Collage artist reminds viewers of nature’s beauty

Clare Celeste Börsch is a collage artist living in Berlin. She’s developed a technique for converting digital images of nature into large scale collages, using archives of naturalist art that go back hundreds of years.

A lifelong nature lover, she hopes to convey the beautiful biodiversity of our planet through immersive collages that will motivate people to care about the many species we are losing.

Why do you work in conservation?

Why do I work in conservation? I’ve always been enamored with the natural world. I grew up in Brazil. I lived next to the ocean and exploring those underwater ecosystems and reefs was impactful. I always just loved the natural world.

When I started doing my collage installations, one day realized that I was using an image of the passenger pigeon and they are extinct. Because I use a lot of pre-industrial imagery illustrations from old naturalists, I started thinking about how many of these species are endangered or are already extinct.

I began an ongoing collaboration with a biodiversity expert, and she opened my eyes to how bad the biodiversity crisis has become and how many species we’re losing every day. I’ve always been in love with nature and wanted it to be protected, but I didn’t realize how dire the situation was until I started looking into how many of the species of my artwork were going extinct. That was my gateway in.

What are your main activities in an average day?

I balance the day between the business and the creative side of my work. Every week, I need to reply to client emails and sometimes complete grant applications and things like that. Then, of course, the studio practice where I’m making art. Sometimes I find that it’s better that I just do my admin and business stuff, taxes, and all the accounting in one day of the week, and then have dedicated days for creative practice. This way I can get into flow.

Being a freelancer, you’re wearing all the hats and you just have to take one off and put the other one on.

At the moment, in addition to my fine art, I’m re-educating myself in the climate space by taking courses. There’s often about 6 to 10 hours per week of learning.

Could you describe your art for people who have never seen it?

I collect thousands of images of flora and fauna, and I cut them out and combine them into immersive installations and other forms of artwork. I’m essentially a collage artist. I’m creating immersive three-dimensional installations that are completely made out of paper and glue. The works are made out of hundreds of hand-cut images that come together into much larger works, some of them are so large that you can actually walk into them.

Clare assembling digital images from natural history archives.

Where do you find these images?

I use a few different resources. My favorite one is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which has an account on flicker that is searchable, and it’s amazing. I think it’s run through the Smithsonian and it is this incredible resource of naturalist illustrations that’s aggregated from all over the world. It’s a resource for scientists and researchers, but it’s also an incredible resource for artists and almost all of the images in there are in the public domain. In addition to that, I often use a website called Pixabay, where photographers upload their images to use. It’s cool because you can tip the individual photographers directly.

Those are the two main resources that I use. I used to use found imagery, but now since I’m working at such a larger scale and create multiple works per year, I find all my imagery online from those two websites.

What do you find challenging about your job?

I miss the stability and the community of having a regular job. I sometimes don’t know if I’m cut out for freelancing because I miss the relationships that are built when one has a steady work environment and colleagues. Before I became an artist, I worked in policy in government agencies or for non-profits. There was this moral clarity to the work that I was doing where I knew that if I was showing up and doing my job well, that in my small way I was making the world a better place, but when you’re a freelance artist, it gets muddy.

I’m constantly creating the path as I’m walking it. You’re making it up as you go, and you’re creating it through your decisions. I had a steep learning curve, the first year that I had a lot of client work, I learned a lot about setting boundaries, when to say no to a job and all of these things which aren’t part of a job when you’re working for someone as opposed to working for yourself.

Clare surrounded by her collages.

What are the steps that you’ve gone through in your career to get to where you are now?

I’ve had a truncated career. I did a very traditional policy path for a while and then did this 180 into the arts, and the way that I turned my art into a career was that I took a business planning class. I don’t think that many people tell artists to take business planning classes. It was really helpful in terms of laying out clear goals and a vision for what you want to be doing. That was my step into being an artist and then it was a slow path of building up clients by word of mouth and getting pressed.

I once heard, I think from Lisa Congdon, an artist, say “do the work you want to get paid to do,” and I started doing that. I did my first collage installation without knowing if people would commission me to do it but, in the end, it worked out.

What kinds of things do you do now to connect to nature and get inspiration?

I walk in the forests around Berlin, and that is a really grounding, lovely experience. That said, I live in the city. Just today I was walking home, and I was looking at the sky in wonderment, how beautiful it was. We have really beautiful sunsets. Part of it is escaping into nature and it is really regenerative and necessary for me. It’s important to find the little pockets of nature in your day and pay attention to it.

Nature is something that the more attention you give to it, the more it unfolds and reveals itself to you and the more amazing it becomes. I have a young son so sometimes on the way home, it takes a long time because he’s looking at everything. Then you realize that, on a street that you might have walked by and not looked at, there might be an amazing type of seed from a tree that looks like something out of a science fiction movie, and it’s absolutely captivating. You would have walked by without noticing it.

Do you think we’ve lost something as far as the way that artists used to document species of plants and animals in the 19th century? 

Yes. With the advent of photography, and film, it’s perhaps not as common. There are some contemporary naturalists that I really admire and that are doing beautiful work. I’m of two minds about it. I use a lot of these 19th-century drawings. It was such a different era. I just read the autobiography of Alexander von Humboldt. The book is called “The Discovery of Nature.” There was this era of naturalists going out and exploring with wonderment the world around them and documenting it and these absolutely beautiful drawings and paintings. However, the idea of “discovery” is very problematic and laden with colonial undertones. Because most of what is “discovered” is actually pre-existing Indigenous knowledge.

I’m going to do a quick aside. I was in Copenhagen. I walked into the glasshouse that is this very ornate, beautiful colonial building, and was immediately hit with all of the smells and climate of the tropics that I grew up with in Brazil. It was this moment that was very troubling because it was Brazil’s nature kind of captured under glass in this very colonial context.

I think that sometimes naturalist’s artwork has that feeling for me, even though I work with it and I love it. It has undertones of colonialism in it. “What was the era that created this, and what were they thinking about nature that created them?” I think these are issues that are important to unpack.

Learn more about art and conservation

If you’ve enjoyed reading about Clare’s artwork, why not explore displays of her work work at the website of the Nordic Art Agency or visit out her website.

For more stories about conservationist artists, check out interviews with other artists on our Careers Advice Blog, such as:

Author Profile | Bill Boteler

Bill is a conservationist living in Maryland, USA, who does freelance jobs with groups such as the Jane Goodall Institute. His specialty, so far, is researching information, interviewing people and writing it up. He has interviewed some fascinating people to help update their projects in Jane Goodall’s books. Previously, he was an admin assistant in a conservation coalition. Bill likes to grow indoor and outdoor plants and attract wildlife to the yard.

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