Art exhibit brings home the changing Arctic

In Flux: Perspectives on Arctic Change exhibit combines science and art

A banner welcoming visitors to the In Flux: Perspectives on Arctic Change art exhibit at Highfield Hall.

Photo by Kaeli Bennett

The exhibit In Flux: Perspectives on Arctic Change sprawls across two floors of one of Cape Cod’s oldest summer-home mansions—Highfield Hall

When they first walk in, visitors see two of Woodwell Climate Board Member Georgia Nassikas’ encaustic paintings flanking a banner with the name of the exhibit. Woodwell Senior Geospatial Analyst Greg Fiske’s maps light up the entry hall. Sounds from Michaela Grill and Karl Lemiuex’s documentary film cascade down from the staircase to the second floor. Tall windows illuminate Gabrielle Russomagno’s small, detailed photographs of the Arctic’s durable vegetation and Aaron Dysart’s reflective sculpture, which invites us to tread with caution. 

These six artists’ works have been on display in Highfield Hall since May 21, and will remain as part of the In Flux exhibit until July 14. On July 11, some of the artists will participate in a panel discussion with their Woodwell scientist collaborators, Dr. Jennifer Watts and Dr. Sue Natali

Research area

Russomagno’s “The Quiet & The Mighty” on display by a Highfield mantle.

Photo by Kaeli Bennett

Connecting to a new perspective

The exhibit’s goal is to connect a distant community to the reality of Arctic change. Many of us may never have the opportunity to visit the Arctic, or study it like Woodwell Climate researchers do. Art can help communicate the reality of an unfamiliar place. 

Woodwell Climate’s Arctic research informed every piece of art on display at Highfield Hall. Each artist has had the chance to travel to the Arctic alongside Woodwell researchers Dr. Jenny Watts and Dr. Sue Natali. According to Watts, traveling with an artist brought a new perspective to a landscape she had visited so many times before. 

“They are looking through the lens of the artist,” Watts says, “They’re kind of seeing it through this fresh look, and then we’re able to see it through their eyes.” 

Russomagno calls herself a “student of the Arctic.” Like some of the other artists, she had never been so far north before her 5-day trip with Watts to Alaska. She recalled the whirlwind experience of creating while acclimating to her new surroundings. 

“I was able to be making art while discovering,” Russomagno says, “I was looking at the same material [as Watts] and understanding it completely differently.”

The exhibit assumes visitors might come in with certain assumptions about the Arctic, but hopes they will soon throw their preconceived ideas out of Highfield Hall’s many windows. One of these false ideas, Watts says, is that the Arctic is a barren wasteland. 

“In the summer especially, it’s brimming with life, and we wanted to show that part of the story because it’s often overlooked,” she says. 

Bursts of life from the summer tundra—small shrubs, mosses, lichens, and grasses—are featured in Russomagno’s series of photographs in “The Quiet & the Mighty.” Nassikas’ encaustic paintings uniquely depict color, horizon, and change. Fiske’s maps teleport us from Highfield Hall to the tundra. The entire In Flux exhibit displays unexpected dimension. 

One of Greg Fiske’s maps looms over the stairwell to the second floor of Highfield Hall.

Photo by Kaeli Bennett

Why combine art and science?

The experience of the art at Highfield places the viewer in the atmosphere of the Arctic tundra. A quiet place with unexpected vibrancy, the uptick in frequency of deafening crashes as ice melts, breaks, and shifts. These elements would be much harder to glean from traditional methods of communication in the science world. A graph, for example, would likely not evoke such a strong emotional response. 

“I think Woodwell and other science organizations struggle with conveying their data, and hard facts, and things they’re discovering to a general audience,” Nassikas says, “Art is another way to change the world for the better.” 

Dysart echoed this message: “If research does not connect with people and culture, nothing’s going to change. Art can make that connection. Art has strength that words don’t.” 

A room filled with Dysart’s cautionary sculpture (left) and one of Nassikas’ many encaustic paintings on display (right).

Photos by Kaeli Bennett

Our shared home

Part of the power of this exhibit is its setting. We have the opportunity to experience the Arctic’s dynamic changes outside of its natural barriers, and Highfield Hall is the tether. 

Dysart says it is “A call back to [our] normal life as opposed to the gallery aesthetic.”

Highfield is a home. It may not feel familiar to everyone, with its extravagant furnishings, stained glass windows, chandeliers, and many rooms, but it was built by humans, for humans. The house has withstood the test of time, though it has changed greatly since its construction in 1878. The Arctic, too is a home for many people, animals, and plants—one that is threatened by climate change. The exhibit at Highfield Hall brings the changing Arctic home to our own changing landscape.

Parting words from a quote on one of Highfield’s many walls.

Photo by Kaeli Bennett