When Artists and Scientists Learn from Each Other: The Shoals Marine Lab Artist-in-Residence Program

Robert DuGrenier, Seaweed with Glass Bubbles, glass sculpture. Rober DuGrenier photo.

This article originally appeared in The Art Guide 2020-2021, Portsmouth, NH, May 2020. The Art Guide is published each year by Phineas graphic design and printing solutions, in Portsmouth, NH.

It’s a sunny mid-summer afternoon out at the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island. I’m the current Artist-in-Residence and I’m up in front of a class of Chinese high school students, struggling to interest them in the fundamentals of drawing. These kids are very sharp and generally very much on the ball, but an exhausting schedule and the warmth of the day has made them drowsy. To wake things up we’re doing fast contour drawings of poses by volunteers. I have to browbeat the first couple of kids to get them to come up and do some feeble voguing, to which the class responds with half-hearted sketching.

Then a tall, lanky guy stands up and marches to the front, giving me a secret little smile in passing. He proceeds to balance on one foot and then grabs his other ankle with both hands and lifts it way up and wraps it behind his neck! He’s grinning like mad while the class screams with laughter. Our work moved right along after that.

Not Your Typical Artist-In-Residence Program

The Shoals Marine Lab (SML) is located on Appledore Island, one of the Isle of Shoals, six miles off the coast on the Maine / New Hampshire border. SML, operated jointly by University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, is the largest facility for undergraduate study of its kind in the world.

The rocky, isolated Shoals are well-known for their inspirational beauty. Appledore is where Celia Thaxter hosted her famous interdisciplinary arts salon at the end of the 19th century. So it’s fitting that SML is also home to an innovative Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program. I’ve been out at SML as AIR three separate times. It’s an intensely educational, social, and motivational experience, very unlike most artist residencies.

“Many of the best painting spots on Appledore are coincidentally prime seagull nesting areas. While creating this painting I was continuously strafed by a large black-backed gull who was very displeased with my choice of subject matter!” Barrett McDevitt (AIR ’19)

The SML website describes the program this way: “Artists are immersed into the scientific community and research activities that will deepen their understanding of the natural world, spark ideas, forge collaborations, and encourage exploration of methods to engage non-artists in the artistic process… Our specific goal is to cultivate and develop science students’ observational skills in order to foster inquisitiveness and creativity…”

Dr. Jennifer Seavey is Kingsbury Executive Director of SML. In her five years on the job, Dr. Seavey has raised $6 million for SML. She also started the Artist-in-Residence program, in which about 20 artists have participated. “I have yet to find anyone else doing what we do: an AIR program in which the artists help teach the science students… I love it that the artists show me—and all of us—the island from a new and different perspective” says Dr. Seavey.

What Scientists Learn from Artists: Science + Art = Better Science

Artists in Residence spend a few hours a week teaching students creative activities. Research by Dr. Seavey and others has demonstrated that creative exercise improves scientists’ problem-solving skills. “The more ways you experience, the more ways you are going to know things. Doing art breaks your bias. I love watching the students transform; I can see them light up when they see the island or creatures differently.”

Glass sculptor Robert DuGrenier demonstrates glass techniques to a class of students at Shoals Marine Lab. Robert DuGrenier photo.

It is a rewarding challenge to tailor creative sessions to the students’ coursework. For an invertebrates class, I had the students draw their favorite tiny creature in whatever entirely new and bizarre context they wished. They came up with cowboy sea stars on horseback and fantastical coral gardens. In a class on climate class we discussed what creativity meant for both artists and scientists, and generated a list of strategies for getting more of it. In another class, the students’ drawings in their field notebooks were a vital part of their work. So we went over specific skills with which to improve their renderings.

Painter Alastair Dacey (AIR ’16, ’17) agrees: “I enjoyed coming up with a presentations that found common themes between art and students’ classwork. My favorite was a class I created to explore how the concept of pentimento in art relates to evolutionary diversity.” What a fabulous concept; that both artwork and species could retain leftover characteristics of previous versions.

Glass sculptor Robert DuGrenier (AIR ’19) says, “I had students create glass sculptures inspired by their course work. Everyone was so proud and seemed to love the experience. One of the students did his final project using some of my glass shells underwater to determine if hermit crabs had a preference for glass shells over the shells traditionally found in their tidal environment.”

A crab makes a new home in one of glass sculptor Robert DuGrenier’s glass shells. Robert DuGrenier photo.

Artists Learn from Scientists

Most artist residencies provide time and space for attendees to work without distraction. It’s very different at SML. Painter Janis Goodman (AIR ’16, ’17) puts it well: “At other residences I interacted with other artists. At SML I interacted with scientists.”

Everybody out at SML is smart, motivated, and hard-working. It rubs off on you. Everyone takes meals together in the same room, at the same time. So you have to interact with students, faculty, staff, and researchers as you stand in line for the oatmeal, or sample the vegan entree. It’s not uncommon to find yourself dining across from experts in half a dozen different fields, all of you trading insights and opinions on somebody’s research, or climate change, or how many sharks were caught that day.

As nature illustrator Carol Schwartz (AIR ’17, ’18) says, “Appledore Island is a continual flurry of learning, sharing, and creativity. Experts in their fields come and go throughout the summer, and you never know what discoveries will come along with the next group on the boats.”

Carol Schwartz, Jonah Crab, gouache, 5″ x 12″. Carol Schwartz photo.

