Sturgeons in the art

"In the fall of 2004 I became fascinated with sturgeon. The more I researched them the more captivated I became. Now I see them as a symbol of endurance in a rapidly changing environment.  There is a quality in the sturgeon that I find special.  It has an ancient lineage, and a quiet, curious wisdom. "  Margaret K. Haydon

From the talk given during the ISS7, 2013, Nanaimo, BC.

“A Curious Old Wisdom” 

I come to you from the Art Department at the University of Wyoming where I direct the ceramics program, make art, and encourage others in that practice.  For many years I have followed an interdisciplinary trajectory in my work that combines a fascination with sturgeon, volunteering in the field and art making.  I am attending this symposium to learn more about sturgeon, and to briefly offer my interpretation of this remarkable animal.

The title of my talk is a quote from Familiar Freshwater Fishes by Dr. Howard T. Walden. 

“One thinks of the sturgeon as a kind of philosopher among fishes, as if its ancient lineage had bred, over the thousands of centuries, a curious old wisdom and a quiet acceptance of change.”

His poetic description is one of many I have encountered in my research, and, while it may be risky to project anthropomorphic qualities onto animals, there is something about the sturgeon that immediately captures the imagination.

My interest in sturgeon began with a solo exhibition at The White Sturgeon Gallery.  This venue is located within The Water Resources Education Center located on the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.  I knew nothing about sturgeon, and intrigued by the gallery name, I did some investigating in the Science Library at the University of Wyoming.  In a small monograph on American freshwater fish, I opened to a drawing of what was called a Common or European Sturgeon, Acipenser sturio.   I was immediately struck by the strange image.   In one intuitive leap I decided to make a small body of work based on the white sturgeon for the exhibition.   I have been researching sturgeon, and making art about them ever since.  

Research is a large component of my aesthetic work.  Since that first show in Washington, I have worked with pallid sturgeon and white sturgeon.  I have visited sturgeon farms in Hungary where I was completing an artist residency at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemet.  This past May, prior to a residency at the Shaw Centre for Contemporary Ceramics at Medalta, I volunteered in Edmonton, Alberta with lake sturgeon in the North Saskatchewan.  Wherever I go to pursue ceramics, I investigate sturgeon possibilities.

Researching sturgeon raised my awareness of riparian habitats. I learned about the importance of unimpeded river flow for spawning and drift, the importance of submerged tree branches in river habitat, and the role that shallows and bank configuration play in reproduction.  I learned about the effects of damming rivers, of channelization and bank stabilization.  I learned that when we change the structure and flow of our major water systems to accommodate shipping, irrigation and energy needs, we also change habitat.  As water is increasingly turned into a commodity to be controlled, owned, and converted into energy, a greater understanding of water habitats and the animals that depend on them also becomes increasingly important.  The sturgeon, and sturgeon scientists, have taught me all this.

The artist and the scientist are not so very different in their practices.  We conduct research, are acute observers, and are passionate about our subject.  Technical skill is crucial, as is discipline and hard work.  All of this lays the necessary groundwork for that intuitive spark to take hold.  Not only do our disciplines run along parallel lines, they can be mutually supportive.  When I became interested in sturgeon, I began to think of my work in relationship to broader environmental ideas.   In 2007 I curated an exhibition that brought together four artists whose work dealt with environmental themes, and one scientist, Dr. Stephen Gray, the Wyoming State Climatologist.  As part of the exhibition, Dr. Gray spoke on climate change in the Rocky Mountain region.   He wrote:

  “...the simple message that small changes in climate could result in major changes in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems is often lost, and most people are left to wonder what climate change really means for them. …..the arts can communicate key concepts from the world of science and natural history.  It is one thing to hear the statistics of climate change, but works that help us visualize a world without sturgeon or mountains without glaciers make these impacts seem tangible and concrete in a way that science alone can rarely hope to achieve.”            

In addition to curating this exhibition, I received a grant to fund the production of representative portfolios.   These were sold as a benefit to the Ocean Conservancy, and from that time on I began to donate partial proceeds from my work to sturgeon research and other relevant advocacy organizations.   This new direction, linking my aesthetic work with my interest in sturgeon has expanded the purpose of my art making process and my vocation.

Yesterday, as we were standing in the lunch line, I told Dr. Rosenthal how much I enjoyed his talk on the importance of  “survival fitness” in hatchery raised sturgeon.  He thanked me and then, leaning closer over the cold noodle salad he looked me in the eye and said, “ You know, my heart is in this field”.  I understood. 

I am not a scientist.  But I am drawn to this strange, ancient fish, as I know all of you are. 

This morning Chief Atleo opened the conference with a powerful and moving presentation.  Towards the end of his talk he stated: "My role is to help show”  

My role and my contribution is small in comparison, but in another way, I too, hope I can “help show”.

In closing I would like to offer a final reference:

Edward. O. Wilson, the great American biologist, has published a new book titled Letters to a Young Scientist.  Each chapter is a letter to an imaginary young colleague starting out in the field.  He encourages the reader to go into the sciences.  He first writes, “We need you now, more than ever.” 

Then, along with practical advice and examples of his own journey, he writes:

 “A source of the ground strength of science are the connections made not only variously within physics, chemistry, biology but also among these primary disciplines….Can this consilience – connections made between widely separated bodies of knowledge- be extended to the social sciences and humanities, including even the creative arts?  I think it can, and further, I believe the attempt to make such linkages will be a key part of intellectual life in the remainder of the twenty-first century.”    I agree. 

Margaret K. Haydon