PELLSTON — There’s no art easel or even solid ground on a class excursion in early June near the University of Michigan Biological Station.

Split into pairs on canoes, students in the Florilegium course steady their hands as they balance watercolor paper notebooks on their knees and boats on Douglas Lake to paint en plein air.

“This is my first field work class,” said Eva Kubacki, who majors in art and design, minors in entrepreneurship and will be a junior in the fall at U-M. “I've had the experience of very hands-on studio classes before but never anything where we go out into the world to make observations like this, and I've really enjoyed it. It just brings a whole new level of understanding to what you're learning and enriches your life.”

Provided with both artistic and scientific instruction, the class that launched in 2017 is a two-parter. It begins with a 10-day residency in the spring at the Biological Station, the more than 10,000-acre research and teaching campus along Douglas Lake just south of the Mackinac Bridge in Pellston. And it continues on main campus in Ann Arbor for the entire fall semester.

The art students, who live in cabins in the community of environmental science students and professional scientists from around the world, consider the experience academically unique and personally satisfying.

“Everyone here is so passionate about what they do and that's a great energy to feed off of creatively,” Kubacki said. “Between the excitement of everyone around you here and the stunning natural world, there's constant inspiration. It's been very artistically energizing to me.”

“This is unlike any class I’ve taken,” said Grace Wertanen, a senior studying art and design and minoring in the Program in the Environment (PitE). “I have never taken such an outdoor-centered class, nor one that is so fast-paced and practiced all day long. It’s a great way to connect to nature in an artistic way.”

Instructor Cathy Barry formulated the idea for a class to create a collection of drawings and paintings that evoked a sense of a particular place — a florilegium — at the remote scientific field research station.

“The extension session at UMBS is transformative for students,” Barry said. “We visit beautiful places and gather amazing plants which we then identify and study through close observation. Combined with them drawing and painting these specimens, students experience a deeper connection with the place, the plants, each other and northern Michigan.”

Barry co-teaches the course with Dr. Susan Fawcett, a botanist, UMBS alumna and alumna of the University of Michigan School of Art and Design, now the U-M Stamps School of Art and Design.

“Susan has been such an incredible resource to both have so much knowledge about the plant life and how to translate it into artwork,” said Brooke Casaletto, a junior at U-M from East Lansing who studies art and design. “I was very inspired to learn more about botanical taxonomy.”

“For Susan and me, it’s a chance to bring together many things we are passionate about and eager to play with: plants and drawing, field work and studio work, conservation and beauty, painting and books, self-reflection and artwork and nature and teaching,” Barry said.

The class goes on hikes, finds plants to collect and then studies them further in the studio.

"Being a successful botanist requires good observational skills and attention to detail,” Fawcett said. “I think artists are at a real advantage because they naturally clue in to nuances, and with a little training and perseverance, they are great at plant identification.”

“Having that connection to the plant life we are studying through every stage of the artistic process has been very informative and fulfilling,” Casaletto said.

Casaletto’s favorite place to visit was the Cheboiganing Nature Preserve, an old-growth forest trail.

“Since the forest has existed for so long, the layers of decay in the undergrowth of the forest is really fascinating to see,” Casaletto said. “We also studied the history of the space with the Burt Lake Burnout and efforts from companies to log the forest, which gave the area even more significance.”

Val Buchheister, who is entering his junior year at U-M Stamps School of Art and Design as a fine art major, said the Florilegium course is a good fit for his life goals because he wants to pursue a career in scientific and medical illustration.  

“My favorite part of this summer course was the mix of science and art,” Buchheister said. “These two loves of mine I have always desired to find a medium between, and UMBS has finally allowed this to happen.

“Getting out of the classroom and into the environment around you beats any classroom lecture. I truly believe I have never learned this much information in such a relatively short amount of time.”

Buchheister, who hails from Ortonville, Michigan, is sad to leave UMBS and his favorite wildflower.

“The plant I find the most inspiring is the Red Columbine,” Buchheister said. “This plant is exceptional in its beauty and captures a sense of movement like no other — appearing like a small dragon. I also feel particularly drawn to this plant as it just so happened, one bloomed right outside my cabin the second day of camp.”

Wertanen of Saint Joseph, Michigan, found great joy through microscopic paintings — studying the tinier versions of the plant, especially finding out how many secret colors the specimen really contains.

As she prepared to pack up her belongings to move back home for the summer, Wertanen expressed gratitude for the donors who make scholarships possible for UMBS students to experience this special place.

“I would not have been able to come if room and board were not covered with the grant,” Wertanen said. “I am so thankful that it made nature and art such an accessible thing to do. It really made me feel supported and welcomed, despite not being able to afford it otherwise.”

Kubacki, who thrived expanding her 2D art skills after primarily working in 3D with metals, will miss her friends and the Gorge.

More than 100-feet deep and estimated to have formed 11,000 years ago, the Gorge is an example of an erosional process called sapping — the result of Douglas Lake being 118-feet higher than Burt Lake. Water drains from Douglas Lake by seeping underground for a half mile and then reappearing under the roots of trees as springs in the head of the Gorge.

“All the little springs and creeks are so soothing and because of the variety of elevations and the convergence of water, there's so much diversity there,” Kubacki said. “I feel like I could explore it forever and it had some of my favorite plants and landscapes.”

All of the students in the Florilegium course displayed their work created rapidly over 10 days through an exhibition before leaving the Biological Station.

They’re relieved to meet again when the class continues in the fall in Ann Arbor.

“This experience has really bonded us both as a community of artists and as friends,” Kubacki sad.

Come December, after semester-long research and inquiry, each student will leave with their own book, their own version of a "florilegium."

During an exhibit in the dining hall, UMBS students view art created by students in the 2023 Florilegium class.
Student Val Buchheister painting a watercolor at Sturgeon Bay along Lake Michigan.
Florilegium students painting on a boat
Watercolor paintings on display at exhibit
Watercolor painting of Douglas Lake on display at exhibit