From the moment she first opened her eyes, Michelle Irizarry’s world was full of color and inspiration. Born in Puerto Rico, an island bursting with culture and history, she was raised by an architect, making art a part of her life from a very early age. Growing up with crayons, markers, pencils, and pens always laying around, Michelle taught herself to experiment with various styles, finding freedom and courage in her art.
Years of journeying down the path of creative expression have provided their fair share of roadblocks and challenges. As many artists can relate to, self-doubt is a monster that Michelle became quite familiar with. Whenever it reared its head, she found that she could conquer it by facing her fears head-on, emboldened by the expression and peace that art brings her. With practice, consistency and hard work, Michelle could always overcome it.
For a long time, that monster presented itself to Michelle in the form of faces and figures, and all of the complexities and challenges that came with painting them. So, she started small, practicing simple drawings until she eventually became comfortable enough to create her first figure painting. Again, letting her personal experiences strengthen and empower her artwork, Michelle entered her oil painting, “Lost” into the 2016 Central Florida Lifestyle Magazine art contest. The piece was inspired by her experiences living with chronic illness for years and the ways that it made her feel distant from her old self. She bravely shared that personal battle and she won second place.
“I believe that artwork should stir emotions and not just be a pretty or decorative piece,” Michelle says. “For me, it is a tool to communicate about difficult topics and break down barriers.”
Now, Michelle is a mother, and she has to fight her children’s monsters too. While some half-hearted efforts may have been enough for the imaginary ones under the bed, she is now kept up at night grieving over the enormity of the looming climate crisis – the biggest, baddest, scariest monster of all. This particular beast and its threat over her children’s future has impacted much of Michelle’s recent work, both in art and science.
Back in 1999, Michelle had moved from Puerto Rico to the United States to complete her Master of Science Degree, equipping her with an education in Climate Modeling and Hydrology. While she was studying the science of climate change, the urgency didn’t occur to her until later. Back then, the problem felt like something far off that humans would surely find a solution to. Now, she’s burdened by the guilt of bringing her kids into an unstable world.
“I grieve over the future that awaits our children, where large tracts of our planet may become uninhabitable,” she says. “I worry about how the children growing up today and the poorest in the world, those who contribute the least toward the climate crisis, will suffer the brunt of it.”
As part of her job, Michelle works on vulnerability assessments for the water resources system in South Florida and performs modeling of the impacts of sea-level rise. Faced with the evidence, it’s hard not to feel frightened and unprepared. After watching her family in Puerto Rico endure the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Michelle is traumatized and troubled at the thought of these events becoming more frequent and more catastrophic.
Again, rather than surrendering to her doubts, Michelle turned to her art. Her recent work, often described as colorful, profound and introspective, incorporates symbols and hidden meanings with water and the environment as central themes. The shift in her messaging has caused a drop in her art sales, but Michelle sees this as a small price to pay for what her art can achieve.
Since she’s started doing more environmental-themed artwork, Michelle has noticed other local artists becoming inspired to do the same. Through art and communication, she’s been about to break down barriers and encourage others to become more conscious and involved in climate action. And since she knows the value of fighting your own battles as well, Michelle has inspired her children to lend their voices to the conversation.
A couple of years ago, Michelle and her daughter both entered pieces into an art contest by the environmental organization, “Green for All.” They both won in their respective categories. The organization invited them to attend an event in Washington, D.C. that was focused on mothers opposing the administration’s proposed EPA budget cuts and visiting congressional offices to urge their representatives to do the same. Michelle was even asked to take part in the event’s press conference. She wasn’t exactly a polished public speaker, but self-doubt was a limitation she knew how to surpass. So, she accepted. It was her first activism experience, and she felt empowered.
“It was a unique opportunity for my daughter and I and it was eye-opening,” says Michelle. “I never knew normal citizens like us could just go and meet with our Congresspeople about issues that concerned us, but there we were!”
After that experience, Michelle and her daughter returned home with renewed hope and encouragement to act, educate and push our governments to act on climate. Now, she says art is a small part of her messaging. It’s a tool she and her children can use to fight the monsters that threaten their future. Her environmental art has been featured in online publications like The Marjorie, Citizens Climate Radio – The Art House, and Artists and Climate Change. She also continues to meet with her representatives, volunteer for organizations like Moms Clean Air Force, Climate Reality and Citizens Climate Lobby, and write op-eds and letters to the editor about the climate crisis to push others to fight with her. Knowing that there are so many activists out there doing the same gives her hope.
As an artist, Michelle has always conquered her fears and obstacles with passion and perseverance. She believes that good art is the kind that reaches the soul, and by tapping into that, we can move the needle and guide us closer to a world that future generations deserve.
“Art has historically been a catalyst and a medium for revolutionary changes,” she says. “Art has always been key in awakening the masses.”