All this rubbing-elbows-with-Ph.D.s means that your brain buzzes with new knowledge, perspectives, and ideas. My first trip out I had planned to paint some Shoals-type rocks and water and sky. But once I learned about parasite-infected zombie snails, the noises that lobsters make, the vicious and cannibalistic dining habits of gulls, and the bizarre tiny creatures that live in just about any puddle, my watercolor-on-paper efforts started to seem a bit, well, limited.

Alastair Dacey made a similar discovery: “Upon arrival I marched off in search of light-drenched vistas with cliffs and water. But in the evenings or during bad weather I would sketch specimens: shells, skeletons, preserved fish, and octopi. By the time my two weeks was up I was much more keen on studying and sketching in the lab than about being on some rocky perch in search of another Childe Hassam. Being with a scientific community where careful and insightful observation is the modus operandi reawakened that first love: the kid in me that just wanted to draw, discover, and characterize stuff.”

Alasdair Dacey, Color Step – Instructional Claw Drawing for Field Notebooks, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 9″ x 12″.

 

Alasdair Dacey, Turtle Skeleton Studies, graphite on paper, 9″ x 12″.

 

Alasdair Dacey, Star Fish, graphite on paper, 9″ x 9″.

My work took a turn as well. At the suggestion of Dr. Seavey I harvested the tiny animals called tardigrades from Appledore’s ubiquitous orange lichen, and put them in my watercolors. They will remain in my paintings, dormant, for decades. Then at the very end of my stay, just before catching the boat back to Portsmouth, I popped in for a visit with Dr. Carrie Keogh, a researcher from Emory University. She studies parasites, with emphasis on those “zombie” snails mentioned above.

Carrie showed me some of her work and I peeked into a microscope. I told her I was interested in putting living creatures into my watercolors.

“Well, what are we waiting for?“ she announced, “Let’s try it right now!” So we dabbed some ultramarine blue onto a piece of paper and coaxed a couple snails to slowly slime their way across it. As I sprinted out the door of the lab to catch the boat, we made plans to get her snails infected by way of eggs embedded in my paintings. The paintings would then become more than just an image of Appledore, they’d actually join the island’s ecology by becoming a step in the parasite’s lifecycle.

Dr. Carrie Keogh applies trematode eggs to author Bill Paarlberg’s watercolor painting at Shoals Marine Lab. Carrie Keogh photo.

Marine Science is Deep

There are a lot of cool things to learn about marine life, as Carol Schwartz discovered: “Sitting on a rock gazing into the intertidal areas offers the reward of discovering a multitude of algae, crabs, tiny anemones, and periwinkles. One day I noticed a strange bright orange blob slowly moving in the surf. I scooped it up and took it to the first biologists I could find. To my surprise, I had picked up an invertebrate animal called a ‘tunicate,’ commonly known as ‘rock vomit.’ After I learned its name, I wasn’t as eager to hold it.”

Most artist residencies offer the space to try new things without worrying about the consequences; you get the freedom to make mistakes. This is especially true on Appledore, where new ideas and opportunities come at you constantly. There are video microscopes that display on huge TV screens, and sea tables where you put your hands in the water and play with the crabs and seaweed. Plus seal necropsies, and hagfish, those eels that explode slime out of themselves.

Janis Goodman, Summer Reflections, 2017, Oil on wood panel, 24″ x 24″. Janis Goodman photo.

Carol Schwartz loves it: “The laboratory is loaded with marine specimens: skulls, skeletons and experiments. To be able to pick up a dolphin skull and take it back to my room and create a painting? That’s a cherished experience.”

It can be humbling. One day after lunch I chatted with one of the faculty. “So,” I said, “I know a little about plants and animals on land, but not much about what lives in the ocean. How do they compare?” Ms. Faculty Member turned to me with a mildly tolerant expression and spoke slowly. “Well, Bill, the oceans occupy about three times more of the earth’s surface than the land does. And life has been evolving in the oceans for about, oh, 3 billion years longer than on land. So what do you think?” She smiled. “But, remember, insects account for about three-quarters of all species on the planet. So there are many more species on land than in the ocean.”

Christopher Volpe (AIR ’16,’17), Eternal Appledore, 2017, oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″. Chris Volpe photo.

Artists Inspired by Appledore

Thanks to Celia Thaxter’s meticulous notes her celebrated flower garden has been faithfully restored. It continues to be a source of inspiration, but I just didn’t get it at first. Nice to look at, yes. But a garden for the sake of… well, just what? So one sunny morning I sat myself down in the middle of it, and thought, “Let’s give this a chance, see what happens.”

Well, something did happen. The rest of the world faded away and the old-fashioned little flowers and foliage rising around me joined with the sound of the waves and the presence of insects busy at work. It all began to seem profoundly important. So much so that I decided to begin a series of flower paintings. Robert DuGrenier had a similar revelation. “I had known about Celia’s garden for many years but had never visited. I never imagined how compelling this experience would be until it presented a series of epiphanies.”

And finally, Dr. Seavey, again: “I want to expand this program. I want more of artists interacting with scientists, and more of artists talking about their work. We encourage all artists to apply, the application is on our website.”

Bill Paarlberg is a painter, illustrator, and editor from Kittery, Maine. He camped out on Appledore Island in the 1960s, and now spends a week each spring painting on Smuttynose, as one of the Stewards of that island.

Bill Paarlberg's watercolor in progress in Celia Thaxter's garden on Appledore Island.
The author’s easel set up in Celia Thaxter’s garden. Bill Paarlberg photo.