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.