I was a young adult, struggled with that question of whether art is making change, is it actually functioning to change culture? Which is something I want it to do, to change people's minds, or function in communication.
I think the one thing the pandemic did teach my students was there is a power and there is a purpose in making that can be really felt and can connect people in these times. And I think that's true.
How do you think teaching affects your own work; how does it link in?
I think that they're connected because you're always learning, right? But when you're in the classroom, it keeps you connected to what's happening in a different way, especially with younger people. And I think they are challenging me consistently to think about, “How do I do this?” I just love the continual challenge of it and thinking deeply about it and being immersed and then trying to help. I feel that there is value in urging students to think creatively, to be challenged by things that are ambiguous, and to dwell in uncertainty -all of the things that I think art-making can do. And it just validates what I strive to do in the studio. Some of those same things: thinking deeply about the world, living in uncertainty, but trying to make something of it.
I want to know more about your collaborator, Emily Dzieweczynski, who was your former student. How does your collaboration with her function? Is she a painter as well?
No, she's never had me in painting class, and that's why it works. We started by collaborating on an internal school grant at our school, Gustavus, where students and faculty can research together. I thought of it largely for her as a learning experience at first, but she had an interest in empathy and psychology and the environment, and I had an interest in very similar things. Conceptually we had these similar interests, but technically we have different skill sets. And that really works because I often make paintings or drawings and then she's pulling them into a digital world and animating them. She's worked a lot more with sound, so I'm learning about sound and VR and editing from her. We did collaborate on some of the drawings on one wall of our recent Rosalux show.
We worked so well on our first project, which was about the Rhône Glacier in Switzerland. I'd been working with it before bringing Emily on, so our project was having her take my paintings and animating them. The Rhône glacier is so interesting. It's where a famous hotel is [Hotel Belvédère], that’s been in several movies. The glacier has retreated so far up the mountain, yet it's still an important site because they have all these ice caves there. In 2008 or 2009, they started covering the glacier in blankets. It’s patched together – they’re these big felt blankets. They cover it every year and it actually stops melt by 80 percent, and it's to maintain their ice tunnels because their economy is ice tourism.
Emily traveled to Switzerland and took images and video and I painted off of that. So it was her seeing, me seeing, and us seeing it together. It’s great because it gives us these different perspectives and we have a different skill set and viewpoint, so that helps expand what we're doing. We're continuing to work together. We're thinking about how we could do VR or AR, Augmented Reality. The hardest part is finding the line between the hand-rendered and the digital. We still have not solved that.
Yeah, me neither. That's a perennial question when you're dealing with digital art. When you are on site, do you do a lot of plein air sketching and painting or do you work from photos when you go back to the studio, or both?
Both, but I do as much as I can when I'm there. We were at over 16,000 feet at Cayambe and it was of course really cold. I was going in between taking my gloves on and off to work. I also did note-taking of what I was feeling and hearing, and we had recordings as well. But there's nothing richer than being on site. That was so important to be in the field. I could never have imagined, as much as I tried, what it would be like until I was actually there. Things like the smell, and the way it sounds when you're stepping on the ice, how it feels to have on crampons and be roped to a group of people. You can't see the first person in the line, since there’s mist. I mean, there's just many things that are so complex.
That trip sounds fascinating, thanks for sharing details about it!
On a different but always a related topic —I know you have young kids, and I'm wondering how you are organizing your time these days, how are you finding time to make work? How are you balancing things?
I don't know if balance exists -I think it’s partly recognizing that. I mean, I think we have these expectations and we have deadlines. You know, I do the best I can to carve out the time, like waking up early. I have the hardest time being able to think deeply and fully about an idea.
Being a parent has taught me how to be economic with my time in the studio. I often think of the moves I need to make. Even if I have an hour… I used to be like an hour is not enough time and now I’m like, I have an hour – go! And I think that's just heightened right now.
I have to flip to mediums that I can do in short snippets. For me, that's a lot of watercolor. I can watercolor when I'm around the kids, but it has to be really tiny moves and I have to set it down. The harder thing is moving into the bigger ideas. Having an eight hour day in the studio is a complete luxury that I wish I got to have more often. Once in a while I can have it in the summer. But you're managing guilt on top of that. I think it's really challenging.
I remember when Ann Hamilton was at the MIA, talking to Krista Tippett -I was pregnant at the time with my son. Somebody asked her, how do you do this? How do you be an amazing teacher and artist and parent? And she was like, well, I have no separation between my home life and my studio. And I thought, “I can't do that.” How do you do that? So how do we make that more fluid? Can we? And is it healthy to do that?
I just I make my children be my models. It feels necessary though because like you said, I can't separate the work from home life right now.
Well, I feel really itchy -I’m itchy to just move my body with some paint, and I get a bit cranky.
Some of the work that you've done in the past has been these very large paintings that are multi-panel. What is your urge to do really large work?
For me it is about physical translation. There’s just nothing like being in front of this big plane, the illusion, the kind of physicality of making it does for me. And then the visual experience of scale-- I love it. I still love it. It's just really hard to pull off. And it's also hard with the cost of it, and then the material usage. And of course, I am grappling with waste and what I'm doing with materials more and more. And I should be. But I think that that's where I'm at my most fluid.
Yeah. I love that idea of it being an itch, like you almost have to move your body, to paint.
I don't know, maybe that sounds really traditional or kind of mad but …
I never thought of it that way! I’m not a painter. I always thought about it as large paintings are more immersive, so that’s the appeal, but I never really thought about the action of actually making them, and how satisfying that must be.
Yeah, there's something about being able to do full movement that is… other. I often remind myself that scale can happen and you can expand and contract scale so much even when you're working in small panels. And I have to remind myself about it. I remember in grad school, my friend Alice was like, Betsy, you need to think more about scale. I and was like I do, I really do. I can't just go to whatever always works for me, that mode of a certain kind of mark. And I still have Alice in my head.
What about influences, are there certain artists that you are looking at now or in the past that have had a big influence on you?
There's a lot. I think this question is always hard. It's hard for me to talk about artists that I don't like, to be honest. But I love Amy Sillman, Claire Sherman, Tomory Dodge. So these sort of referential abstractions. Claire Sherman in particular. She's gotten much more referential, as you mentioned about my work. So those would be three painters I would name off the bat. I also look at historical work by Edwin Church, and Alexander von Humboldt's amazing image of Chimborazo. He was an 1800s German botanist. But he also was the first one to categorize plants in elevation, and he made these amazing illustrated images.
Betsy Ruth Byers is an artist and an Associate Professor at Gustavus Adolphus College. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Her work has been exhibited at the National Galleries of Scotland, SCOPE International Art Fair, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, DeVos Art Museum, Hillstrom Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Intermedia Arts, Guilford Art Center and The Soap Factory. Her work resides in several private, corporate and museum collections including the Weisman Museum of Art, Hillstrom Museum of Art, Target Corporation, MN Vikings Corporation, Nordstrom Corporation, BMO Harris Bank, LPM Corporation, and Allina Health Center.
Note: The work discussed in this interview is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1758854. The interdisciplinary team consists of principal investigators Dr. Jeff LaFrenierre, Dr. Crystal Ng, Dr. Daniel Stanton, Dr. Andrew Wickert, and Dr. Li Li. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the artists and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.