Art + Science at Bonanza Creek, Alaska

By Shelley Stonebrook

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Long-Term Ecological Reflections

A growing network of long-term ecological research sites in the United States (and beyond) features collaborations among the sciences, arts, and humanities. From the hardwood forests of New England to the towering old growth trees of the Pacific Northwest, we will introduce you to a handful of these diverse places and explore what happens when environmental scientists and artists hike, live, research, and create together with the long view of decades and centuries in mind. is pleased to partner with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word on this series. Spring Creek Project hosts a Long-Term Ecological Reflections program in Oregon that is designed to last 200 years and is one of many organizations nurturing this loose-knit network of creative inquiry. Learn more at Ecological Reflections.


It was a Friday evening in February 2017. Bundled up on a winter night, hundreds of residents of Fairbanks, Alaska, made their way down a normally quiet street dotted with old industrial buildings. Some were parked a mile away. They arrived at the unassuming Well Street Art Co. gallery and poured in to catch Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest’s latest public exhibit showcasing works born out of arts and science collaborations. This particular show, In a Time of Change: Microbial Worlds, drew 900 people for opening night.

“If you look at the population of Fairbanks, that’s 2.5 percent of the city!” says Mary Beth Leigh, an environmental microbiologist and director of Bonanza Creek’s arts-humanities-science integrations.

Crowd at Well Street Art Co.
A full house at the Well Street Art Co. gallery in Fairbanks, Alaska, on opening night of the Microbial Worlds art-science exhibit.
Photo by Todd Paris.

This level of public engagement for a small-town Friday night event about a seemingly niche topic sounds surprising until you dig into the profound impact the series of shows has had on public perception of science and environmental issues. Bonanza Creek’s ongoing series In a Time of Change has done much more than explore changes in a research forest—it’s changing minds and, in turn, changing how people see and act in the world.


Artists Enter an Alaskan Boreal Forest

Bonanza Creek, a part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network since 1987, is a research site jointly managed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, the Boreal Ecology Cooperative Research Unit, and the U.S. Forest Service. It’s a wild place of black spruce, stands of alder, poplar, aspen and birch, bog and fen meadows, and bluffs that overlook the stunning Alaska Range Mountains—and it’s only a 30-minute drive from downtown Fairbanks.

Tanana River at Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest
The Tanana River and surrounding floodplain at Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest.
Photo by Roger Ruess.

In 2008, Leigh, then a new faculty member at the University of Alaska, was able to launch the first arts and humanities experiment at Bonanza Creek. Because of her background as a dancer, choreographer, and musician, she was a natural fit for heading up this type of programming. With support from Terry Chapin, the site’s LTER principal investigator at the time, she organized a field trip of writers that headed into the forest to meet with scientists.

“It wasn’t intended necessarily to amount to anything other than just an initial field experience, and then the writers got so excited that they really wanted to do a performance and turn it into something. So it grew,” Leigh says. Today, this type of programming is a key outreach feature of Bonanza Creek, and the site has hosted many visual artists, textile artists, theater performers, dancers, and writers and has organized a series of successful art exhibits and performances in the community.

Well Street Art Co.
Science-based art pieces on display at the Well Street Art Co. gallery.
Photo by Todd Paris.


Bonanza Creek at a Glance

Location: Near Fairbanks, Alaska

Year arts activities began: 2008

Artists hosted: Alaska-based visual artists, writers, and performing artists

View more art: In a Time of Change: Microbial Worlds

Funding: $10,000 annually from site’s LTER grant; other one-time gifts from various sources

How to apply: If you’re an Alaskan artist or writer—or a creative who collaborates with someone in Alaska—look for program updates and upcoming opportunities on the ITOC Facbeook page. When a new program arises, the steering committee will issue a request for proposals, generally requiring a statement of interest, resume, and work samples to apply.


In a Time of Change

In 2010, a vision for Bonanza Creek’s arts and humanities activities began to coalesce around the theme “In a Time of Change,” the name of their first project from 2008. The site has since hosted four more major thematic projects in the series: Envisioning the Future (2010), The Art of Fire (2012), Trophic Cascades (2013), and Microbial Worlds (2017).

Each “In a Time of Change” project has had about 12 participants, though sometimes more. For the field trips, everyone meets on campus, drives together to the forest, and then uses logging roads to explore multiple stops, such as visiting an old burn area to talk about forest succession after fire. Bonanza Creek tries to maintain an Alaska focus in selecting people to participate in programming, so artists and writers are either local to the state or they’re part of a collaborative effort that includes at least one Alaskan.

