Organized by the New Brunswick Museum with the support of the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources, the annual Biota NB field-survey attracts scientists and artists from all over North America. Although it seems unlikely, two worlds merge in an atmosphere of both descriptive science and creativity where a dedicated group of artists find inspiration immersing themselves in the often specialized world of field biology.
This year the event was held between August 9th and 23rd in the Nepisiguit Protected Natural Area in northern New Brunswick, with additional forays into neighbouring Mount Carleton Provincial Park and the nearby Mount Elizabeth Protected Natural Area. If you haven’t been to these areas, you should visit: from the summit of Mount Carleton, you can see the Knife Edge of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The Nepisiguit Protected Natural Area, like the Mount Carleton area, is a landscape of deep valleys, dense forests, and high rocky slopes.
Dr. Donald McAlpine, Research Curator of Zoology and Head of Natural Sciences at the New Brunswick Museum, and lead organizer of BiotaNB, outlines the approach and the role of the arts in the project: “There are four components to BiotaNB, including scientific investigation, student mentoring, public stewardship and an artist-in-residence program. The BiotaNB artist-in-residence program, growing in recent years, has, we think, the potential to be increasingly significant in helping the New Brunswick Museum connect people with nature.”
“Some people are intimidated by science but perhaps not so much intimidated by art. Developing a sense of connection to the natural world through art is at least as common, and just as important, as doing so through science.”
For researchers participating in BiotaNB it is not only an opportunity to conduct biodiversity research, but also a chance to observe the creative work of artists as they share their talents during the event. It’s this type of mutualism that is unique to BiotaNB and attracts adventurous creatives, like Aleta Karstad.
Karstad was one of six artists participating in BiotaNB in 2016. Like the other BiotaNB artists, she sought inspiration as she worked closely with scientists in the natural world. Her intimate portraits of researchers in the field are something new for her, creating a dialogue between the researcher, the habitat, and the species group on which each specializes; her art humanizes the science. Karstad started working with the event the year after its inception in 2009, when the New Brunswick Museum asked her if she wanted to be one of two artists-in-residence that year. Now a veteran participant, Karstad feels the event is uniquely collaborative. “BiotaNB is different from a regular artists’ retreat. Art isn’t the single focus; it’s something that enhances the public’s understanding of the research through artistic appreciation of the science as well as assisting the scientists in illustrating their work.”
“I like working with biologists,” she explains. Karstad has been surrounded by biologists all her life. Her father, Lars Karstad, worked as a wildlife pathologist, and she has been long married to Dr. Fred Schueler, a biologist and researcher at BiotaNB.
“What BiotaNB does for artists is show them the depth of inspiration that comes from scientific endeavour, investigation, exploration, and discovery. That’s exciting and new to many artists, if they’ve never done anything like this. Many artists capture what nature does for the senses, but the understanding gained from being fully immersed and informed by experts is truly priceless in enhancing the quality of my artwork.”
Working on a portrait of Aaron Fairweather, the University of Guelph graduate student in entomology who discovered a new-to-science ant species in New Brunswick during BiotaNB, Karstad explains that her vision for this portrait is to illustrate both the research and the researcher.
“These portraits will illuminate the human part of the research that’s being done. It’s exciting to see young people involved and it’s exciting to see, year after year, some of the same people returning to pursue their passion.”
Mathieu Léger, is a photographer-sculptor-performance artist based in Moncton. With some 50 artist residencies behind him, he describes himself as a ‘serial artist-in-residence’. His work reflects on ideas surrounding wilderness, geological time, and process-related activities of the natural world. “Biota has impacted my work through multiple ways. My artistic process seeks to engage with various ‘methodologies.’ I am curious about how people work within systems,” he explains. This was Leger’s 5th time participating in BiotaNB as an artist.
“I think the experience of BiotaNB has transformed what I do, how I do it, and what the results can be. I am working on several series of works while at BiotaNB, some of which have very strict self-imposed “methods” and others that I wish to keep unrestricted.. I am also very interested in long-term projects, so BiotaNB is an excellent arena for me to create a project that spans 20+ years. I have already had exhibitions with works created during the last five BiotaNB years, and I am looking forward to seeing what will come next.”
Artists Vienna Sanipass and Ernestine Francis, travelling from Elsipogtog First Nation, explain the importance to their creative processes of understanding the identity and relationships of organisms in the environment.
“It was inspiring, pairing up with the scientists, learning about the thousands of organisms on and in a single tree. Where do we start? The way life grows, the different textures,” notes Sanipass, a landscape photographer. “The connection with nature is something deep. I’m going to create something out of that, and having someone here to show me what’s what from a scientist’s perspective enhances everything. It’s about learning—learning what plants there are, and what they’re for, and how they connect with the world.”
“There’s a meaning behind what I do. I want my art to show that I am a First Nations woman,” explains Francis, who primarily works in textiles, creating beautiful quilts and corsets. Fascinated with the intricacy of the natural world, Francis was excited to learn the identity and details of species historically significant to her people from specialists like Dr. Stephen Clayden, the New Brunswick Museum’s Research Curator of Botany and Mycology, and mycologist Dr. David Malloch, a Research Associate of the museum. That information triggered intimate memories. “I kept thinking about my mom and the medicines she knew. There was a connection there; I was one with the forest. To me it means that you really see your surroundings. You understand. You pay attention to what’s around you. There’s more respect for what’s out there. Everything is living.”
“I’m a newbie,” explains Vicky Lentz, on attending her first BiotaNB, “and it’s not often I can say that at 55.” Using different media, depending on the subject and what she wants to express, Lentz creates environmentally conscious installations in nature — sculptures set in landscapes. Recently she has been diving into abstraction. Originally from Perth, Ontario, she has been living in Edmundston for the last 30 years.
Having studied Environmental Science, Lentz finds value in reconnecting with her scientific roots as an artist. “In the past my art has been an intuitive reaction, an expression of emotional impact. BiotaNB has realigned that and I want to incorporate a more informed response in my art and not just rely on my intuition.”
“My work is based on the environment and what better place to study it than by immersing myself in the world of biodiversity specialists? The shock of standing alongside scientists who have dedicated their lives to research on specific organisms, then only to have them tell me that they’re only scratching the surface, emphasizes the mystery and awe of the natural world to me.”
Participating with researchers in their field work is taxing physically. Tasks like carrying a backpack for hours, heavy with the weight of rocks encrusted with lichen samples, through thick deadfall in the rain at day’s end, are commonplace for researchers and their assistants. “It’s uncomfortable and you feel out of your element. But you come to find your footing. It’s good for you,” says Lentz. “It’s important to be uncomfortable and to still pay attention to the complexity of things. I already know this has permanently shifted the way I approach my artwork. I think I will find I attack my artwork in the studio in the same way as a scientist approaches work in field. There are parallels.”
“Collaboration with scientists in nature raises questions about life and the infinity we’re part of. Looking through the microscope you open up to an entire universe. That changes you.”
For more information visit www.nbm-mnb.ca