Seattle-based artist paints portraits of a melting world
by Eric Wagner
We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. -- John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Maria Coryell-Martin wants us to dance the horizon. We are in the Seattle Art Museum's sculpture park, beneath a hunk of orange steel (The Eagle, by Alexander Calder), but she is looking past the art, past the pedestrians who glance curiously at her floppy straw hat and oversize sunglasses, past the cars on the streets below, the waterfront buildings and the ferries plying Puget Sound, all the way to the Olympic Mountains, 50 miles away.
Consider the light and sound and temperature and wind of them, she tells her small class. Her pen flies, rendering water, mountains, clouds. I look at my own blank notebook. Dance the horizon? Maybe later. But almost despite myself, I start to twitch out the peaks' contours. Coryell-Martin's energy is infectious, and she has danced horizons much more dramatic than downtown Seattle's. If she can see great forces at work here, I suppose I can, too.
Coryell-Martin calls herself an expeditionary artist. Since 2004, she has joined scientists on field seasons, painting, as Nabokov wrote, at the high ridge where the "mountainside of 'scientific' knowledge joins the opposite slope of 'artistic' imagination." She primarily works with watercolor and ink, and her subjects tend to the distant and austere: glaciers, icebergs, unpeopled landscapes, stoic wildlife.
It makes sense that she's drawn to such things. Until he retired, her father studied Arctic sea ice at the University of Washington, and his work surrounded her as a child. Fresh out of high school, she spent two months sketching and painting with scientists at the Juneau Icefield Research Program –– her first real exposure to vast icy expanses, where, she says, she learned "the value of approaching the environment and science from an artistic perspective."
She eventually traded plans to study biology for studio art, and won a yearlong travel fellowship after graduating from college. Her project was to explore remote regions through art; she painted in French Polynesia, in Tibetan villages, with the Tuareg in Mali. Near the end of that year, one of her father's colleagues introduced her to some scientists working in Greenland. She spent three months tagging along with diamond geologists and becoming a resident artist at the National Science Foundation's Summit Station on the Greenland Icecap. Later, she was artist-in-residence at Greenland's oldest museum, the Upernavik. She took long hikes, sketching glaciers as they cracked and calved.
When she returned to Washington, she sought out similar landscapes, rediscovering the North Cascades' glaciers. She accompanied North Cascades National Park glaciologists, helping to document the melting of the ice rivers. Together, they presented their findings to the public. The glaciologist explained how, in the past 50 years, North Cascade glaciers have declined over 40 percent; almost all of the 300 glaciers in the park are receding. Then Coryell-Martin showed her paintings. As images of coming loss, they made the stakes of climate change clear and vivid -- something the data alone could not do.
Expeditionary art is as old as the urge to explore, its history fraught with dubious impulses. In the 19th century, painters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt accompanied government surveys of the American West. Their work was undeniably beautiful, but it had a dual purpose: to make a previously unimaginable landscape imaginable. Once contained, the land could be tamed and molded to satisfy the whims of an ambitious nation. In historian Roger Balm's words, it was "art for survey and surveillance."
Today, expeditionary art is used for advocacy and education, as Coryell-Martin says: "Painting is an excuse to learn about something, and then to share that learning." Her work is realistic, but it transcends documentation. For her, a sketchbook has an intimacy and immediacy that a photograph lacks, reminding the viewer that the image was created, slowly and thoughtfully, by the labor of someone's hand. Coryell-Martin plans to return to Greenland next year with narwhal researcher Kristin Laidre, to find a way to teach local children how to record the changes they see. Laidre, a former professional ballet dancer, is enthusiastic about Coryell-Martin's approach. "There are parallels between art and science," she says. "How you perceive things, the use of creativity to interpret the world in some way, spit it back out, inspire and inform others."
In a sense, the difference between expeditionary art then and now also lies in the emotions behind it. Moran and his peers dwelt on the alien nature of new places. They revered the exotic: flightless birds, savages with bones through their noses, enormous trees and waterfalls and mountains, often exaggerated to heighten their sublimity. But Coryell-Martin wants to preserve the familiar, even as it disappears: the fractured icebergs, the shrinking glaciers. For all her vim and joy, her work can feel melancholy, because why else do we keep portraits, if not to remember something after it's gone?
Soon after my reluctant sketching attempt, I visit Coryell-Martin's Seattle studio, where she is preparing for a gallery show about bird migration. She spent two weeks with Cornell University biologist Nathan Senner near Cook Inlet, Alaska, helping him retrieve satellite transmitters attached to Hudsonian godwits. Her paintings, Senner says, "are a lot prettier to look at than my graphs," and he hopes they'll help his research reach a broader audience.
But there are only a couple of small studies of godwits in the studio. Arctic terns, though, are everywhere; apparently, a colony surrounded the research site. "It was a couple of days before we were able to convince her that godwits are pretty neat, too," Senner says later, laughing.
Coryell-Martin tells me that godwits appeal to her field-art side -- the side interested in scientific process. Terns, however, appeal to her studio art side, where her painterly id runs free. I can understand this. The godwit's migration is a marvel of physiological transformation. Before it leaves its Alaskan breeding grounds for Colombia and Argentina, it gorges until its body weight is more than 50 percent fat, while any organs unneeded for flight shrivel up. Then, the bird flies all day and all night, traveling more than 6,000 miles in just a few days. It is a story of incredible endurance.
The tern, on the other hand, has a beautiful story. It, too, makes an impressive migration, the longest of any bird, a roughly 25,000-mile jaunt from pole to pole. But where the godwits are all business, terns take a more leisurely wend, hugging the coasts or drifting farther out to sea. They delay as they will, stop and eat as they need to, settle on the water to rest. Their trip takes several months.
This is reflected in Coryell-Martin's work: Here is a godwit perched in a low conifer, and another winging away. Their energy, their robustness and power, stands out against muted tundra. But the terns -- hovering, alighting, singly or in groups, whirling against variously colored skies -- have a lissome spirit as they bound across the canvas, as if they are dancing.© High Country News