ArtSciConverge: An Artist Residency at a Field Station

  • Jeff Brown
  • Faerthen Felix

Our guest curator, Alana Quinn, sat down in January 2022 for an extensive interview with Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix, co-directors of the UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station ArtSciConverge Artist Residency Program in the Sierra Nevada in Truckee, California. What follows is an excerpted transcript of their discussion. The text has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Alana Quinn: Jeff and Faerthen, welcome, and thank you for joining me. To start, can you tell us a bit about how the Sagehen Creek Field Station came to exist and what kind of research happens there?

Jeff Brown: In the late 1940s, the California legislature thought it important that the University of California have a wildlife and fisheries program. They appropriated money, and they went to campus and said, “Hey, what do you guys think?” And the people at the university said, “What a great idea!” There were two people there that were key: wildlife biologist Starker Leopold and Paul “Doc” Needham, who studied benthic macroinvertebrates, the bugs that live in rivers and creeks. Somehow in the time they spent hunting, fishing, and exploring, they found Sagehen Creek, which is located about eight miles north of Truckee. In the winter of 1950-1951, they skied out with some California legislators and representatives of the Forest Service. That was how the Sagehen Creek Field Station began.

Alana: When did you arrive at Sagehen?

Jeff: We got to Sagehen in 2001. During our first summer there, three large forest fires happened around the station. We spent the summer in smoke, and it got us thinking about the value of the place. It's got a long data set, there's data that goes back to the early 1950s, and there aren’t a lot of places on the planet or at least in the United States that have a long-term data set, and–if it's forested in the American West–that haven't burned yet.

In the 19th century, the central Sierras were clear cut. The mills were put in, and the first transcontinental railroad in the United States went through Truckee. Then the forest was allowed to grow, then it was suppressed, cut again, and allowed to grow. People started building homes there, and the US Forest Service began to focus on putting out fires. They’ve done that for a long time. As a result, they started thinning the forest to reduce fuel loads, but they were mostly just taking out all the big, valuable, fire-resistant trees that aren’t a fire problem. A lot of folks were upset about that. So they sued and stopped the forest-related cuts that the US Forest Service had been proposing, at least in the Sierras.

So now we're stuck with what I call the perfect campfire. We've got some bigger trees, we've got the next step down, all the way down to lots and lots of the little stuff. And then we have a thick duff layer. That stuff that falls off the trees turns into dirt over time. We're on the east side of the Sierras, the dry side.

Faerthen Felix: We really need small fires to keep up and help with that nutrient cycling. It depends on low-intensity, regular fire to manage the health of a forest like that.

Jeff: The Washoe tribe would do that when they were there. They would burn the place in the fall when they'd leave. We wanted to figure out what to do for a forest that had been managed successfully for thousands of years by Native Americans but was now out of balance.

We were able to core a lot of these old stumps because they don't decay very fast here. The Comstock-era stumps are still there, and are much older than the trees we have now; we were able to get a fire history from them. We learned that, pre-European arrival, the mean return for fire in Sagehen was about every 2.4 years. It was low-intensity, cooler fire. Post-European arrival, that went up to 24 years and those fires were much larger and much hotter.

You can see how the system had been used to one thing, and then all of a sudden it was thrust into a completely different world. Now that the climate is shifting; we're drying out, warming up, and we're starting to see huge increases in the magnitude and depth from heat that these large fires are having on the ecosystem.

We formed a large collaborative group in an effort to create a forest management plan.

Faerthen: Nobody thought it was going to work, but they were all willing to work together, and we hammered out a prescription that everyone could live with. After all this time and effort, we thought we had won. We were excited. We got loggers and environmentalists to agree. “We're done. This is awesome!” It turns out it wasn't quite that easy.

Alana: This is where the ArtSciConverge artist residency comes in. Can you describe its origins?

Jeff: About five or six years ago, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno (NMA), which is the only art museum in the world with a permanent Art + Environment Department, came to us and said, “We're looking for a place to put a fifty-year art project on the ground.” They were working with Newton and Helen Harrison, who are big players in the eco art world. They wanted a place in the Sierras because the theme was climate change and its effect on the Sierra Nevada. And we said, “Great!”

And also around that time, the National Academy of Sciences came out with a report on field stations and marine laboratories and what we should be thinking about to be relevant in the rest of this century. It said we weren’t being effective at moving the results of our science into the broader culture. This report hit us in the gut and made us realize why there's this huge frustration between science and the public.

Faerthen: It resonated with our experience. We were talking to the larger public around Truckee, and we were so excited about this project. This forest fire issue is the biggest socio-environmental issue in these people's lives. And we had come to a place where we could solve this problem if we all worked together, and they all just kind of went, “I don't care.”

Jeff: This report comes out, and the museum has come to us about a project. And that got us thinking differently. When we started talking about the Harrison Studio project, Bill Fox, the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art said, “Jeff, you've now got world-class artists working at Sagehen. What can we do to grow that program?”

That's when we started the artist residency program at Sagehen, which is pretty unique. We have no money, but we have a great place. We have great issues that we're working on. How do we get artists excited about what we're doing and then willing to engage and use their lens to address the same issues?

Faerthen: There's a tendency for scientists to think that art is simply a tool for illustration of their work. But we made an effort to avoid that. We wanted to invite artists and say, “Here's this place. Here's what we're working on. What can you do?”

Jeff: We worked with the National Science Foundation to fund a workshop about art and science at the NMA in Reno. That was great, because we had a bunch of artists and scientists there. We had brain researchers, field station people, and the art community.

At the end of the workshop, we launched ArtSciConverge, to connect the two disciplines. The artists wanted to work with scientists but didn't really know how. When we talked to scientists, they’d often say, “I'd love to work with an artist. They can draw a picture of my bird.” Well, that's an illustration; art is a pretty broad area.

