At Trout Lake Station, Artist Finds Real-Life Inspiration for Her Abstract Work

Since 2013, the CFL has hosted painters, photographers, weavers and poets at Trout Lake Station as part of our “Drawing Water” Artist-In-Residency program. The following is a post from Katherine Steichen Rosing, a Madison-based artist who spent part of her fall on station.

By Katherine Steichen Rosing

The artist at work on a painting of water shield. Photo: K. Steichen Rosing

Cabin stairs carpeted in red and gold welcomed me to Trout Lake Research Station. It was late September with a brilliant blue sky and brisk cool temperatures—and Covid social distancing.

I am a painter, often working on large semi-abstract paintings using color, shape, and texture to explore environmental themes. For decades, forests and water have been twin subjects studied in parallel through separate bodies of work. As I learn more about these ecosystems, and as the climate crisis increasingly permeates my work, I am ever more conscious of the delicate relationships within natural systems.

I was at Trout Lake this autumn for a two-week session as the “Drawing Water” Artist-in-Residence, a collaboration between artists and scientists that the Center for Limnology has run since 2013.

My goal for this residency was to expand my visual language and render visible the unseen complex relationships within the environment – like the water cycle, carbon cycle, and photosynthesis. I also wanted to find a way to visually and symbolically entwine forests and water more closely in my work.

I was welcomed to the station by Susan Knight who led me on a masked and appropriately distanced tour of the station, and supplied with me topo maps and hiking information—and tales of water shields in fairy rings. Artist and naturalist, Terry Daulton, introduced me in our separate cars (Covid) to several lakes and bogs—with spacecraft-like monitoring equipment floating in the distance.

A makeshift walkway leads to a bog researchers frequently visit and monitor near Trout Lake Station. Photo: K. Steichen Rosing

Days later, Gretchen Gerrish left me in awe when she crouched by tiny Mann Creek and in an instant plucked a freshwater sponge and damselfly larvae out of “muck.” Interconnectedness made visible for a moment.

One of the most important decisions I made was how to spend my time there. Would I prioritize creating art or focus on research and exploring? Research for me sometimes includes reading, but most often it means immersion in an environment with heightened visual awareness. Thinking and observing on foot and by paddle, I pause to record observations in thousands of photographs: from broad views of a forest to details of textures and patterns of water. Most important, I embed these experiences into memory.

Weather dictated my mode of transportation each day. Most days the first week were in the low 40’s and quite windy so I needed to keep moving to stay warm, and I needed to stay off larger bodies of water.

Paddling, sketching and photographing led, eventually, to painting. Like Katherine’s work on the plant called watershield shown here. Images: K. Steichen Rosing

As an abstract painter, I experiment and invent rather than represent the visual scene before me. This can be a daunting task. After a few days of hiking and kayaking—thinking and seeking, my self-imposed pressure to “be inventive” and to develop new ways to visually express invisible forces became intimidating.  But as Chuck Close once said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Early the first week, I biked through unanticipated sleet to Cathedral Pines, explored awhile and then, after the precipitation ended, unpacked my drawing supplies on a picnic table. I began with an observational drawing – for me that is straightforward and helps me to settle down and focus. No great decisions – my training and experience leads the way. Mind clear, I then allowed myself to think about visible and invisible forces linking the trees in front of me to the lake below, the soil at my feet, and the air encompassing all.

I began sketching abstractions – painfully contrived at first, but ideas finally started to flow. I filled pages of the sketchbook with a sense of relief that I had accomplished something and had started to forge a path for the rest of my time here and beyond.

Sketching equipment included camera, small sketchbook, color pencil sticks, oil pastel, mechanical pencils — never dull, and a piece of plasticky Styrofoam to sit on and insulate me from the cold. Fingerless wool gloves, wind pants, down vest, and good parka helped keep me warm the first cold week. In the kayak, a cardboard box strapped to the front kept supplies handy. Fortunately by the second week there were some warmer days.

In the cabin, I set up studio space on a square table and placed it in front of the window facing the pines and maples, then covered it with plastic and paper for protection. A small side table served as computer station and meals.

Early sketches and work on Percolation. Photo: K. Steichen Rosing

Time passed so quickly – the daily routine: read a poem with my coffee, write and edit my blog at breakfast, plan my route for the day while the air warmed a bit, head out to explore, return at dusk to the dock, back to the cabin to paint for a while. Dinner, read, and go to bed.

I have visited this area with family almost every year since a childhood camping trip at Trout Lake—nearly always the same places, campgrounds, lakes, and trails and always with family.

The artist sketching at Cathedral Pines. Photo: K. Steichen Rosing

Alone this time, I explored numerous hiking trails, small lakes and the Trout River – all fresh experiences. Only once did wind permit me to venture onto larger Trout Lake in the kayak, but I returned every night of my residency to the dock just before sunset to experience the big open sky and expanse of water that so refreshes my soul. One night, seeking auroras, I went down to the dock in the dark and lay down facing the stars, listening to the soft lapping waves.

Alone with time for reflection, I left with a deeper understanding of the diverse yet interconnected forests and watersheds with the lakes, bogs, marshes, creeks, rivers all flowing and recirculating through sandy soil and atmosphere. I “knew” before my residency that there is a lot of water here and that there are many lakes but I didn’t truly comprehend what that meant until I was alone on foot, floating in kayak, and studying maps as I traveled from one small lake to another, just how close the lakes and connected waters are. You could almost throw a stone from one lake to another.

Driving slowly through autumn forests after the first frosts, the forest appears sparser and the glimmer of water between the trunks is more apparent than during the lush summer season. This is such a special place on earth with its gloriously clear water immersed in diverse forests, yet we should treasure every place on earth. These ecosystems are all linked and we are part of the network. I can see changes in the lakes I was already familiar with – higher levels, loss of beach, little less clarity and I wonder about the changes in the other lakes that the researchers at the station are studying. I wonder which of the invisible and less visible creatures so integral to the ecosystem will adapt as climate change increasingly impacts this area and how future forests will look.

Meanwhile. . . my time was filled with incredible experiences, far beyond what I can write here. I was serenaded by Trumpeter Swans just yards away from my kayak in 4o degrees and drizzle — my heart pounding. (See my blog for a video of this mind bending experience.) I discovered golf balls in Trout River when I thought I was in wilderness. I worried about bears alone on the trails—instead I was flashed by a fox flying across the Escanaba trail.

Back in my studio in Madison, I am exploring these experiences. Some initial ideas are emerging in paintings inspired by water shields and damsel flies and are nearly finished.

I’d love to share this work as it develops. To follow my process and stay connected to me and my work:

Blog: enjoy more photographs and writing about my Trout Lake artist residency

Website: discover a fuller picture of my art

Instagram:  follow my process and the development of future works

Photo: K. Steichen Rosing