Art and Science on the Klamath River

Five Scientists in and on the Klamath River, Leah Wilson

I create long-term projects based on specific places and through my art practice, I develop a deepening relationship with the place that evolves over time. Typically I choose places associated with ecological research. I find science interesting, and at times, fascinating. But I typically don’t find it evocative. It might initiate curiosity, however, it doesn’t reach me in a way that propels me into the deeply human and mysterious realms of connectedness to the world through awe or wonder. But why shouldn’t it? What I am learning from science is fascinating. It illuminates intricate connections and reveals wonderful forms and processes. However, these wondrous things remain to dwell in the realm of the intellect. The intellect, as amazing as it is, has its limitations.

In the river in May

In the Klamath River in May​, Leah Wilson

Over the last decade, my process has evolved. I had passive interactions with a few scientists, following ecologists as they collect data in the field so I could learn from them. It was a lopsided relationship to them and to science where I willfully stepped into a position of inferiority so I could absorb the knowledge that they possessed. I am now more of an entangled participant in my relationship with science and with my involvement with field research. My attitude toward science and relationships with scientists has developed into one with much more nuance and complexity, as any relationship does if given enough time, respect, and attention. Scientists are no longer the ones with all the answers that I need to absorb: they have a different set of answers from my own. I no longer approach science from a place of inferiority but from a place of curiosity. Now, what interests me more than the knowledge and answers that science provides are the questions we each ask, why we ask them, and the ways we go about trying to find answers.

Within the questions, I have found many points of convergence between art and science, primarily in process. The gist of it is that art, at least my art, and the scientists I know begin with curiosity. I want to see, know, and experience something that I haven’t already, even if it’s a relatively insignificant thing or a small step. It starts with a question. Then I need to creatively figure out how to go about seeing, knowing, and experiencing. I often need instruments like a camera to enhance my vision and to stop time to be able to study something in detail. Sometimes I need to build or make something usually to help me isolate or frame what I want to see. Occasionally I need to learn a new skill to help me shift my perspective, like learning how to ascend a rope to climb an old-growth tree so I could experience a forest and a tree in a way I had never done before. I need to create and develop a system of art-making that will reveal to me what I am looking to find. Each of the scientists I have worked with goes through an analogous process to develop their projects. Nevertheless, our objectives and priorities are different, therefore the form and function of our work diverge quickly, and thus the results do also.

Julie in Scuba Gear After Collecting Worms

Julie in Scuba Gear After Collecting Worms​, Leah Wilson

Ten years ago I walked into the forest with a geomorphologist name Fred Swanson thinking I knew what I forest is. By the end of the day, I knew that I did not actually know what a forest is at all, or more precisely, I understood that what I knew of a “forest” was small and limiting. My limited perception produced small and limited questions. Fred turned the forest upside down and spun it around, and he left me feeling dizzy and disoriented. It was uncomfortable and exhilarating. He opened a door to show me a glimpse of what lay beyond my own experience, perception, and knowledge and he invited me to walk through. I know that science has the capacity to ignite awe and wonder because Fred, a scientist, did that for me. Fred knows that forest as he would an old friend. His relationship and love were palpable and electrifying when he let his personal experience swirl together with science. He let me see the forest through his eyes for a moment. This change of perception jolted me and has compelled me to continue to return to that forest so I can nurture a long relationship with it too.

I am stepping out of the forest to develop a relationship with the Klamath River, a river I have known casually through whitewater boating. I began traveling to the river last spring with Dr. Julie Alexander, a research scientist who works in Dr. Jerri Bartholomew’s lab at Oregon State University. I provided safety for her from my kayak as she scuba-dived to collect worms.

My goal with this project is not to explain or illustrate science with my art. Doing so would keep the science contained within the realm of the intellect. Rather my aspiration is to ask better questions so I can know the river, as well as I can, to see and experience it from different perspectives, and to create artwork alongside science that may provide a shift of perception or a doorway that opens to awe and wonder.

Julie Lost Her Worms When the Bottle Broke

Julie Lost Her Worms When the Bottle Broke​, Leah Wilson

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