Trout Lake Station Collaborates with Artist Weaving Works on Women and Water

by Cassie Gauthier – Water is where life first began. It is where organisms ranging from microscopic zooplankton to giant whales call home. It can be slow moving in streams where tall plants grow above the water and turtles bask in the sun on fallen logs, or fast moving through rapids where salmon are seen pushing themselves upstream. Water is underground where huge pine tree roots creep to reach the liquid needed to keep their needles green and it is in the sky creating clouds and raining down on forest floors, sustaining beds of moss and cooling the forest temperature.

Photo: Emily Hilts

Water is crucial for us, as well. We need it for a cool drink on a hot summer day. We need it to boil our favorite pasta. We need it to clean ourselves from sweat and germs. We use it for our enjoyment – for swimming, canoeing, fishing, and even as a destination. We plan long days of hiking miles up steep mountains just to find the most beautiful waterfalls, remote lakes, or glaciers. Many jobs revolve around water, whether it be for purifying it for us to drink, building bridges over it for cars to drive, designing ways to use it as an energy source, or – like the researchers at the Center for Limnology and Trout Lake Station – studying the complexity of the ecosystems it creates

Because water is in every aspect of life, it is often called the “source of life.” But, too often, we forget just how important water is for us and every other living thing. We don’t recognize how important those who spend their life protecting water are.

One Northwoods artist hopes to change that with help from the CFL’s Trout Lake Station.

Mary Burns is a fiber artist and master weaver based in northern Wisconsin and a former “artist-in-residence” at Trout Lake Station. Recently, she has been working on an exhibit called “Women and Water” to celebrate and honor the many women who, over generations, have worked to protect our waters. These women are scientists, water-walkers, teachers, farmers, activists, and healers – and all share a deep connection with water.

Trout Lake Station recently received a Wisconsin Arts Board Grant to help Mary continue her work on this exhibit. Mary will be working with Trout Lake Station on various aspects of the exhibit including displaying the exhibit at the 2021 Wisconsin Lakes Conference.

Mary Burns at work in her home studio. Photo: Sydney Widell

Mary’s art in her current exhibit consists of woven portraits or scenes of women and water.

“I start with photographs, drawings, or pastels, put all of them in my computer and redraw them to create layers and simplify the designs enough to weave them,” Mary recently told me as she described her work. She talked of how it took several weeks to get the final design right and of how she is limited to only about a dozen shades of thread and the long process of hand weaving her work.

As she was talking me through this process, I was amazed at how intricate it all was and even more stunned when she showed me some finished projects (over Zoom, of course!). I tried to imagine the amount of detail and precision it took to make each one.

Mary is no stranger to Trout Lake Station or using her art to communicate science and conservation efforts. Mary participated in the “Paradise Lost? Climate Change in the Northwoods” exhibit in 2006 where she wove panels of birds that are vulnerable to climate change and was a part of the National Science Foundation’s “Drawing Water” exhibit that highlighted the research being done on the long-term ecological research lakes by Trout Lake Station scientists.

Last summer, Mary was one of the artists in residence at Trout Lake and worked with fellow artist and friend Debbie Ketchum Jircik to dye fabrics with water from various lakes and bogs to see the different colors each sample of water created. Mary also created an Ancestral Women Exhibit featuring hand-woven portraits of one woman from each of Wisconsin’s 12 Native Tribes and 12 more complementary weavings to honor ancestral women leaders who “were the glue in the fabric of their communities” by keeping traditions, cultures, and languages alive.

Women and Water is now the second large exhibit Mary will complete that highlights influential women.

Grandmother Josephine Mandamin. Weaving by Mary Burns.

“I focus on women because I think women have not been given the respect they deserve, and I especially feel like native women have not been recognized,” she says. “Through my ancestral women work, other projects, and seeing how water is so important in all of our lives and the life of the planet, women have not been recognized for their work in conservation, environmental advocacy, or preservation efforts for water.” As part of Mary’s project, she will hold conversations with regional Native communities and local arts organizations to recognize these women and talk about why their work to protect water is so important.

Mary’s initial inspiration for her Women and Water exhibit was the first portrait she completed for it of Grandmother Josephine Mandamin who was a First Nation woman from Ontario, Canada. Grandmother Josephine is credited with expanding the concept of “water walks” internationally. Water walks are just that, walks around bodies of water to learn about them, raise awareness about their preservation needs, and to adore their beauty.

Grandmother Josephine Mandamin left a legacy of water advocacy in her family as her great niece Autumn Peltier is also featured on a portrait in the exhibit. Autumn is currently the chief water commissioner for the Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario, Canada. Autumn started her work to protect water at only 8 years old, and now at 15 has traveled all over the world speaking for its preservation.

Mary currently has 8 portraits completed out of approximately 24 that are roughly 32” x 42” for the Women and Water exhibit, including the two previously mentioned and one of Carol Warden and Emily Stanley who are two female scientists currently researching water at the Center for Limnology and Trout Lake Station. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity that the Wisconsin Arts Board has given her to complete this exhibit and says that this grant will help her speed up her progress. She is hopeful that her exhibit will travel nationally and internationally to advocate for the protection of water and give women the recognition they deserve for their efforts. Mary will be collaborating with Roger Ort, a summer intern at Trout Lake Station, for a portion of this project and her work will be showcased at the virtual Trout Lake Station open house this summer.

More information about her and her work can be found on her website at

The CFL’s Emily Stanley and Carol Warden (in woven form) are subjects of one of Mary Burn’s “Women and Water” weavings.