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Trout Lake Station

Art + Science at Trout Lake Station, Wisconsin

By Aubrey Vaughn

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Long-Term Ecological Reflections

Trout Lake Station at a Glance

Location: Vilas County, Northern Wisconsin. Boulder Junction is the nearest town.

Year arts activities began: 2006

Writers and artists hosted: 38 artists, including fiber artists, painters, writers, poets, and sculptors have been an artist-in-residence, with additional artists participating in the first art program, Paradise Lost? Learn more about the artists and view the works of current artists and former residents.

How to apply: Trout Lake Station begins accepting applications each fall with the final deadline in January/February the following calendar year. Applicants fill out an online form and submit samples of their work. Learn more.

 
By 2010, more than 100,000 people in the northern Midwest had viewed the touring science-inspired art exhibit Paradise Lost? Climate Change in the North Woods. It had traveled two years longer than planned, ferried from community to community by a U-Haul and Terry Daulton, the biologist and artist who first proposed the project. It was a success beyond what any of its originators imagined when it was first proposed in 2006.

At that time, living in northern, rural Wisconsin, Daulton had been thinking of ways to communicate climate science to the general public and wanted to enlist artists to help convey what scientists were observing and understanding. With the help of a friend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she and a group of friends received a grant from the university’s Baldwin Endowment to make it happen.

It was a perfect match. The endowment was established for just this purpose—to take the work of the university beyond the campus and into communities. The grant that funded Paradise Lost? was used in partnership with the university’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology and Center for Biology Education (now WISCScience). The project itself included several scientists from Trout Lake Station, a UW-Madison limnology research site and now also the site of the artist residency that evolved out of Paradise Lost?

At Home in the Lake District

Trout Lake Station is the northern field station at the North Temperate Lakes Long-Term Ecological Research (NTL-LTER) site. It’s situated on Trout Lake, one of the site’s seven lakes in the Northern Highlands of Wisconsin. North Temperate Lakes was designated an LTER site by the National Science Foundation in 1981 as one of the first group of six sites. Since then, four more urban lakes in the Yahara Lake District in southern Wisconsin have become part of the NTL-LTER.

The northern lakes are at the top, or headwaters, of a tributary system that eventually feeds into the Mississippi River. The lakes are high in the watershed and the glacial history of the region creates a mix of soils and drainage patterns. Because of this, Daulton explains, “you might have two lakes a couple hundred yards from each other that are entirely different. One looks like something from the Caribbean with a sandy bottom while another has a more brown color and is a seepage lake. They’re all close in proximity but really different chemically and geologically, so it’s a really amazing place to look at water ecosystems.”

Boulder in lake
“While the setting makes Trout Lake Station unique, the community of past and present researchers that have invested in learning the systems and training the next generation of researchers have built a network that spans the global water science community,” says Gretchen Gerrish, director of Trout Lake Station for the Center of Limnology.
Photo by Katherine Steichen Rosing.

Scientist Susan Knight, who specializes in lake ecology and aquatic plants, agrees that the site is a compelling place. With one of the world’s highest densities of lakes and the extraordinary diversity of their waters, the researchers that come to the site “love the options for their field sites. So many lakes and so little time!” she laments.

While some of the lakes are home only to mudminnows, others provide habitat to every fish species naturally occurring in Wisconsin. Some of these waters, she describes, “have lush, jungle-like underwater flora and others have little basal plants that barely stick up from the sand.”

Science at Trout Lake

Scientific research at Trout Lake Station includes limnology, climate change, ecological effects of ice cover shifts, nutrient cycles, fisheries, and invasive species, such as the rainbow smelt.

The scientists at the station also conduct a lot of what might be called basic research. “There are things we might record now without understanding their importance,” says Daulton. This work creates an ongoing record of the physical and chemical characteristics of the lake over time, data that scientists in the future will be able to review and in which they may discover trends that aren’t visible today and that may prove valuable.

Trout Lake Station director Gretchen Gerrish notes that long-term data in particular are rare. “It requires persistent and dedicated effort to sustain a truly continuous data set,” she says, “and the North Temperate Lakes LTER data set is used by people all over the world to ask climate and lake dynamic questions.”

Daulton explains:“People don’t realize why baseline is important. If you don’t have baseline data, you don’t know where you’ve been. You could say the same thing about art history.”

Welcoming New Expertise

The title for Trout Lake Station’s original art exhibit, Paradise Lost? Climate Change in the North Woods, was chosen purposefully by the project’s creators. With emphasis from the question mark within it, it suggests that individuals and communities have power—that we can make influential choices. Many of the people that visit Wisconsin’s northern lakes experience these areas as a kind of paradise. The goal of Paradise Lost?, the name and the project, is to call on this sense of paradise in the balance to inspire hope and action.

