University of Wisconsin–Madison

Finding a Common Thread

The CFL Explores the Confluence of Science and Art

by Adam Hinterthuer, Limnology News – Number 25, Fall 2016

The Secret Life of Crystal Bog, by Terry Daulton, traveled the country sa part of the LTEArts “Drawing Water” exhibition

In 2014, the CFL and UW-Madison’s Department of Art received funding to foster collaboration between artists and scientists as they explored long-term ecological change in our world.

CFL graduate students Alison (Ali) Mikulyuk (MS candidate, Vander Zanden) and Chelsey Blanke (MS 2016 Vander Zanden) each teamed up with an artist to explore a Wisconsin waterway and try to meet at the confluence of science and art.

As 2016 comes to a close, both women are starting to see results. Chelsey has begun performances with artist, Helen J. Bullard, as they present stories about the cultural and environmental history of Lake Michigan – told with voice, music, video animation, and images – at events across the state.

“As we worked on this, we didn’t want it to be just science communication,” Chelsey says, “We wanted it to be a celebration of the lake and people’s connections to it. It has no agenda necessarily, other than hoping people will think about this.”

Originally titled “Uncertain Legacies”, the collaboration Chelsey and Ali set out to foster is most certainly unique – but it’s not all that uncommon at the CFL.

In 2005, then CFL director, John Magnuson and TLS director, Tim Kratz along with the UW School of Forest Ecology and Management and departments like Soils, Climatology and Geology worked with artists in northern Wisconsin on a collaboration exploring climate change in the Northwoods.

The project was the brainchild of a Northwoods painter named Terry Daulton, and entitled “Paradise Lost?”

“Creative thinking is the catalyst for the work of both artists and scientists, yet they rarely find themselves in the same circles,” Daulton explains. “If you look to history, during times of enlightenment and change the arts and sciences have often influenced each other.”

After the success of Paradise Lost? other CFL collaborations with artists were launched. The LTEArts project brought exhibits featuring poetry and art about the Long-Term Ecological Research program to places throughout Wisconsin and even to lawmakers in Washington D.C. It continues as a collection entitled “Drawing Water” and one component is TLS’s “Artist-in-Residence” program, where an artist spends a week or more on station each summer.

Earlier this year, CFL research professor Paul Hanson got into the act, featured in Madison weekly, the Isthmus, for musically interpreting the large amounts of data taken from buoys and using them as a new way of hearing the trends and conditions of freshwater systems across the world.

“Although society often separates art and science,” says TLS’s interim director, Susan Knight,  “we seek to bring together artists and scientists to tell the story of the complex and ever-changing Northwoods and more successfully reach the public at large.”

That public, says Mikulyuk, is already primed to receive these sorts of meditations on the places they love. Ali worked with filmmaker, Jojin Van Winkle, on a series of short videos about the Namekagon River in northwest Wisconsin – a waterway once championed by Aldo Leopold. Their website is live and more stories will be added to it throughout the year.

Ali talks with a kayaker on the Namekagon River about the “Voices of the Namekagon” project. Photo by Jojin Van Winkle, 2016

“I was really amazed by how easy it was to build connections with individuals in a community organized around a watershed,” she says. “ We discovered this network of citizens working to protect a place they loved and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are these everywhere? Is there a fabric that connects people to the land and to each other that exists but that we don’t really know about? And how do you love land?’ There are so many different ways but there are common threads among everyone.”