In mid-March the 13th Annual St. Louis River Summit, sponsored by the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, drew about 300 people to the University of Wisconsin Superior to learn about and celebrate the largest U.S. river flowing into Lake Superior.
One of the panels featured four area artists, talking about how the waters of the region inspire their work. Here at Agate, we’re always interested in the intersections between science and art. We’re pleased to present some highlights of that conversation; it has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
The panel was moderated by Anne Dugan, an independent curator and instructor of art history at the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin Superior.
Anne asked Kelly Beaster to begin by talking about the purposes that art has served for her. Kelly is a plant ecologist, and during the warm seasons she surveys wetlands and forests, recording the plants she sees. In the winter, she draws, trying to recreate the personal responses she has to the natural world while collecting plant data.
Typically, when I’m out sampling vegetation, I take photos, and I piece together a couple of photos to create drawings. I draw with ballpoint pen and make prints from the drawings. Art for me has served a lot of purposes over the years. The first one was just that I’ve always been compelled to create art. And once I started doing vegetation sampling, I started using art to help me remember the features of plants that language really couldn’t document as well. Drawing those features really solidified them in my mind: I would look back at my data sheets and see the drawings on them and remember exactly what that plant looked like. Lately, since I’ve been doing a lot of vegetation sampling in the estuary specifically, I became interested in using the drawings to tell the story, a backstory of the estuary. That backstory was about the history of what we as a culture have done to it, and all the work that’s been done to help it heal over the years, and what beauty remains there.
John Pastor is a Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. His research and art have focused on northern ecosystems, especially around Lake Superior. For some years, Dr. Pastor taught a course in biological illustration at UMD. His media include drawings, watercolors, and pastels.
The purpose of my art is to please me, but I’m motivated in both science and art by the beauty of the northern landscape. This is why I moved here, to be immersed in the Northwoods. And this is what gives me the ideas for my scientific work, my experiments and so forth. But it’s also what gives me the ideas for my art. I use pen and ink, watercolor, and pastel, mainly because it’s easier to take those tools out into the field.
Waabanangagokwe, Michelle Defoe, is Anishinaabe from Red Cliff, Wisconsin. Her clan is Muskie. She is a mother, teacher, and artist, and creates various forms of art. Many of her paintings are created from dreams or ideas that come to her as images.
I’ve always had a lot of creative energy and needed outlets for that energy at a very young age. In high school, I dabbled in photography, music, playing guitar, painting. I learned how to do beadwork from my dad when I was about 12 years old. So I have all these different outlets. I guess that’s what I would call a gift, a creative gift. I have many purposes in my art, but doing traditional Ojibwe beadwork and moccasin-making is an important one.
Evaline Britton is an artist and UW-Superior student concentrating on ceramics. Recently she has been working with slip glazes made with clay collected from Northern Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin.
As an undergraduate, I received a grant to do summertime research. I went around and collected local clay samples, and I have about 14 different samples from the area. I mapped and documented where they came from and whether they were surface level clays, or if they were cut down by the action of water: I was trying to understand the materials better. It turns out these local clays are very low melters, so I’m using them as slip glazes. I paint or dip these liquefied clays on to a piece of stoneware and dire it to about 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. The stoneware vessel stays the same but the dipped-on or painted-on local clay melts out and forms the glaze. Around here, all the clays are generally blackish-brown because they have a lot of iron, like eight-to-ten-percent iron. And they shrink at different rates. So each sample that I collect, I have to treat differently and address its special characteristics. Iron is a really fun colorant that shows up in a range from blacks to browns and greens and reds and yellows, pretty much spanning the entire rainbow, which is really exciting; it also likes to grow crystals depending on the firing temperatures. So it’s a very slow process. But it’s also pretty scientific in the way that we’re going about it and testing to figure out how to handle these local clays.
Anne Dugan noted that both scientists and artists are close observers. She asked each artist to explain how they reconcile their scientific work with their art, and to comment on how they might be inspired by the waters of the region.
We tend to think of science as something that happens in the left brain and art as something that happens in the right brain. But it’s not really divided that way at all. Looking at my watercolor of the stream, I didn’t paint an object; I painted the light that comes off the object. You can see there’s a lot of different textures to the water: right up against the shoreline, there’s a lot of white paper, and I just drew my loaded brush quickly across the paper, so these ragged edges appear. That’s because there was a little puff of wind there, creating what I call a cat’s paw, just little ripples, and I was trying to capture that. But closer to me, the water tension is holding the surface fairly flat, and the light reflects off it in a way that’s very hard. If you’ve ever done a belly flop, you know that it’s hard. So there’s a lot going on in the water there. And you might think that this watercolor is really about the forests on the shoreline over there. But really, it’s about the water; what I was really painting was how light reflects off the water differently depending on how the wind, or the lack of wind, has affected the surface. And the surface of the water is fascinating because of the amazing properties of the water molecule. It’s so simple, but it’s so fascinating. So that’s what’s going through my mind when I’m painting this: I’m going back and forth between the chemistry of the water molecule and the physics of the water surface and how light intersects off that. So that’s all physics and chemistry. And then the aesthetics of how do I make the sun with a paintbrush? So it’s not right brain or left brain, it’s whole brain.
Water definitely inspired my work on the Chief Buffalo project, a series of murals along Duluth’s Lake Walk. It was one of the best work environments I’ve ever been in: it was a group project, and we got to see the lake every day. When I got overwhelmed with being in the hot sun and working hard painting those surfaces, I could just take a break and walk down to the lake, which seemed to calm me and refocus me. One of the themes of this conference is reciprocity. What gifts has the water given us? And how do we give back? In Anishinaabe culture, anytime we take something from the earth, we give an offering. That shows respect and reciprocity. We’re taught to use tobacco as an offering. So if you offer tobacco, the spirits that live in the water are going to help you.
We also have to take care of the water and protect the water, that’s a responsibility. In the mural we were telling the Chief Buffalo story, but we wanted to acknowledge the spirits in the water as well. We have mermaids and fish, a lot of fish on those walls, and I’ve heard people walk through and say, “Oh, they’re so colorful and pretty, I feel like I’m in Mexico!” But it’s a little bit deeper than that. I’m hoping when people enjoy the lake, it’s not just about putting your kayak in the water, or just going boating or swimming. Of course, it’s okay to enjoy the water and be playful. But also remember the life that lives in there. We should always acknowledge them and make offerings to them.
I grew up in this area, and I remember the estuary being labeled as dirty and unclean. That’s a dark image. More recently, since there’s been so much effort put into cleaning it up, and I’ve gotten the chance to see it up close, I see that there’s still a lot of beauty that remains from before the estuary was disturbed so much. In my art I try to incorporate some of the disturbances: remnants of industry, like platforms or brick pilings that have nature growing into them. I’m trying to not just report it but find an interesting way to share it. I think if we lose hope and create only dark art pieces, or if we ignore the darkness completely, then I don’t know how we keep going, from an artist’s perspective.
Waabanangagokwe, Michelle Defoe