A Wilderness Science and Art Collaboration

Aldo & Leonardo, a partnership between Colorado Art Ranch and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, is a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The project is inspired by the scientific wisdom of Aldo Leopold and the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Our endeavor is an interdisciplinary collaboration of artists and scientists designed to celebrate the lands, resources and opportunities protected by the Wilderness Act. In 2013, we are hosting one-month residencies in six diverse wilderness areas. Artists will work alongside wildland research scientists and gain firsthand knowledge of the wonders, complexities and challenges of our nation's wildest places. The result will be a body of work that creatively illustrates the value of wild areas and honors the scientific efforts to preserve wilderness for the next fifty years.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview with Artist Megan Singleton (Monomoy National Wildlife Residency--June 17-July13, 2013)

Megan Singleton is an artist, educator, and nature explorer.  She is adjunct faculty at Webster University and the Art Institute of Saint Louis, where she teaches Papermaking, Photography, and Digital Art Classes.   In 2005 she received her BFA in photography from Webster University and earned her MFA in sculpture from Louisiana State University in 2012.  Her studio is based in Saint Louis Missouri, where she investigates and collects materials from the landscape that can be used in the papermaking process.   Her exhibition record includes national and international shows, and private collectors and museums in the Southern United States have acquired her work over that last three years. 

Q: Why were you interested in participating at the Monomoy National Wildlife residency?

M.S.All of my work that I have been making in the last three years has all been directly related and inspired by experiences that I have had in the natural world. Discovering things in the landscape and then taking what I discover and researching the natural history of it has been a recent passion of mine. So when I read about the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge residency it seemed to match not only with the way that I work but it also meshed well with my latest and largest body of work. This piece focused on bayous and marshlands in Southern Louisiana. Having the opportunity to take what I learned from my experiences there, and applying those ideas to a new landscape is different but has similar feeling, which really struck my interest.

Q: Why is the intersection of Art and Science so important to you and your work?

M.S. I think that art and science are both very powerful areas of study and medium. They both can impact  community and the way that people think about our world drastically. Being able to entice people with visuals and art is a way to draw people in. Once they are drawn in there is something else they discover that is not necessarily scientific, but addresses a broader issue and audience. It can be as simple as realizing how drastically things change in small amounts of time, or noticing patterns that are created by the forces of nature.

Q: What are some of your first reactions to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge?

M.S.I was a little  intimidated as my first reaction because we went headfirst into the tern colony, which was really wild. I have never experienced that many birds all at once. I was intimidated but I also felt different reactions at different times and places on the island. I say this because Monomoy is not very big, but each location on the island brings a different feeling.  I felt the north end of Monomoy was very controlled compared to the south end. I definitely got an understanding for the relationship between management, monitoring, and something being wild.  
When I stepped off the boat I felt like I was away from civilization, I really felt like I was struck by the wildness of it. I think that there are so many different aspects to this island in such a small area. One moment you feel like you’re in a marsh, then a twenty minute walk later you feel like you’re in the middle of a desert, three hours later you see boats and people swimming on the  beaches. There are definitely areas of the island that made me feel smaller, that made me feel like I was a very small piece of the island.

Q: What do you believe to be a highlight to your time spent at Monomoy?

M.S.  There was one experience that I felt I couldn't have had just by going on a hike by myself somewhere or just being dropped off on Monomoy. It was having the opportunity to work with the researches and the interns for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. I had this feeling of community and contribution to their overall goal. I have always had a background in art and not so much in the science field. Having the  role as an assistant to scientific research and walking in their footsteps was a great opportunity.  The research they were conducting, and the type of care that they gave to this place was really inspirational to me. I think about that a lot, along with the landscape and the other experiences that I had, but what was really inspiring to me was this group of young people that were there, including interns and young scientists. It gives me a sense of hope. There are these young people that really care about our future. This is important because these are the people that are going to foster our world. I loved their field guide books, and I took a bunch of pictures them and their documentation of their work and monitoring. 

Q: Did you experience any change in your perception at Monomoy?

M.S. I never thought wilderness would have been such a political subject. I never thought about all the politics or the administrative work that go along with something being designated as a wilderness area. So I thought that this was sort of an interesting dynamic. I have hiked and explored  in wilderness before but never realized there was this whole other non-natural dynamic to it. It was definitely eye opening for me; having the opportunity to just be on the island, and to witness how quickly a landscape can change became extremely dynamic to me. 
I never experienced a place with such a high range of tides. I was enamored by the tidal flats. I observed how quickly the water would go out and leave these amazing patterns in the sands; then in the evenings I noticed how quickly it would rush out into areas where I just saw the roots of the grasses, now completely submerged. The fact that the ecology of that particular landscape can survive extreme fluctuation is incredible. After the experience, I felt that I needed to live near an ocean environment.

When I first got to Monomoy I started to make paper out of invasive seaweed. I basically turned our house into a miniature paper mill for a couple of weeks. I converted the Weber gas grill into a fiber cooker with a large enamel pot. Then I wrapped tin foil around the whole thing to contain the heat.
It was really great because working with the scientist, I think lead them to different thoughts on the plants that are a hinder to everything around them and their studies. I think I showed them that there are uses and ways that these invasive plants can be transformed into something else. How practical or not the paper i,s really doesn't matter, it still can be used for something.

Q: Did you experience any absurd situations at the Monomoy Refuge?

M.S. The most absurd thing was going back to the tern colony. The fact that as soon as we got off the boat we immediately had to put on a yellow helmet; at this point you’re ready to get pooped on at any moment. I think that there’s obviously something very comical about that picture. There is a preparedness that you take when going into this unique chaos. After 15 minutes of being in the colony you begin to realize that, this is what it is; I will be pooped on. I think that was the most absurd thing that had happened.
One incredible thing that I saw was the power of the rip tide. I never experienced waves going perpendicular to the land before, and too see that on a day that there was fog so thick that you couldn't see 100ft in front of you was pretty incredible. The curve of the island makes you think about the curve of the earth because you can only see so far. Seeing the waves and the ocean shift to a point where they crashing into themselves is just beautiful.
 Just being on island and thinking about the designated wilderness of this landmass made me think frequently about the wildness of the ocean. When I sat and looked out, I thought to myself, that is wilderness. When there were no fishing boats and I’m seeing numerous seals swimming out in front of me; I really felt like I was looking out into true wilderness.

Q: What were some of the beneficial outcomes of the experience?

M.S. I think coming away with an understanding of how different people work, and assisting with the research by shadowing the biologist was great for me. Having that information to work with and thinking how I can abstractly add that data into some of my future art became very helpful.When I go back now and look at the photographs that I took makes me wish I was there again. So I think that being able to have all these memories,source images and videos to go back to along with my inspiration vividly there,  is a tangible outcome of the experience.Having a new look on how the wilderness act plays a political card is very important to recognize. These are not just places that are on the map, these places are managed with protocols. There is way more that goes into designated wilderness; it’s not necessarily as wild and let go as you would think.It’s a good thing to understand that these places are designated as wilderness for all of us. It has inspired me to look up where wilderness areas are in my own personal state in Illinois.  These designated areas are more available than I thought. So I am very thankful that this act is in place.

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