Berkeley artist Todd Gilens made a series of drawings and photographs informed by time spent in the Sierra Nevada with scientists from NRS reserves. He visited Valentine Camp, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, Yosemite Field Station, and Sagehen Creek Field Station during the 2015-18 field seasons.
He’s now assembling this body of work into an exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art from April 10 to May 3. The photographs and drawings reflect on fieldwork with ecologists, digital mapping, and findings in special collections libraries, exploring ideas and images at the crossroads of stream science, writing and urban water systems.
I’m an urban person working as an artist with urban audiences. Art is my way of asking and pursuing questions that come up. My work at NRS reserves brings a description of natural processes into an urbanized context in a way that gives the flavor of scientific inquiry and curiosity.
My training is in landscape architecture. It’s a way of thinking: how could this place be designed better? I wanted to understand how the landscape appears to researchers. By visiting reserves, I found ecologists’ orientation is to find out what’s going on in the landscape. They’re trying to understand the environment as it is.
While at Valentine Camp and the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, I began assisting on stream surveys with David Herbst (a research biologist with UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute).His Sentinel Streams project surveys 24 different stream reaches up and down the Sierra.
The first time I was only taking pictures of what they were doing. Pretty soon they said, hold this clipboard and write down the numbers. Over the next three seasons I participated in 12 surveys. We stayed either in campgrounds or on Forest Service land. I would piggyback these trips onto my own research, using the field stations as places to consolidate and reflect through drawing and writing.
I learned, traipsing up and down streams holding a pad of waterproof paper, why they do things the way they do, what the data means, and how they work with it.
The opportunity I had was to talk to researchers about their personal relationship to the work they do. Around the campfire, or over lunch, we could engage each other in a personal way. It was fascinating to know how in love people are with the mountains. A great wish to see the landscape thrive is really motivating the science in the background.
I had a desk in Dave’s lab at SNARL. The scientists would be at their microscopes identifying stream invertebrates, and I’d be with my drawingpaper making versions of what was going on around me.
In field work it’s about day after day, year after year, getting out and checking your transponders, and making your measurements, and keeping the data and gathering samples. The rigor and enthusiasm my collaborators were bringing to their work was inspiring and instructive to me. It was their method, the way mixing color is for a painter.
Writing, taking photographs, and drawing are my three modes. I made some of the drawings using found charcoal from burn piles around the Mammoth Lakes and Sagehen areas. Other drawings were done with a lithography crayon, which is water soluble. If I was working on a drawing, and wasn’t sure how to develop it, I would put it outside in a rain shower and let the drizzle add something. Then I could respond to something coming directly from the environment.
Researchers present their data in the form of papers. The exhibition is my version of published field work. It’s going to be a different picture of the landscape than what the ecologists are describing.