At the three-day workshop for Paradise Lost? in 2006, 20 artists met with scientists and educators in northern Wisconsin to discuss climate change and how to bring climate science to the public in ways that would be accessible and meaningful. From those conversations, the artists created the works for the original exhibit which traveled across Midwestern states, engaging the communities it visited—with particular outreach to local students.

Artwork from Paradise Lost?
Artwork from the first meeting of scientists, educators, and artists that convened in 2006 to discuss the Paradise Lost? project—part of exchanging ideas and methods of discovery and communication.
Photos by Jamie Young.

Following the experience and success of that first exhibit, members of the university’s Center for Limnology were keen to continue with arts and humanities collaborations. Tim Kratz, then-director of Trout Lake Station, and colleagues from other LTER sites wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. The request was successful, and the grant partially funded the first of two traveling exhibits titled Drawing Water. Smaller projects emerged over the next few years, including collaborations with other LTER sites including Bonanza Creek, Harvard Forest, and Andrews Forest.

People at exhibition
Left: Carol Warden, a Trout Lake Station staffer and a portrait subject for Mary Burns, with an attendee at the first Drawing Water exhibit. Right: Visitors to the exhibit at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in 2013.
Photos by Terry Daulton.

Works of art from the first Drawing Water project made their way to new regions in the United States and were shown at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., and later pieces appeared at the Ecological Society of America’s Portland conference. The exhibits generated interest among doctoral students and other young scientists, including some who felt that they’d had to choose between science and art when planning their work and futures.

“Really, science and arts have always evolved together, but in modern times society has tended to view them as polar opposites. When we started Paradise Lost?, it was seen as a novel approach. The idea of science and art being used together has become more popular since the early years. A lot of people are doing it now,” observes Daulton.

Allequash Lake, by Terry Daulton
Terry Daulton’s Allequash Lake and other artworks have even become part of the landscape that inspired them. Daulton explains that Trout Lake Station has installed wayside exhibits at public boat landings and campgrounds so that people can “see the artwork and read about the science if they’re camped at that site or bringing their boat in or launching a canoe.”

Then-undergraduate Roger Ort worked as a field biologist and intern at Trout Lake Station over the 2019 summer session and had his own experience facing this supposed dichotomy. He had been intent on becoming an animator or comic book artist when he began college, but soon realized he felt he was really a scientist. The realization was important for pursuing his degree, but it also felt like a loss to pursue one passion while relegating the other to hobby status. Then his research internship at Trout Lake Station provided a new outlook.

“When I was hired at Trout Lake, I realized that the artist/scientist binary is not as black-and-white as some would have you believe,” Ort says. “I watched my peers not only embrace but prioritize communication with artists and cooperation with the arts, and I was struck by how rewarding that relationship seemed to be. Since then, I have learned that there is a good handful of field stations that have artist-in-residency programs.”

Ann Singasaas's Lake Impressions
Ann Singsaas’s Lake Impressions shows a stripe of color for each of the northern lakes. The bog lakes are represented with deep brown and near-black, and the Caribbean-like lake with the sandy floor is bright blue. Seeing Singsaas’s piece at conferences, scientists remarked that they needed something like it for their classes, and that it would be a “much more effective tool for explaining the science of lake color to students.”

Alongside her work studying the decline of wild rice at the lake, Susan Knight has welcomed the introduction of artists at Trout Lake Station. She’s often given tours of the area’s bogs, which she says seems to be a profound experience for many people. She’s enjoyed visiting with the artists and showing them her favorite spots, including all the “quaking surfaces, carnivorous plants, and sturdy little shrubs and trees. It’s fun to see them look at this place I love with a new eye and see the art within it.”

Vanishing Point, by Wendy Schnell
Melinda Schnell’s Vanishing Point, from Drawing Water, illustrates in an artistic “graph” the increasing population of the invasive rainbow smelt alongside the declining natural walleye population. After her time at Trout Lake Station, Schnell donated the piece to the station, where it hangs for scientists and artists to view.

Establishing an Artist Residency at a Research Station

Eventually, Trout Lake Station organizers decided they wanted arts programming that they could run annually and that didn’t require outside funding. They started the artist-in-residency program, beginning with a place to reside: an artist-in-residence at Trout Lake Station stays in one of the site’s cabins alongside their scientist neighbors. Daulton works as a volunteer coordinator, and permanent staff scientists and student interns help introduce the artists to the site and the research being done there. At the annual summer Open House, the general public gets to view work by current and previous artists-in-residence.

Floats from Crystal Lake, by Helen R. Klebesadel
Helen R. Klebesadel’s Floats from Crystal Lake shows the floats researchers use to support the mixing equipment at Crystal Lake. Scientists conducted a study to mix the lake water to warm it and create a less hospitable environment for the rainbow smelt.

In the summers that the research station adds student interns to its population, and every week the students come together for a seminar that includes a presentation by the visiting artists. The young scientists see the artists at work around the lake. By design, this setup encourages interaction.

