Science, Art and an Unforgettable Summer: Interview with One of Trout Lake Station’s 2022 Student Artists

This summer, the Center for Limnology, especially our team up at Trout Lake Station, doubled down on our commitment to fostering the relationship between science and art.

Catherine Nelson (and her art supplies) exploring a northern Wisconsin lake. Photo: Cameo Boyle

These efforts date back to the “Paradise Lost?” exhibition in 2006 that connected northern Wisconsin scientists with our North Temperate Lakes Long-Term Ecological Research program and has continued ever since, as Trout Lake Station hosts an annual “artist in residence” and features local work at our open houses.

But, this year, thanks to a generous award from the University of Wisconsin’s Baldwin Wisconsin Idea grant, three undergraduate artists were able to live on station all summer long and receive weekly mentoring from both area artists and freshwater scientists.

The results are, in a word, stunning.

Each student used their own unique talents to showcase limnology through their own artistic lens. We caught up with one of our inaugural student artists, Catherine Nelson, to learn more about her summer experience. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. (And, the 2023 Art and Science Mentoring program is currently looking for new mentors! Apply by December 19th!)

How did you hear about the Art and Science Mentoring Program? 

Cate: The job was suggested to be by my professor, (Carrie Kissman at St. Norbert College) who knows people at Trout Lake Station and takes a limnology class up each year. But, for me, the appeal was that I’m double majoring in environmental science and art and [I hope to] find a meaningful way to contribute using both of those interests and skills and I’ve been trying to discern whether I want to do something more in the field of research or if I wanted to do more communication and art and this job was a way to get really good experience with both of those things.


Overall, how was the experience? 

Cate: Going out in the field and helping with research and also getting a chance to make art about science and nature – which are the things that most inspire me – it was really kind of a dream come true for me. It ties together the things I care most about. This summer kind of showed me a path or some possibilities for my future where both of my passions are integrated. A question you get a lot when you’re majoring in environmental science and art, is people ask “so what are you going to do with that?”

Electrofishing. Painting by Catherine Nelson.

Tell us a little about your mentors.

Cate: Susan Knight (Trout Lake Station scientist) was my scientist mentor and Terrill Knaack (a Wisconsin-based landscape and wildlife painter and photographer) was my artist mentor.  Terrill lives down west of Madison and he would come up every other week and camp with his wife, Susan, and while they were in the Northwoods, they would take me landscape painting. That was really incredible.  

And I loved going out doing fieldwork with Susan and Erin (Matula). It was kind of intimidating, they always refer to aquatic plants by their Latin names and I would try to write them down based on how they sounded and then look them up later, but they know so much, they would be doing research and collecting data and I’d be in the boat asking questions about bugs and certain plants. We’d go on little excursions and Susan one day said “this is what research is, you go out and do your job but you take little breaks to look at the bog laurel blooming and look for wild blueberries…” 

Currents and consequences. Painting by Catherine Nelson.

What was it like being part of a group of other artists?

Cate: Peers in art-making are something that I’ve really appreciated, like having classes with other artists and having people to bounce ideas off of who understand the experiences you’re having. It was so important to me to be able to go to other people and ask for feedback and advice and I was grateful to have a group of peers to do that with. Especially because the process of art-making just like research, you don’t always know where you’re going and you need to have people to talk about it with and having those people was great. 

One thing that stood out to me was the beginning of the summer, other people who were living on station – not all art interns – but a group of us would go on hikes and there were mosquitoes in clouds and droves and you couldn’t escape them but we would go on hikes anyway. And they would stop and pause and let me draw and I drew mushrooms and frogs and trees and I had never been in a community where so many of us loved doing things like that so much that nothing would stop us, or a community where people would just be chill about stopping and standing in mosquito clouds while I did my drawings. [It was] a community that was so supportive and loved the place and environment as much as I did. That’s something I’ d never previously experienced and something that I value so much. I really fell in love with the Northwoods when I was there. I’d never been up there before and I’ve never fallen in love with a place like I did with the station and the area in general. 


Do you have any closing thoughts? 

Cate: I’m taking a lot of thoughts and ideas about research away from this experience. An area I ended up focusing on with my art was people – the people on station and the researchers I worked with. I got to see what they were doing but also why they were doing it- learning about nature through them and learning about why they care about the natural world are two things that really inspired me and that I think doesn’t always get expressed in scientific papers, the heart and the love behind what’s happening in research. Those are things I’m carrying with me from this summer. 

A big part of the reason of why I make art – I make it for myself, but I also make it for others, to help others learn and try to give others the experiences that I have. Art doesn’t replicate the experience of being up north this summer, but I would love to help other people even just get a glimpse of the glory of the Northwoods. 

Morning at Cathedral Point. Painting by Catherine Nelson.

See more of Catherine’s amazing work here. 

See more from all of the 2022 Art and Science Interns here.