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Art and science come together at Flathead Lake Biological Station

The Flathead Lake Biological Station shows science and art collaboration through artist-in-residence program.
FLBS Open Air Day
Posted at 8:49 AM, Oct 17, 2023

POLSON — The life of a scientist and that of an artist may seem very different, but on Flathead Lake, the two come together for collaboration.

The Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) hosts an artist-in-residence program every year. and this fall, they had four Open Air artists stay at the station.

They hosted a free, public event on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, to demonstrate their work.

Open Air is a non-profit that focuses on matching national and international artists to residency programs in Montana.

Stoney Samsoe co-founded Open Air in 2019 and has partnered with FLBS every year.

“While the arts and sciences seem like they might be worlds apart, there's also a lot of ways that they overlap,” she says. “And I think artists and scientists both discover that when they start to work together, and they also learn new nodes of connection, new language, new ways of seeing and asking questions.”

FLBS has hosted artists since 2016, typically housing one in the summer and a small cohort in the fall.

Associate director at the station, Tom Bansak, says they chose to start a residency program to introduce new ideas to their scientific processes.

“We've been here a long time — pushing 125 years — and we feel like we've got a pretty good understanding of what's going on here, but bringing artists from around the nation to experience and kind of meet this place, has taught me a lot,” he says. “They come in with different approaches, different worldviews, and I'm learning a lot about my home ecosystem by interacting with the artists that come here and just see things differently than I do.”

Tom Bansak
Tom Bansak, the associate director at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, works extensively with water quality and aquatic ecosystem health.

Bansak also says the artists renew his excitement for the natural world at Flathead Lake and make him recognize the aesthetic of science.

For example, Bansak says he never viewed the station’s laboratory as a beautiful space until the artists pointed it out.

“I view a laboratory as a functional space, but they actually view this same space with an aesthetic approach that I've never taken before,” he says. “And so now I go in and I appreciate how different this space looks than a traditional room or even a traditional laboratory.”

As much as Bansak and his colleagues are able to learn from the artists, the artists learn from them.

“Having the resource of the bio station as well– all their scientific data that we can draw from,” Jasmine Gutbrod, an Open Air artist at FLBS says. “We're having really great conversations with all the researchers here too, so that's been great.”

Gutbrod, who is originally from Rhode Island, is interested in making artwork inspired by scientific tools. She’s also worked with sculpture and drawings based on fungal patterns.

“When I saw that Open Air was hosting at a site here, I was drawn to it because it's very site-specific and embedded in a natural environment, and also has a great opportunity to collaborate with scientists and people from other disciplines,” Gutbrod says. “And in my work, I'm really excited about helping people bridge the gap between art and science and also helping people explore their environment.”

Jasmine Gutbrod
Jasmine Gutbrod, a Providence-based artist, shows participating kids how to use ink and water to create a marble pattern on paper during "A Day of Art and Science" at the Flathead Lake Biological Station on October 13, 2023.

On October. 13, members of the public were invited to an all-day event where the artists explained their work and processes. Open Air is passionate about bringing the community into their residence programs.

“To me the exciting thing about the work that we do is the collaborative nature of it, reducing those silos and drawing people together,” Samsoe says. “Having new conversations, new discussions in ways that are surprising and collaborative and kind of about community building.”

The event was titled "Inquiry: A Day of Art and Science."

Participants started the day off with Monica Elser, an education liaison at the FLBS. She demonstrated how to collect plankton from the water and observe them under a microscope.

After learning the makeup of certain microorganisms, artist Nicole Banowetz led the group through an activity inspired by her own work.

Banowetz is originally from Colorado and creates inflatable sculptures inspired by the natural world. Many of her pieces are large-scale replicas of microorganisms.

“It's nice to be able to share the process and also share the interest in science and the connections between science and art,” she says.

Banowetz showed the attendees how to sculpt microscopic animals with colored clay. She baked everyone’s final work so that participants could take their sculptures home.

Nicole Banowetz
Nicole Banowetz is a Colorado-based artist who creates inflatable sculptures of microorganisms.

Following lunch, Gutbrod taught the group how to marble paint paper, a process of adding ink to water and then dropping a piece of paper in the water. The black and white design that is left resembles a marble pattern.

Gutbrod says the FLBS is not her first artist-in-residence program, but it has been the most structured for her. Programs like Open Air allow her to focus more attention to her work.

“As an artist back home, I'm juggling multiple different jobs — like part-time things as well as my own studio practice,” she says. “And so I feel really lucky to be able to take some time away from that and only focus on one thing for a while. It's really helped me generate new ideas and kind of try out things that I wouldn't have had time for or maybe have felt like were a little too risky to do back home because I have to balance all these other things.”

Sarah Jones held a demonstration on herbaria after Gutbrod.

The process of making a herbarium starts with dried and pressed flowers, which Jones has collected and kept in a bound stack of newspaper and cardboard for years. Then, she glues, tapes or sews the plants onto pieces of paper to create a work of art.

Participants used both plants they collected from outside and those from Jones’ collection to create their pieces.

To finish off the day, the group heard from Boston artist Charlie Dov Schön, who works with textiles found in the natural world. She spoke about her weaving project and how it connects with Flathead Lake.

This summer, she created a rectangular woven piece that used a different color to represent Flathead Lake water levels each day. If the levels rose, she weaved in a green row, if they fell, she weaved in black, and if they stayed the same she weaved gray. Her rectangle from 2023 showed mostly black.

Kids at the event were able to try their hand at weaving on a large loom.

FLBS Weaving
Kids help weave a large loom during "A Day of Art and Science" at the Flathead Lake Biological Society on October 13, 2023.

Open Air is a free residency for artists and is able to give them a stipend for their time.

This year, they received over 200 applicants from around the world and the U.S., but only accepted 23 for the 12 programs across Montana. The artists stay for four to six weeks at a time.

Artists are chosen through an in-depth process where a professional artist jury selects a first round of applicants, and then recommends several to each residency site.

The final decisions are made by the professionals at each location.

“We're very well connected in the natural resource world and in the scientific community, but I wouldn't know how to recruit artists without putting a bunch of time in,” Bansak says, “It's great to have a partner who comes from the art world for us scientists.”

Open Air is holding a fundraising event on Nov. 3 at the Missoula Public Library.

They will also hold an exhibition of Open Air artists’ work at the Zootown Arts Community Center in Missoula during the New Year, and one at the Foreground Gallery in Butte next spring.