Fiber artist Mary Burns says that she and fellow artist Debbie Ketchum Jircik experienced this while working together on a natural dyeing project over several sessions at the station. The two artists were using water samples from the various bodies of water to see if their dyes would respond differently to each and, if so, how.

“The staff and students were very engaged in their research but were very interested in our work, too. Some of the students participated in some of the experiments” Burns says. “They were willing to answer questions and to see what we were doing as artists-in-residence.”

A Platonic Academy

In her time at Trout Lake Station, Terry Daulton has found that the artists who apply may also be amateur naturalists or have some scientific training. “When you get down to it, many of the scientists are also writers or musicians. It makes everyone realize that we’re all whole people. That we can all learn from each other’s specialties, but that we all have those same human characteristics of observing the natural world.”

Roger Ort in the forest
Student scientist Roger Ort found inspiration for his own art after seeing the relationships between artists and scientists working together at Trout Lake Station.
Photo by Bethany Prochnow.

Daulton says her vision for the arts and humanities collaboration at Trout Lake Station is that it could become like Plato’s academy—a meeting of minds and specialties where everyone could experience “aha” moments of seeing or thinking of something that they hadn’t before.

Those aha moments can occur for the visiting artist or scientist. Roger Ort has already noticed a change in his art since his time researching at Trout Lake Station, working much more with watercolors and incorporating “atmospheric, detailed backgrounds” in his comic scenes.

“My work also took on a strong water motif. I began drawing waves and fluid water and clouds more than ever, and ever since then, it’s stuck!” he says. “My work has thematically been more focused on sustainability, natural cycles, and geologic time. Science is, in essence (to me, at least), just as much of an art form as studio art is; they both achieve the same end, to a degree. They are both about discovering, developing, and communicating new ideas. My drive to make art and my drive to do science come from the same place: curiosity.”

Artwork by Roger Ort
Roger Ort’s watercolor panels. The top and bottom right are from during his stay at Trout Lake Station; the works on the left and at the right center were done afterward and inspired by his time there. Ort developed a strong connection to the different bodies of water he took samples from. “I still remember their individual details and quirks: Crystal Bog had a wonderful little boardwalk and got really, really hot in the heat of the day, whilst North and South Sparkling Bogs were prone to growing orchids and wonderful and strange bacterial films. Mary Lake was my favorite of all—so very small and yet so very deep!”

Mary Burns and her husband, poet John Bates, have spent time both at Trout Lake Station and the Andrews Forest LTER site in Oregon. Bates reflects from their visits to the LTER sites that even in these beautiful natural environments, it’s “the interaction with the scientists and then the in-depth observations of the site itself” that makes these experiences remarkable. Each artist has the unusual opportunity to move from simply being a visitor to, “being a researcher yourself…. Artists can communicate the love of place and ask the important moral-imperative questions, while interpreting the scientific research.”

Burns also valued that the Trout Lake Station scientists were helpful with the water research for the natural dyeing project and were interested in the dyeing results. She added similarly that “the bigger benefit is bringing this artwork that has a scientific influence to the public. An important aspect is making some scientific research more accessible to people.”

Burns has since begun a new project, creating a series of hand-woven jacquard portraits of women who worked to protect water, including some of the scientists at Trout Lake Station. As she and Bates describe, and as in the examples of these portraits, Melinda Schnell’s Vanishing Act, and Burns and Ketchum Jircik’s dyed cloth experiment, the artists at Trout Lake Station are fulfilling the hope and goals of the original Paradise Lost? project. Using their own expertise and methods, they’re incorporating the data of the site’s dedicated scientists into new and sometimes unexpected artworks and adding to their communities’ understanding of this information.

This chain of activity, ongoing and flourishing from the idea’s beginnings in 2006, illustrates the effect of that first project and the works that have been created since. The ideas and ambitions originated by those scientists and artists together have manifested in the intervening years in art that has travelled across the United States, communicating continuing scientific understanding and responses to it with communities across state lines and time zones.

The suggestion in its name—that we have power and can make impactful decisions, the idea that there is room for hope and reason for action—appears self-fulfilling in the mingling of ideas and disciplines and the resulting artwork and new inspiration that come from Trout Lake Station. The long-term ecological reflection thrives with new seasons, new artist visits, and new creations—ready to stir and inspire conversation and action across and far beyond the lake’s shores.

 

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.

Terrain.org 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.

 

Aubrey VaughnAubrey Vaughn is a writer and editor in the Sonoran Desert where she’s often happily distracted by the round-tailed squirrels and other abundant wildlife. She previously worked for Mother Earth News and Natural Home magazines. She is currently co-editing an upcoming photography book titled Empirical World—a collection of portraits of scientists and the stories of how they discovered their passion for their fields.

Header photo of Trout Lake by Katherine Steichen Rosing. Photo of Aubrey Vaughn by Geoffrey Notkin.

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.