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TIE Fellow Isabel Beavers Discusses how Art becomes Advocacy

Friday, September 29, 2017: Tufts Institute of the Environment Fellow Isabel Beavers spoke at the Environmental Studies’ Lunch and Learn program on September 14, 2017 to discuss the culmination of her thesis project at the Tufts University School for the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA). An artist by training, but with a background in Natural Resource Management, Isabel combines her investment in art’s ability to communicate across boundaries with her passion and advocacy for environmental issues in her Master’s thesis: Arctic Lab: An Artist’s Trip to the North.

Reflecting on the origins of her project, she recalls her experience in Fairbanks, Alaska during the 2015 Summer Solstice. Captivated by the contagious energy the community had during the 24 hours of daylight, she reflected on sunlight’s ability to alter a landscape and its people. This initial fascination led her to consider how the Arctic regions are uniquely transformed over the course of a year due to the periods of extreme disparity in sunlight, a focus which would form the foundation of her project and lead her to question how science and art can speak together on environmental issues.

Isabel’s experiences in Alaska during the peak of summer led her to pursue the opposite extreme in Svalbard, Norway. Arriving in January 2016, a month after the Winter Solstice, Isabel was in complete darkness even at high noon on the day she arrived. But as she observed light gradually returning to the Arctic, she reflected on how the subtle shifts in sunlight have profound impacts on the region. This fixation on sunlight pushed her to investigate how life forms in the polar region, research which eventually focused on the increasing prevalence of early algal blooms under the thinning sea ice. As her project increasingly revolved around sea ice diatoms, phytoplankton at the base of the polar ecosystem, Isabel found herself questioning how art can communicate science in an era where regions are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.

“How can art communicate science?” was the question that she kept returning to throughout the creation of Arctic Lab. Isabel’s thesis project asked viewers to consider both the intersection between art and science and how art can communicate the rapid and dangerous environmental changes we are observing due to global warming. Through an installation project that emulates traditional scientific research, equipment, and data, Isabel explored the different ways knowledge is created around environmental issues and how that knowledge is dispersed. Arctic Lab advocates for increased awareness about how global warming is impacting the Polar Regions and the devastating ecosystem changes that result.

“At the end of this project, I had more questions than answers” Isabel said as her discussion of her thesis project came to a close. “I kept returning to questions around knowledge, and the way that art can advocate for science […] to impact the environment in a positive way.” Currently a TIE Fellow and a Post-Graduate Fellow at the SMFA, Isabel spent the summer completing another piece of activist work (Removers, Fixers) for the Upstream project in Bozeman, Montana. This project, which inspires viewers to consider their relationship to water conservation, irrigation, and access, has allowed Isabel to keep pursuing questions surrounding the relationship between art, science, and community activism. Looking back on her thesis and its impact on her current work she says: “I couldn’t just do algae-all is connected as the planet warms.”

Taylor Parrish, TIE Graduate Intern

Photo Credit: Isabel Beavers. All photo's are from Isabel's original work. To see more examples of her work and projects, please visit her website