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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Jeff Richter's photo, February 200?, shows his vision of a future icy February. © Jeff Richter

December 2007

The nature of art and science

Two exhibits provide a fresh perspective on habitat and climate change.

David L. Sperling


Jeff Richter's photo, February 200?, shows his vision of a future icy February. © Jeff Richter
Climate change: seeing the invisible, grasping the untouchable

Science and art each have a place in helping us see, appreciate and think about the natural world. Participants in recent exhibits around the state used the two different approaches to envision the changing forces affecting our forests and climate.

"Forest Art in Wisconsin," a three-week outdoor art exhibit held on a 1.5-mile portion of the Raven Trail in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, aimed to put a visible, tangible face on what constitutes change in northern forests.

The 28 artists participating in the project viewed change from "native" and "invasive" perspectives. Some looked at ecological themes, interpreting what it means to be an invasive plant or animal. Others developed artwork that showed socially invasive ideas – settings or attitudes that challenged traditional Northwoods culture. Still others chose ideas that intentionally seemed out of place in the forest and were artistically invasive to the natural setting.

As the art installations were set up and later dismantled (or, in some cases, performed), visitors were encouraged to chat with the artists and discuss the concepts each artist intended to explore. The exhibit also featured daily guided tours and formal presentations by the artists to prompt further interaction and discussion.

Exhibit curator Ute Ritschel from Darmstadt, Germany just ended a semester appointment as artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison Art Department. She mounted three similar outdoor art exhibits before setting up this installation. She chose the Raven Trail site because it had a hemlock forest, bog and nearby lake that reminded her of the forests near her home in Germany. The location was convenient for northern residents, and also drew an interesting mix of visitors en route to their summer vacations. It also helped that the idea was enthusiastically received by DNR Forest Superintendent Steve Petersen, who saw an opportunity to offer visitors an unusual experience on the scenic trail.

All the installations stimulated thought, and several pieces in particular caught my fancy:

Jennifer Angus' Big Blue Bugs Bleed Blue Black Blood featured a horde of colorful, fanciful bugs created out of fabric. The army of interlocked beetles marching in lockstep over a long downed log truly gave the impression of an alien invasion in the woodland setting. Angus is an associate professor of Textile Design at UW-Madison.

Jennifer Angus' Big Blue Bugs Bleed Blue Black Blood featured fanciful fabric bugs marching on a downed log and resembling an alien invasion. © Forest Art Wisconsin
Jennifer Angus' Big Blue Bugs Bleed Blue Black Blood featured fanciful fabric bugs marching on a downed log and resembling an alien invasion.

© Forest Art Wisconsin

Brenda Baker and Henry Drewal's Home Divided used a large wooden nest as a metaphor for warmth and safe shelter. Then they divided the nest with a fence to symbolize the prejudices and social barriers that segregate many peoples who have come to America as refugees seeking a better, more secure life. Baker is exhibits curator at the Madison Children's Museum and Drewal is an art history professor who specializes in studying dispersed African cultures.

Wolfgang Folmer took a 25-foot basswood trunk, debarked it, planed it smooth, dyed it black and carved narrow tracks into the white wood below to simulate bark beetle trails. His piece Stamm-Bilder-Weg produced some beautiful designs reminiscent of horizontal totems or African designs that tell a story as one moves along the trunk. Folmer is an assistant professor of graphics at Haller Akademie in Germany.

In Plenty, sculptors Aris Georgiades and Gail Simpson turned the tables on invasive forces in the forest environment. Wooden chainsaws anchored to the forest floor and suspended from tree branches in the forest canopy were coated in a mix of bird seed and suet, giving birds, insects and small mammals the chance to consume and ingest one of the tools of forest habitat change.

Noixga is a Ho-Chunk word for the black ash tree, which the tribe traditionally cuts into long sheaths or splints for weaving baskets. Artist Tom Jones, a photography professor at UW-Madison, wove basket parts, housing and tribal photos together to bridge past tribal traditions to life in the present – an age in which the emerald ash borer threatens this staple of the natural and cultural forest community for the Ho-Chunk people.

Edgardo Madanes of Argentina chose one tree along the Raven Trail and surrounded it with a flowing network of willow wicker in his piece Choose. He aimed to give a sense of what it means for an integrated member of a natural system to become separated and isolated from its community – a fresh perspective on being seen as stranger in a strange land.

Jens J. Meyer, from Essen and Hamburg, Germany, used elastic fabric to sculpt the fury and whrling motion of a Tornado in the forest. The swirling, spiraling orbit of the fabric pieces lay in sharp contrast to the peaceful, quiet feeling one got by standing in the center at the eye of the sculptural "storm."

Jens J. Meyer from Germany used elastic fabric to sculpt the fury and whirling motion of a Tornado, in sharp contrast to the peaceful, quite feeling of the forest. © Kirsten Held
Jens J. Meyer from Germany used elastic fabric to sculpt the fury and whirling motion of a Tornado, in sharp contrast to the peaceful, quite feeling of the forest.

