Meet social artist Borealis

Artist Borealis finds a way to keep creating through the pandemic using secondhand materials.
Borealis holding a card

Photo by Nikki Hansen

The pandemic brought a near complete halt to Borealis’ work as a social artist (i.e. someone who aims to use creative skills to spark change). Borealis — who goes by a single moniker and uses they/them pronouns — was set to begin a few residencies, contribute to a large community neighborhood project and host an installation at James Watrous Gallery, but all that evaporated in the era of physical distancing.

When Borealis was unable to gather in a space with people due to distancing rules, they say it was a total interruption of their social artistry.

“I’m really interested in some of the community interactions that help us make meaning, make decisions as a community and contribute to our long-term health,” Borealis says. “So if we hit a time like COVID and I’m not receiving the funding I need to do social projects, how do I meet my goals?”

Borealis, a full-time artist and education director at Arts + Literature Laboratory, is restricted in the work they can do during this pandemic because of asthma. They launched beau x works in 2020 to continue creating while in lockdown by using materials they found around the house.

After finishing graduate school in 2014, Borealis became a working artist in community arts spaces and centers. All of the objects sold through beau x works aim to repurpose materials, like leftover plastics, bits of fabric or studio scraps.

“I don’t feel comfortable buying new materials for things and sort of perpetuating the consumerism I’m trying to work against,” Borealis says. “I think in any project that I can think of that involves handmade objects, I carry that repurposing mentality, whether that’s repurposing my own furniture for installation or using cardboard in a recycling bin to talk about disability in a 2D project or installation.”

Borealis wearing their apron

Photo by Nikki Hansen

The use of secondhand materials stemmed from Borealis’ inability to buy materials for arts classes in college, but turned into a way to reflect on gatekeeping in art. “I continue to unapologetically use secondhand and scrap materials as a critique of the classist, cisheterosexist and white supremacist distinctions historically drawn between high-brow and low-brow art in our community, or what is considered a creative endeavor worthy of public attention or not,” Borealis says.

Everything Borealis creates is unique, as it depends on what’s available to make art at the time. Friends, neighbors and strangers drop off materials, which has been one way Borealis socializes and stays connected from a distance. Delta Beer Lab donated grain bags that Borealis transformed into backpacks. Others gave rice flour bags that they’ll use in a future piece.

“The objects I sell are really a byproduct or a tool I use to gather resources [to] not only use for my practice, but for other projects in the community,” Borealis says. “I anticipate that if and when [COVID-19 precautions] lift, people will be eager to get back together in real space and maybe the work will have changed for the better at that time.”

Borealis received some COVID-19 relief funds from arts organizations, and these covered their basic needs. From a place of financial stability, Borealis was inspired to donate 50% of sales from beau x works to organizations that support causes they care about, including Freedom Inc. and Harambee Village. Apart from donations, Borealis hopes to set up systems to fund emerging queer and transgender artists’ work.

Borealis says there are some risks to the work they do for beau x works, as there’s a chance it could perpetuate capitalism in a way they do not believe in.

“It’s important for people to question what ethical consumerism actually means, because I don’t know if there is such a thing,” Borealis says. “That’s something that I’m working on as an artist, is, ‘Yeah, even though the conditions are changing for me and I can’t necessarily do my social practice to the extent that I had planned, how can I make these alternate plans really meet the same goals?’ ”

Find Borealis: beaux.works, beaux.studio, @mxborealis

Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.