An Artist Encounters Antarctica
Laura Von Rosk, Adirondack artist and Lake George Arts Project curator, joins a team of scientists at the end of the world
The ends of the earth and the Adirondacks must have something in common (other than the fact that we sometimes feel as though we live in the antipodes), because artists are drawn to both.
The most famous of these, of course, is Rockwell Kent, who traveled to Greenland and Tierra del Fuego in the 1920s and 30s.
But another Adirondack artist is now eligible for membership in the Explorers’ Club: Laura Von Rosk.
Von Rosk, who lives in Paradox, is also the director of the Lake George Arts Project’s Courthouse Gallery, where she organizes several exhibitions of contemporary art every year.
But she’s best known for her own haunting paintings, which novelist Douglas Glover describes as playful dialogues with the Hudson River School, illuminated manuscripts and the early Renaissance Italians.
In December, Von Rosk returned from Antarctica, where she spent eight weeks assisting a team of divers and biologists studying single-cell organisms known as Foraminifera.
Officially designated a research assistant, Von Rosk’s true function was that of artist-in-residence, said Dr. Sam Bowser, the Albany biologist who organized the expedition.
“Art is another way of communicating what we as scientists are doing,” said Bowser.
The collaboration began more than two years ago, when the Courthouse Gallery exhibited “Raising the Fleet,” a show that brought together the archaeological study of shipwrecks, the scientific study of single-cell organisms living in the lake and the illustrations of Elinor Mossip.
“Since I knew that Sam worked with artists, I asked him to consider me if there was ever another project where one was needed,” said Von Rosk.
“Both John Strong, the Arts Project director, and Chris Moran, an artist who taught a workshop about synthesizing art and science for the Arts Project, told me I had to look at Laura’s work. I did and I couldn’t believe what I saw. I got it,” said Bowser.
So Bowser took Von Rosk up on her offer, and invited her to join the expedition he was leading to Antarctica in October of 2011.
“My specialty, and that of about five other people, is Foraminifera, which build their shells by gluing or cementing together grains of sand, shells, or other particles from the sea-floor. These critters are carbon sinks; they started pulling carbon out of the atmosphere 300 million years ago. These are important creatures, not least for people thinking about climate change,” said Bowser.
The team’s destination was a remote field camp known as Explorers Cove, west of McMurdo Station.
“Explorers Cove has the highest diversity of forams of any place on earth; they’re living fossils, which allows us to study the early evolution of the organism,” said Bowser, who’s made trips to Antarctica almost every year since the 1980s.
Before traveling to Explorers Cove, Von Rosk received orientation training at McMurdo Station, where she was taught survival tactics, camped on the Ross Ice Shelf and learned to operate a snowmobile.
“A week later, we boarded a helicopter for the 40 minute ride across McMurdo Sound to our camp, which consisted of two large, connected tents for sleeping and living, a lab hut, a bathroom shack, solar panels and wind generator near the generator shack. The shore is just a short walk to the east, but it was hard to tell where the sea began and ended because snow and ice cover both land and sea,” said Von Rosk.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Von Rosk.
But since it’s expensive to maintain one person for one day, surely she was not along just for the ride.
Apart from an invitation to incorporate this experience into her own work as a visual artist, Von Rosk’s job was to assist with the scientific research and dive teams in one way or another.
“The first two weeks, we focused on melting dive holes, troubleshooting and repairing equipment. Just about every muscle in my body grew sore from the heavy lifting and from performing tasks or using equipment I was unaccustomed to,” said Von Rosk. “Every task took longer there, because we were always bundled up or had to take precautions because of the extreme weather.”
Her most stressful job (but, she emphasizes, among the most rewarding), was assisting the divers who disappear into holes cut through eight feet of ice.
“I was there to be alert to any signs of danger, but I was also limited in my ability to help if someone was in danger. A rescue team was at least an hour away by helicopter,” she said.
Von Rosk said she was encouraged to devote time to her art, but resisted the urge.
“I would have felt like a slacker,” she said. “Everyone else was so busy.”
Living in close proximity to others while isolated from the rest of the world (though email and internet connections were maintained) was itself an education, said Von Rosk.
“You learn to be tolerant, because you’re depending upon others for your safety. But that’s easier than you might think, because a situation like that can bring out the best in people,” said Von Rosk.
“Sometimes the distant icebergs were very pronounced white shapes in a blue-ish landscape, other times they look ten times the size from the day before, transformed into gigantic dark towering craggy hills,” she said.
While the landscape may not have been a direct source of inspiration, the experience itself will find its way into her art. “How could it not?” she asks.
Von Rosk said she also intended to bring the work of Bowser and his colleagues to the public’s attention “through my art, either through education projects or images, and cycle back to the public eye what I’ve learned.”
But according to Bowser (who’s also collaborated with film maker Werner Herzog and musician Henry Kaiser), that’s not the sole function of an artist in residence.
“Laura can’t predict what I’ll draw from her experience. She sees a big picture, while I’m focused on the microscopic. She reminds us to remain open to experience and, above all else, to keep our eyes open,” said Bowser.