© Kirsten Held

In a bit of urbane reflection, artist Mark Nelson whipped up another example of conceptual art that commented on relationships between people and their environment. In White Collar Woods, he wrapped a huge starched, pressed sleeve of a white dress shirt with French cuffs around a growing tree to display his concern that the gentrification of the Northwoods is grafting formality, wealth and class differences onto an older cultural system. In his view, the region has become a recreation magnet for wealthy retirees who change the social dynamic in communities that formerly relied on lakes and woods to sustain the traditional economy.

To see photos of each installation, visit Forest Art Wisconsin and click on "catalog."

Climate change: seeing the invisible, grasping the untouchable

The second partnership using artistic expression to shed light on science and engage community discussion is a traveling art exhibit entitled "Paradise Lost? Artists on Climate Change in the Northwoods." The exhibit began touring the state in February 2007 and will run through March 2008.

The project began when 20 artists, six educators and seven scientists received a grant to come together in spring 2006 to talk about the nature of climate change and to consider how artistic approaches might interest the public in examining its effects close to home.

As Northwoods naturalist John Bates noted in his introduction to the exhibit: "The science on climate change alone clearly hasn't been enough to tip us into action. Many people simply don't trust science, or scientists. Humans tend to like things black and white, and since science is a continual search for truths that are always evolving and being reinterpreted, the average person is left with a slippery slope to navigate. What statistical studies should I believe? How can I evaluate the scientific data &? Whose interpretation of the studies is closest to the truth & and who are you going to trust?"

The scientists – a climatologist, soil scientist, limnologist, bog ecologist, forest ecologist and geographer – as well as an Ojibwe elder and a community organizer shared three days of discussion as the 20 painters, sculptors, poets and musicians mulled over how art might help nonscientific audiences reflect on climate change.

Bates said that in grappling with the issues, "we talked about the exhibit itself, how it could potentially be interactive, and how attendees and the community at large could contribute." Sometimes the group relied on scientific metaphors – a compass that points out directions and lays out alternative paths, a gyroscope spinning ideas, ethics and actions in a political and cultural debate to ultimately lead to some accepted view.

Through visiting the exhibit and participating in the discussions in each community where the exhibit is being mounted, the participants hope that the visual ideas, poems and artistic pieces will prompt visitors to explore climate change issues on their own. Here are some of the pieces I enjoyed, and portions of the artists' statements about their work:

Ages 3 and Up: A Puzzle for Our Children – Climate change is a long-term problem with no easy answers. "Our children and grandchildren will have to put the puzzle back together as we continue to pull the pieces farther away from where they go," said artist Jamie Young. "After learning that global warming predicts Wisconsin will likely have the same climate Arkansas has now, I couldn't get the idea out of my mind."

Bonnie Peterson's It's Just Math – This graph depicting 400,000 years of carbon dioxide concentrations is woven together with a mix of photographs, embroidery, silk, velvet and brocade. The central design is surrounded with map fragments, photos from winter explorations in the Lake Superior region and a vision of the ozone hole over Antarctica. Explanations of how carbon dioxide levels are estimated over hundreds of thousands of years are stitched into the orange and pink silks.

Generations – With pencil on paper, artist Scott Pauli drew a cross-section of a tree trunk whose rings are a natural symbol representing 100 years of growth of a Northwoods red pine. Why 100? Because it represents the average time that a ton of carbon dioxide once released will remain in the atmosphere and this species is one that would only survive farther north as average temperatures rise. "I thought of how every ring affected the next and the form that sometimes seemed like a spider's web, a satellite view of a storm, an overhead look at waves, a fingerprint," said Pauli. "I thought about the words of Ojibwe elder Frank Montano and the great power of the circle in nature. As this exhibition moves from place to place, I envision its circles of influence will grow, just like the drawing."

February 200? – "Just to the north of me lies a superior lake," said photographer Jeff Richter. "I've been observing and photographing its splendor for 30 years. Something has changed...Three images in the exhibit show the extent of ice from February 1995 to February 2005. This last image portrays what I imagine a future February might look like. We know fossil fuels are going to run out in the near future. We suspect we're doing significant harm to the planet by burning fossil fuels and we know renewable resources are the best long-term solution. What are we waiting for? What are we waiting for?"

Bog Paludarium – A paludarium is an aquarium/terrarium combination that simulates an ecosystem where the organisms under study require both water and land to survive. John Glaeser compiled a paludarium to simulate northern bog environments. The small realm on display here requires lots of care to sustain the mini-world of wet and dry – daily misting to simulate morning dew, weekly watering, manipulated light and occasional plant pruning. Bog plants and habitat can be fussy, and that's just the point the exhibit makes for visitors: many habitats are fragile, and climate change will change what can survive in a particular location. It's a big lesson to appreciate in a microcosm of a desktop display.

In Wisconsin "Paradise Lost" has toured Rhinelander, Ashland and Manitowish Waters; in Michigan, the exhibit has traveled to Ironwood and Calumet. It's currently available for public viewing at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Gallery in Wausau and will end its run in Madison and Minneapolis in spring 2008. Teachers and groups that want to schedule an event in conjunction with the exhibit can contact Dolly Ledin, (608) 222-4865, or Terry Daulton, (715) 476-3530. Visit Paradise Lost? to view an online catalog of the exhibit.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.