This summer I lived on Trout Lake Station, a limnology research station operated by UW-Madison, working under the mentorship of a professional landscape painter, Terrill Knaack, and a botanist, Susan Knight. My summer was divided into three areas: studying plein air painting with Terrill, helping Susan (and her research assistant Erin Matula) with their research on wild rice populations in local lakes, and engaging with the community through programming that fused art and science, including a middle school camp. By the end of the summer, I’d compiled a body of work–sketches, paintings, and studies–related to three subjects: the researchers and explorers on station I’d worked and lived with, the plants I’d learned about while out gathering data on lakes, and the places I’d spent time painting.
For some more of my thoughts from this summer, see my interview with Adam Hinterhauer here!
I entered that summer deeply curious about the place where I’d be studying scientifically, artistically, and personally. I wanted to learn as much as I could, in as many ways as I could about the place that I was living, the space I was working in, and the environment that surrounded me and my little two-room cabin. For me, drawing is research: it helps me understand and connect with the place I’m in. I’d sketch on hikes, regardless of how many mosquitoes swarmed (which was a lot), from the boat, between points, and during meetings, campfires, and movies. I was studying people, plants, and places at every opportunity, and examining how I connected to them.
A selection of sketches from the summer
The relationships I built with the people, plants, and landscapes that surrounded me there strongly influenced my impressions of the Northwoods. Limnologists research subjects related to lakes and rivers, so it makes sense that my coworkers’ lives were deeply intertwined with the natural world. By hiking and working with them, hearing their stories and their passion for their research, I came to better understand and appreciate the world around me.
Joining Susan and Erin on the same lakes each week was an opportunity to get very familiar with plants that grew there, like spatterdock and sumac. I took an aquatic plant identification class, sketched, and observed the plants I found over and over again: swamp tea, wild blueberries, bog laurel, red pines, pickerel weed, watershield, quillwort…it helped that I was working with a botanist! Erin and Susan would toss Latin names for the plants back and forth, and I’d try to sound them out and scribble them down so I could look them up later.
Painting plein air was an incredible opportunity to focus deeply and engage with the place I was in. I’d hike to lakes and rivers, set up an easel, and start a conversation with my surroundings. The process of making this work strengthened my connection to the people and the place I was in.
It was an incredible summer. Every day was spent doing things that make my life most worth living. I wandered the woods, jumped in bogs, and explored a land saturated with lakes. I learned so much, felt so deeply, and became tightly connected to the people and the place where I lived. Part of my heart is still among the red pines, learning at Trout Lake. The woods, the bogs, and the community I found this summer continue to color my work and my thoughts.