Clare Celeste Börsch '00 is an international collage and installation artist and climate communicator. Her large-scale artwork connects viewers with nature and inspires action around ecological and biodiversity crises. In addition to her work as an artist, she recently joined Plan A—a start-up that helps businesses reduce their emissions while decreasing energy costs. Clare has lived in Thailand, Brazil, Italy, the United States, Honduras, and Argentina and currently resides and works in Berlin.
In this month’s "Alumni Spotlight,” Clare discusses the role her time in Brazil played in shaping her love of art and nature and the way in which her artistic process has awakened her to the urgency of climate work.
Your father worked as an American diplomat, and your family was relocated to São Paulo from Florence, Italy, just as you were entering high school. What were your impressions of the city and of Graded?
When I first arrived in São Paulo, I was quite overwhelmed by the urban sprawl. The drive from the airport to our new home revealed the full face of the city, including its pollution and devastating poverty. I was jarred by the contrast between what I saw in those first moments in São Paulo versus the typical scenes of Florence, a small gem of a city nestled in the Tuscan hills.
Over time, I grew to love São Paulo and all it had to offer in terms of arts, culture, and cuisine. I was especially fond of the art museums, the Bienal at Parque Ibirapuera, and visiting Liberdade with my father. I was also very much influenced by the city's modernist architecture. We lived close to the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), and I enjoyed the museum's art collection as well as the incredible building. The street art of São Paulo was also very inspiring for me. I was especially drawn to the work of Os Gemeos, whom I had the chance to meet and have dinner with in San Francisco while I was completing my undergraduate studies in cultural anthropology.
How did Graded help support your interest in the arts?
I was lucky enough to have a wonderful art teacher, Ms. Asdorian, who was incredibly supportive of my love of art. She also allowed us “art kids” to come into the art room during breaks and after school, so it really became a safe space where I could create.
In addition, Graded brought in extraordinary performers for school assemblies. I was fortunate to watch some incredible Brazilian dance companies perform at the school. It was also great to see how often students took to the stage—in both large productions and individual performances.
The Garden is an art installation and event series that encourages the exploration of human connection to our planet.
What are some of your fondest memories of Graded?
My fondest memories are those of the strong bond I forged with my best friend in high school, Juliana Cerquiera Leite, who also became a professional artist. We remain close friends, and it is a relationship that has accompanied me through my major life transitions.
I was also lucky enough to have Mr. Luskin as my school counselor. He was an incredibly kind and empathetic person as well as a wonderful teacher. He saw through my teenage angst and recognized the person I would one day become.
I also enjoyed the campus with its abundant outdoor space. Whenever we walked between classes or had breaks, we had the opportunity to enjoy fresh air.
You hold a master's degree from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and previously worked in the public policy sector. What were the steps you took to become a full-time professional artist, and what led you to your new role at Plan A, a climate start-up?
I was always an artist on the side, even while I was working in policy. When I became a mother, I used my maternity leave to create my first full-room installation. Afterward, I returned to work but realized there was interest in my artwork. So I took a business planning course and made a career pivot, opening my own studio.
In the years that followed, I became increasingly aware of the biodiversity and climate crises. After a while, working to raise awareness did not seem like enough, and I wanted to work full-time on climate solutions. That is when I did a course on climate with the organization Terra.do and found my current job through their mentorship program.
Artist Clare Celeste creates immersive installations so that others may be moved by the beauty of our planet.
Many of your installations focus on engaging audiences to think about the environment, particularly biodiversity. How did your time in Brazil and its natural environment inspire your art?
My trips to the rainforest in Brazil left a lasting impression on me and have greatly influenced my art. The lushness of the ecosystems there is something I will never forget.
I truly fell in love with nature growing up in Brazil, encountering the dazzling beauty of Amazonia. I woke up to the crisis of biodiversity loss when I realized how many of the species in my artwork were facing extinction.
I often incorporate pre-1900 naturalist imagery into my work. My research on the flora and fauna that I choose for my pieces has evidenced that many of them have vanished or are facing extinction. This threat adds a layer of ecological urgency to my work. To address this aspect of my practice, I have an ongoing collaboration and creative dialogue with biodiversity scientist Louisa Durkin of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Center.
What is your creative process when you plan an installation?
I start off by daydreaming. Often inspiration strikes while I am out in nature, and I want to recapture a particular moment. Then I move on to sketching my ideas in my journal. This practice helps me develop a concept, and it also assists me in keeping a record of my ideas. Looking back through my years of journals, I see which themes have emerged again and again. Then I start collecting images, mostly vintage naturalist illustrations available in the public domain, and pulling them into folders, often organized by color. Afterward, I start designing in Photoshop. I have always engaged in this process, even when I was exclusively using analog images. Photoshop helps me wrap my head around the large scale of the compositions I use to create installations that span several meters.
I then print the images and begin building them as three-dimensional elements. Depending on the work and commission, these become either three-dimensional murals or fully-immersive installations. My process is always changing and evolving, and lately, I have been using reclaimed cardboard and ordinary paper glue or a hot glue gun—both with excellent results.
Your large-scale collages and installations are meant to be experienced in person. How did you modify your work during the pandemic to reach a virtual audience?
The pandemic made me rethink my work. I created the installation The Garden during the lockdowns, and it was a way for me to connect with others through my art, but in a virtual way. The artwork was built into my studio, and I facilitated conversations with women leaders from the climate space inside the installation. A significant highlight was speaking with Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson of Project Drawdown and All We Can Save. It was a way to foster connection and community at a time when the world was very isolated.
The Healing Garden (2022) is constructed with foraged branches from Germany’s forests and leaves made of a homemade bioplastic of red algae, plant gelatine, water, and organic food dyes.
Climate change stories often convey a doom and gloom message. Why do you instead choose to focus on beauty and hope?
I focus on inspiring people through beauty because it is more effective than fear. I focus on what unites us: a love of the natural world.
I think everyone is responsible for leaving the world a better place than they found it, in any way they can. I believe artists can be the storytellers who allow us to imagine a new way of being. In a time of planetary crisis, these narratives are so crucial. Imagination is needed now more than anything.
I want my artwork to remind the viewer that they are part of nature, not separate from it. I hope this perspective will move people to act to protect the planet.
You now live in Berlin, home to an impressive array of art galleries and museums. How have you been able to take advantage of living in a city with such a strong artistic identity?
Berlin is an endless source of inspiration. There are always fantastic exhibitions and concerts and performances to explore. It is also a city that fosters the arts through funding opportunities and structural support for artists. It used to be incredibly affordable, and artist studios were accessible to most. The cost of living has increased over the past decade, but Berlin is still very much a cultural capital and an artists’ city.
When I was working as a full-time artist, I was able to get health insurance and a retirement plan specifically designed for creatives. This sort of government support allows the artistic scene in Berlin to flourish.
What advice do you have for current Graded students?
Take full advantage of the many opportunities offered to you by the school! My biggest regret is that I did not participate in the full spectrum of extracurricular activities that Graded offered. It is a wonderful time to try new things, focus on learning, and build a foundation for your future. You couldn’t ask for a better launching pad, so take full advantage. Also, the IB courses are fantastic and prepare you for university. I found I had a head-start when I began university because of the critical thinking and writing skills I gained at Graded.
Commission for Fridays For Future, an international, youth-led movement of students organizing against the lack of action on the climate crisis.
NOTE: Photos sourced with permission from https://www.clareceleste.com/