Immersive Art Explores Environmental Issues

Isabel Beavers makes multimedia installations to stir the emotions and spur fresh thinking 

Multimedia artist Isabel Beavers, AG17 (MFA), sees art as a tool that opens minds in a deeper way than facts by themselves. Working with video, animation, sound, and sculpture, Beavers constructs art installations that focus on the science of climate change, creating “emotional and subjective experiences that can lead to more nuanced conversations than scientific reporting alone.” 

Beavers previously worked in natural resource management, but says, “Once I realized that I could use art to explore climate and justice and share creative work with the public, I understood this was the path for me.”

Ecology and Art

That path began for Beavers as a young child painting with their grandmother on family visits to rural Mississippi. Growing up in Massachusetts, Beavers had equal passions for the environment and art. They attended classes at the Worcester Art Museum and Art All-State while in high school. 

As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, Beavers tried double-majoring in art and environmental studies but didn’t want to give up more intensive environmental studies as would have been required. “I was committed to land conservation and ecological restoration,” Beavers says. 

After earning a degree in natural resource management in 2011, Beavers moved to Montana to work as a wetland field assistant for the National Heritage Program, then to the state of Washington for a stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer coordinator at the Skagit Land Trust. 

“I loved field work and being outdoors,” they say. “But I found myself increasingly more excited when I had a creative project to do.” 

Returning to Art

One winter, on a trip back to the Boston area, Beavers visited an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, where the expressive landscape and turbulent seascape paintings of J. M. W. Turner were on display. “I had this impulsive feeling,” they recall. “I thought, how cool would it be to do a year of studio art study?” 

Beavers applied to the SMFA’s postbaccalaureate certificate program, using their AmeriCorps education award to cover the tuition. Once the faculty saw Beavers at work in the studio, they advised Beavers to transfer into the master’s degree program. “What I’d thought of as a kind of one-year dalliance before going back to field work turned out to be an incredible, interdisciplinary experience,” Beavers says. 

isabel Beavers The Aquarium

The Aquarium, NOAA Art + Science Fellow project, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist

At the SMFA, faculty encouraged Beavers to incorporate their passion for the environment into their art and to work across painting, sculpture, video, and sound. Beavers also worked with professors in scientific fields at Tufts and other schools, including Larry Pratt, an oceanographer at MIT who became an advisor for Beavers’ thesis project. 

For that project, Beavers received a Tufts Montague Travel Grant to travel to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The result was an immersive installation called Arctic Lab, which examined the impact of changes in light caused by sea ice melt. 

“You walked into a darkened room with pink and blue colored lights similar to the colors of the Arctic sky,” Beavers says. The space was set up like a laboratory, with videos, slides, sculpture, a soundscape, and an assortment of drawings on a table in the middle. One animation depicted effects of light change on sea ice algae blooms. A sculpture showed accelerations of melt. A robotic voice filled the space with a narrative about endangered Arctic marine life. All elements worked together to convey the significance of subtle shifts of light on the ecosystem. 

Shifting Perceptions

After earning their MFA in 2017, Beavers returned to Montana, this time as a Tufts Institute of the Environment fellow working on public artworks with Mountain Time Arts. Beavers describes this project as twofold—first, to create a site-specific art piece about irrigation, water use, and the effects of settler colonization on water rights in the Gallatin Valley; and second, to study the capacity for public art to generate community resilience to climate challenges. The artwork was displayed on a ranch for the public to experience. 

High Line Low Line image by Isabel Beavers

High Line/Low Line, Mountain Time Arts project, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist

Now based in Los Angeles, Beavers works in three areas: teaching courses in new technologies at Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, making their own art, and serving as artistic director for the art-tech collective Supercollider. Whether teaching or curating a show, Beavers says their overarching goal is always the same: “to shift perception or open someone up to thinking about climate or the environment, equity and technology, in different ways than they may have before.”

At Supercollider, Beavers runs a series of art shows and manages a professional development program for women, trans, and nonbinary artists called the SciArt Ambassador Fellowship that includes exhibitions and community dinners. “It’s about community-building,” they say, “but it’s also about working with ideas that challenge how we think about the ethics of science and technology, and the roles artists can play in helping shape the future.”

Isabel Beavers Tomb Keeprs

Work in progress for Tomb Keepers installation, Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: Art + Science Collide program, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist

In their own practice, Beavers is creating a project for Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: Art + Science Collide program. This project takes Beavers out of the studio and into the ocean, where they scuba dive for underwater footage. Called Tomb Keepers, the piece will focus on the impact of deep-sea mining for polymetallic nodules that are found about 3,500 to 6,000 meters deep at the bottom of the ocean. These nodules contain metals used for batteries that power laptops, mobile phones, and cars. 

“This extractive practice is detrimental to ocean ecology. The dust kicked up from the raking can suffocate organisms that live in the deep ocean and has untold impacts in ways we’re only just learning about,” Beavers says. 

For Tomb Keepers, Beavers is using cast-glass pieces, 4D animation, sculpture, and sound to construct an environment that mirrors the deep sea. “Art is really good at asking questions, creating an opportunity to talk about social, political, and spiritual implications of a practice like deep-sea-mining,” they say.

Beavers will also soon be working as a Hixon-Riggs Early Career Fellow in Science and Technology Studies at Harvey Mudd College. There they’ll be teaching and creating a project on “the grief we feel around climate change, and how the violence we’re willing to enact on other species and environments relates to the way we treat one another as humans.” Ultimately, Beavers says, this project will also explore possibilities for positive solutions. 

“My hope is that through the emotional and subjective experience of witnessing art, minds can be shifted,” they say. “[People] can be inspired to care more or think more deeply about the complexities around the climate crisis and how we need to approach it collectively as a society.” 

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

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