After a pandemic-related hiatus, UMBS was pleased to recommence its tradition of hosting an artist to live and work among the usual population of undergraduates, ecological research scientists, teaching faculty, and families. Successful artist-residencies of the past have shown that introducing art into a science space leads to dialogue and discovery that enrich both disciplines.
This year’s artist, Sarah Koff, perfectly embodied that collaborative spirit. Koff, an accomplished block printmaker based in New Hampshire, uses art “to tell nature’s stories.” From mid-July to mid-August, she and her family lived at UMBS and established an active studio space in Nichols Lab, in the heart of camp next to the library. In addition to creating prints inspired by the research happening at UMBS, Koff hosted a series of woodcut workshops for students, staff, and researchers – to rave reviews.
“My daughter and I had a wonderful experience with Sarah,” said Bob Pillsbury, longtime UMBS scientist studying wild rice ecology and nuisance Didymosphenia (a type of diatom) bloom. “It was an easy art form to get into and she was very encouraging. Both of us now want to continue this craft at home.”
Associate Director Karie Slavik echoes Pillsbury’s enthusiasm.
“A remarkable person and block printmaker, Sarah shared her gift for coaxing creativity and delight from the entire U-M Biological Station community,” said Slavik. “I know I’m not the only one grateful for her gentle encouragement to focus and create something I never thought I would be able to do.”
As Koff wraps up her time at UMBS, she reflects on an unforgettable – and artistically fruitful – summer:
“I spent a month this summer at UMBS getting to know the community of researchers, students and staff as well as the lands and waterways comprising and surrounding the campus. A woodcut artist rooted in environmental education, I came here with the goal of creating a series of woodcuts inspired by the ecology— and ecological research— of the biostation. And I only wish I had another month here, because I was truly only able to scratch the surface.
My woodcuts included a piece on forest succession (inspired by a tour of the 74, 42, and 5-year-old forest burn plots), a scene of wetland grasses and birds (inspired by a paddling trip on the Maple River), Mitchell’s Satyr, a Michigan butterfly that is one of the rarest in the world (inspired by a community lecture), an aspen clone (inspired by the clones on campus), a jack pine tree (inspired by my interest in fire-species), and a scene of freshwater shells (inspired by my daily walks along the beach).
The incredible humans I interacted with during my stay influenced each piece with their stories. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without people touring me around to their favorite spots and folding me into the mix so I could have more conversations and feel part of the community. I sampled water with a microbes class, toured burn plots over 70 years old, canoed on a river, and had countless conversations on beaches, at the dining hall, on walks and paddles— and in my studio, sometimes late at night.
Because, after all, a major part of the residency was to provide an opportunity for the community to try their hand at my beloved craft. I held several workshops and twice-weekly open art sessions for members of the community to make their own block prints. Each participant designed, carved and printed a unique flag that represented what UMBS meant to them. We printed nearly 100 individual flags from a mix of students, faculty, researchers, staff, and kids— some as young as 7. At the end of the session, we sewed all of the flags together to create a 2022 garland, representing this specific time and place, to decorate the landscape of UMBS.
Working as an artist in a scientific community was an invigorating change of pace for me. The people I interacted with were intelligent, passionate, and dedicated to their work. I look forward to reliving my stay over the course of the next few months as I finish the pieces I started here, and am confident that my summer experiences will inform many more woodcuts to come. Many thanks to UMBS for this incredible opportunity to make and share art with this special community.”