Artists on field trip
Scientist Ursel Schuette talks with artists about plant-microbe interactions on a field trip to Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest.
Photo by Mary Beth Leigh.

With the most recent Microbial Worlds project, Leigh designed a series of field trips that were held once a month for 16 months. This long-term approach to artistic engagement mirrors the mission of LTER. Each field trip started with Leigh giving the participants a mini microbiology course, and she also often brought in a guest scientist to interact with the artists and cover a different aspect of microbiology.

“The repeated interactions built a sense of cohort and deepened their knowledge of the area. People could really develop their interests. I tried to cast a lot of seeds, and people would latch on to one thing or another. Then I could steer them toward experts in that arena,” she says.

Drilling a permafrost core
Bonanza Creek site manager Jamie Hollingsworth drills a permafrost core for artists on a field trip. The group got to hold the permafrost core as Hollingsworth, along with scientist Teresa Hollingsworth, explained the layers. This experience is referenced in an essay by Debbie Moderow as holding a “permafrost fudgesicle,” and permafrost makes many appearances in the artwork.
Photo by Mary Beth Leigh.

As part of the Microbial Worlds project, the group of artists took a five-day trip up to Toolik Field Station, another LTER site in Alaska funded by the National Science Foundation. The group went out on many treks with a guide and more scientists. One exciting outcome of the trip is that the folks at Toolik, who had hosted intermittent residency opportunities in years past, felt inspired to restart their own arts activities at the site.

Nancy Hausle-Johnson, a tile artist who was on the Microbial Worlds trip, later completed a residency at Toolik where she created a large tile installation in their dining hall. Leigh says this is typical of how the arts and humanities activities tend to spread and grow organically to more science sites.

Paddling in canoes
Artists paddle out onto Toolik Lake with scientists to observe and assist with routine water sampling. Artists also collected their own samples that they viewed under their microscopes, resulting in pieces like the collaborative “Toolik Chain of Lakes” quilt series created by Ree Nancarrow and Charlotte Bird.
Photo by Eric Henderson.


Seeking a Two-Way Exchange

A handful of Bonanza Creek scientists are a consistent presence during the field trips, including the site’s current principal investigator, Roger Ruess, as well as Jamie Hollingsworth, site manager, Teresa Hollingsworth, research ecologist and co-principal investigator, and Knut Kielland, a professor in the department of biology and wildlife. We asked Leigh whether these interactions felt risky at first, and how scientists and artists reacted to working alongside each other. When venturing into a “place of science,” she says artists would sometimes express a bit of initial nervousness. What surprised Leigh was that scientists, too, had some apprehension about interacting with artists. “They would often say, ‘Oh no, are they going to make me write poems or talk about poems?’” Leigh laughs. But these fears and disciplinary barriers fell away quickly on both sides.

Part of what makes it easy for the artists and scientists to connect is the discovery that there’s overlap in their methods. This discovery often happens spontaneously on the field trips, such as over lunch conversations in which the scientists and artists begin to recognize similarities in the processes of doing science and art.

View from Bonanza Creek bluff, with chair
View from the top of Bonanza Creek bluff at Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest looking out over the Tanana River floodplain. This is a popular lunch spot on artist field trips with scientists.
Photo by Mary Beth Leigh.

During The Art of Fire, they had a series of short artist talks that were well-attended by the scientists, and there Leigh witnessed even more light bulbs sparking as the artists talked about their process. Everyone could see how it was so much like a scientific process: collecting data, experimenting with materials and methods iteratively, having things fail over and over, and then finally landing on a path forward.

For many artists, working in a new setting and engaging with scientists changes the trajectory of their work. One aspect of the Bonanza Creek forest that particularly resonates with and impacts artists is the time factor. It’s an ecosystem in which fire is important, and because fire hits a reset button, plants return to the landscape in an observable sequence scientists can point out to artists.

“When artists spend time with ecologists, they start to see things on a time scale, not just as a snap shot,” Leigh says. Even though these artists may have been engaging with stunning Alaskan scenery their whole lives, they begin to understand and see a larger history and timeline to the landscape. Because of this, some of their work takes on a clear temporal dimension.