Alana: What kind of responses have scientists and the visiting public had to the artwork?

Jeff: We had some frustrations when we were talking about Helen and Newton Harrison’s project with people. It was obscure, and some people responded that they didn’t really think it was art. The Harrisons set up a series of five test plots at varying elevations moving up the watershed. The project was designed to test various plant species’ ability to control erosion, preserve water quality, and limit the spread of catastrophic fire in a changing climate.

Faerthen: It looked like a “common garden” science project. The art emerged later in gallery exhibits and mapping projects that they would do and in the poetry that Helen would write. But at the time it didn't really look like art. People were confused by it.

Alana: Can you describe one or two other projects that elicited strong responses?

Faerthen: There is a contest every year sponsored by Socrates Sculpture Park and the Architecture League of New York. Artists and architects design a folly, and if their design is selected, they get to build and exhibit it for a year in Socrates Sculpture Park in New York City. There was one entry by the design practice stpmj that didn't win, but it went viral, and it was beautiful. It was called the Invisible Barn.

It looked like an abstraction of one of our cabins, but it was mirrored on its surface. And it had holes that passed all the way through it. You would look at it and it would reflect the forest at you, and you could see the forest through it.

This photograph features a large, mirrored sculpture, set in a wooded, snow-covered area. The sculpture is shaped like a simple house or cabin structure, and the mirrored surface reflects the evergreen trees and snow around it, so the sculpture seems to disappear into the landscape.
A view of Invisible Barn, 2015, by the New York and Seoul-based design practice stpmj. Photo credit: Faerthen Felix.

What it did for us was remarkable. Even before we built it, when we announced it, suddenly there was this big discussion that went on. All of these issues came out that people were worried about, like: “You're putting a mirror in the forest, aren't birds going to slam into it?”

The interesting part to me was that birds hit windows all the time, and people don't worry about it or comment on it. We've had buildings at Sagehen since the 1950s, and they have windows, and sometimes birds hit them. We have roads and structures in the forest, and nobody ever questions it or asks, “Why are we doing this? Is there a better way?” But because the Invisible Barn is art, it made people think differently and ask questions that we should be asking about everything we do. It was a powerful lens for focusing thought. It got people's attention. So, that was a fantastic project. (And, for the record, we researched and used material that birds can see, unlike window glass.)

Jeff: Once we built it, it became the draw for everybody that would go through Sagehen. Sagehen is a busy place. When groups were there, they would always take their photos around the Invisible Barn. They were naturally attracted to it. It was wonderful.

Faerthen: Fire is a compelling thing, and some artists and scientists expressed a desire to engage more closely with our prescribed burns at Sagehen. In the past, the Forest Service wanted the public nowhere near their fires. There's way too much liability. They can't juggle all these people coming and going. So that was never a possibility.

Jeff: We asked the Forest Service, “What would a scientist or artist need to do to be able to engage with an active fire?” And they said that they would need to have red card training, the same basic level of training that any of their wildland firefighters have. So we did a red card training for artists and scientists. The Forest Service actually did the field training for us. It was great because it created a connection and lowered that wall a little bit.

Faerthen: One of our artists-in-residence, Julie Weitz, did an interesting project. She has this character called the Golem that's based in Jewish traditional stories. Her Golem became a wildland firefighter, and her project is currently on exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which is awesome.

Anywhere you go in the world, there are fire festivals. There's this wonderful relationship that people have to fire that's positive, dynamic, and rewarding. And yet, you look at the fire culture of the Western United States, and it's horrible. It's all about catastrophe, fear, and devastation. We need to change that, and the only people who are going to change that are artists. Scientists can't change culture.

Alana: What do you think is the power of integrating art and science?

Faerthen: We’ve talked a lot about the power of art to shift culture and to change society. But the other aspect of the artist residency program, the thing that we think that the arts can bring to science, is a deeper and more profound level of discovery. Artists and scientists are both trained pattern detectors, but they come at it from very different perspectives.

Human perception is not a matter of faithfully recording what is out there. It's a filtering process. People from different backgrounds with different expectations and experiences are going to see things very differently. When you have an artist and a scientist working together, or when you have them working in the same space, I think that you can actually get to deeper, more profound levels of discovery. That's an important aspect of our artist residency program, too.

Jeff: One thing we’ve heard from artists is that they want to be engaged at the beginning when people are starting to formulate the questions, versus coming in after the science side has already decided what the question is. We would love to connect with scientists who are willing to stretch a bit and connect with an artist to start a series of conversations that then leads to question development, and then let them move through their processes with regular interactions and see what happens.

Faerthen: It’s been fun to see what artists come up with. We’ve had people working in all kinds of media, and we’ve had installation art. We’ve had performance artists. We've had projection art.

Jeff: One thing that has been powerful for Sagehen is our relationship with the Nevada Museum of Art. They've introduced us to people. And they archive the art process for Sagehen. All the artists that are doing work at Sagehen that are interested, their process will be archived at the Nevada Museum of Art. It’s kind of in perpetuity. With that relationship, the world changed for us.

Alana: If an artist wants to get involved, how do they do that? What advice would you give artists who are considering applying?

Jeff: It's not a formal process. We don't have the resources to send out an RFP and evaluate a bunch of applications. If you're interested in what's going on, let us know. If you were to connect with, we can talk about things and then figure out if there's a fit for either side. We’ve retired from running the station, but we're still managing the art program. The new lead, Ash, is very supportive and wants to see it continue.

Alana: This has been a great conversation. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Jeff: I know that Tilt West is based in Colorado. Colorado has a number of well-established field stations. They also have a strong art presence. I think it would be interesting if the art world could reach out to a couple of these field stations and try to form some new partnerships there.