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Science meets art at Flathead Lake Bio Station

by By Margaret E. Davis
| November 22, 2023 12:00 PM


“Who here loves plants?” Seattle artist and former river guide and garden designer Sarah Jones asked the few dozen of us assembled for a day alongside Flathead Lake.

Since 1908 the Yellow Bay site has served as a biological field station, the oldest in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River. Science happens here year-round. In the fall the Flathead Lake Biological Station also becomes home to artists, courtesy the Missoula-based nonprofit Open AIR.

One result of the residencies, “Inquiry: A Day of Art & Science,” drew me and others to create, learn and explore. It was a glorious day in mid-October, when the landscape undulated with autumnal color and texture. As I made the drive, I felt lucky to live here at all, never mind the interesting reason for the jaunt.

Art and science make an intriguing combination.

Amid the hubbub in a classroom, participants of all ages looked for places to dry marbled sheets of paper that had been colored in Flathead Lake water. Outside, Denver sculptor Nicole Banowetz baked participants’ colorful Fimo models of copepod crustaceans, resembling those found in the lake, in an oven.

“This is a quieter time at the station,” Open AIR Cofounder and Director Stoney Samsoe said as she surveyed the activity. “It’s an abundant season for us.” Aside from the five artists who spent some weeks at the bio station, more artists went to other sites around the state. Five years in, the program draws a couple hundred applicants, with 23 offered no-fee stays.

“Artists are essential to the well-being of our communities,” Samsoe said as Jones set up for her workshop. “It’s an exciting thing to overlap disciplines.”

Jasmine Gutbrod, a furniture designer from Rhode Island, met owl researcher Hayley Madden the first day of her residency. She ended up making ladders out of driftwood that led to paintings of owls soaring between the trees. I asked how she got the detail so right. She said, “We go out and catch them.” She assisted Madden.

After Jones gauged our plant enthusiasm, she introduced herbaria, documents of pressed, dried, mounted and labeled plant material. She handed around examples and showed images of herbaria, some of which were 700 years old and often contained more than their creators meant to include, such as an 1871 herbarium with a kid’s handprint on the back. 

She said, “It is the human-ness in the scientific document that I’m crazy about” and then followed with the observation that some historic herbaria “are becoming libraries of loss.”

Jones detailed the steps: “Collect your plants, press them in the field, then dry inside the press, then do research,” although she admitted that after harvest of the plant specimens, “I just put mine in the back of my black Prius.”