Quilt by Ree Nancarrow
Renowned textile artist Ree Nancarrow introduced a time factor into much of her work after her engagement at Bonanza Creek. She created “Deceptive Beauty,” a piece that was on display at the Microbial Worlds exhibit, in collaboration with aquatic ecosystem ecologist Katey Walter Anthony to depict methane emissions triggered by permafrost thaw.
Photo by Todd Paris.

While examples abound regarding how working in a scientific research site affects artists’ work, a question many ask is whether engagement with artists is also changing the trajectory of scientific inquiry. Are scientists looking at things in new ways? Are they changing their approaches because of their interaction with writers and artists? The answer seems to be yes, even though the outcomes aren’t always concrete or easy to measure.

“What I have seen is that scientists become much more energized and inspired from interacting with artists,” Leigh says. “It’s been successful in helping the scientists get the word out to the public about their research field and research findings, so there’s this outreach function that it accomplishes. Artists ask really good questions that make us scientists rethink what we’re doing and why, and sometimes even notice things we might not have noticed.”

Leigh has observed that having artists around seems to especially affect graduate students and scientists early in their careers, especially those who may be wondering whether science is the right long-term path for them. “Some had artistic side interests that they felt like they had to give up to be a successful scientist,” Leigh says. “And then to see, no, you don’t—this could actually make your science better. Or, there’s a way that you can do both.”

Artist and scientist in field
Artist Stephanie Rae Dixon and artist and scientist Eric Henderson collect microbial samples near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on one of the outings the art-science group took while staying at Toolik Field Station.
Photo by Mary Beth Leigh.


Shifts in Public Perception

Bonanza Creek began inviting audience members to fill out surveys at public events to get a better idea of the demographics of attendees and what they took away from the programming. From these surveys, Leigh knows audience members have reported increased knowledge on the topic areas covered as well as changed attitudes, such as changing their minds about predator control following the Trophic Cascades exhibit.

When asked why they thought shows like this have value, attendees responded that it helps to pair visualizations with the sometimes-hard-to-understand scientific information being shared. They also said the artwork evokes emotions, which scientific data rarely does.

“The public felt like there was value in that. They actually felt something about what they were seeing, whether it’s wonder, empathy, or caring about environmental change,” Leigh says. “That’s really exciting to hear. I think one of the big challenges we have to overcome with respect to things like climate change or other social-ecological issues is people caring. When you give them lots of facts, like, ‘There’s this much CO2 in the atmosphere,’ that’s not something that evokes emotion that’s going to lead to action.”

Artwork by Nancy Hausle-Johnson
This piece by tile artist Nancy Hausle-Johnson represents the emergence of dominant microbes during permafrost thaw caused by climate change.
Photo by Chris Arend.

In 2016, Leigh co-authored an article published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences with fellow scientists Lissy Goralnik and Hannah Gosnell and philosopher Michael Paul Nelson that drew partly from interviews and partly from these audience surveys to evaluate the outcomes of arts-science collaborations and outreach. They found that such collaborations have “great potential to catalyze relationships between scholars, the public, and the natural world; cultivate inspiration and empathy for the natural world; and spark awareness shifts that can enable pro-environmental behavior.”

Looking to the future, Leigh wants to keep the momentum of “In a Time of Change” going and also has her sights set on realizing grander ambitions. While public education and outreach are perhaps the clearest benefits to artists working among scientists, she thinks even more can be accomplished. “What we’re aspiring to is some kind of deep, long-term integration and collaboration that can someday actually solve big problems by having people from different disciplines work together to tackle them. And the public education piece is an important part of that—but it’s only one of many dimensions.”

To work toward that end, organizers at Bonanza Creek will continue to bring together thinkers and creators across multiple disciplines, who will set out on foot together through an experimental forest, interacting, sharing, observing, and questioning. As the trees stand watch, ever-changing in the landscape, how will the artists and scientists change along with them? How will their shared reverence for the place help them produce work that will continue to shape public perception and engagement? And how might they ultimately change the course of the future?



Shelley StonebrookShelley Stonebrook is the program coordinator for the Spring Creek Project. She manages the organization’s residency programs and helps plan events and other programming that support artists and writers and that cultivate connections across many disciplines. She holds an MA in English from the University of Kansas and was previously a senior editor at Mother Earth News magazine. She lives and gardens with her husband and daughter in Corvallis, Oregon.

Header photo from an artist field trip to Toolik Field Station by Mary Beth Leigh. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.