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'Expeditionary Artist' Maria Coryell-Martin blends science and art

Ben Anderson
Maria Coryell-Martin, expeditionary artist. June 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The artist sketching in Greenland.
Courtesy Maria Coryell-Martin
Walrus studies, Greenland.
Courtesy Maria Coryell-Martin
Bird banding kit, Alaska.
Courtesy Maria Coryell-Martin
Hatching Godwit egg, Alaska.
Courtesy Maria Coryell-Martin
Storm Front, Antarctica.
Courtesy Maria Coryell-Martin

Maria Coryell-Martin is a bit of an anachronism: she’s a modern woman, typing away on an iPad when I meet her in an Anchorage coffee shop on an overcast afternoon. But her choice of profession is definitely one that’s gone out of style. Maria is an “expeditionary artist,” documenting the natural world, tagging along on scientific research, drawing and painting relevant flora, fauna, and locales.

The title isn’t one you’ll find around much nowadays. “I like to tease that it’s great to make up your own job title in college,” she said.

It may be a little outdated, but Coryell-Martin’s art form has a rich history, even within Alaska. One of the world’s best-known naturalists, John Muir -- for whom Alaska’s Muir glacier is named -- left behind a huge collection of drawings of places and wildlife from his many travels.

Coryell-Martin said that she drew particular inspiration from an exhibit of the work of Thomas Moran, known for his huge oil paintings of the American West, like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. But when Coryell-Martin visited an exhibit of Moran’s work in her home city of Seattle in the late 1990s, she paid particular attention to his field sketches, smaller drawings done on the fly.

“They felt really immediate,” Coryell-Martin said, “and I really felt like I was sitting next to him as he sketched those landscapes.”

So Coryell-Martin, who studied art at Carleton College in Minnesota, began working on ways to make her dream become a reality. In 1999, while still in high school, she visited Alaska as part of the Juneau Icefield Research Program. Her father was an oceanographer who specialized in sea ice, so the far northern latitudes held a special appeal to her growing up.

“I grew curious about the region, with these radio-patch phone calls and giant parkas in the hall closet, and hearing stories about it,” she said. “I always had a bit of a fascination with the Arctic.”

That fascination is reflected in her work; in 2003, she returned to the Juneau Icefield Research Program as a resident artist. In 2005, she spent time in Greenland. From 2006 to 2009, she visited Canada and various locales in Washington. She’s visited the other side of the world, too: in 2006, she was an artist-in-residence in Antarctica.

The result of these journeys are a collection of sketches and oil and watercolor paintings, featuring snowy peaks, floating icebergs, and numerous studies of animals and plants.

Tracking the Godwit

Coryell-Martin was getting ready to head home to Seattle after her most recent expedition, studying Hudsonian Godwit shorebirds as part of the team of Cornell grad student Nate Senner, who also attended Carleton with Coryell-Martin.

The purpose of the expedition, according to Senner is to study the migration patterns of the Godwits -- which travel from the Arctic to the far southern reaches of South America every year, giving it one of the longest migrations in the world -- and seeing how migration patterns are being affected by climate change.

Senner said that the Godwit travels through a number of different “climate change regimes,” which allows researchers to see how the birds tailor their migrations around different climate patterns in different regions of the world.

So why have an artist along on a mission of scientific inquiry?

Senner said that having an artist along on a scientific expedition broadens the mission, allowing for another outlet to bring the science to a larger audience.

Science can be a little dry on occasion, despite all the passion that researchers often bring to their specialty, and that’s where Coryell-Martin’s hand-drawn, personalized works come in.

Senner said that a photograph can document an expedition, but it’s easier to capture the personality of an animal and an expedition in a painting.

“There’s an artist on the other side of a drawing,” Senner said, and people can pick up on that. “That’s not always the case with a photograph.”

For her part, Coryell-Martin didn’t want to dismiss photography as a documentation tool, but said that each medium has its own merits.

“Paintings show different sides,” she said. “I don’t want to say one is better than the other, but it’s fun to bring them together.”

There’s an appeal, she said, to referencing the tradition of naturalist sketches of times gone by, and “value to having something drawn with a handmade eye.”

For now, Coryell-Martin is headed back to Washington, but she and Senner hope to return to Alaska with an idea to teach schoolkids at Highland Tech Charter School their method of scientific inquiry, combining science and art. Coryell Martin also hopes to begin an expedition soon to study narwhals in the Arctic with friend and aquatic scientist Kristin Laidre.

For now, Coryell-Martin will continue working in her studio on paintings inspired from recent expeditions, which she called the “emotional responses” to the expeditions, rather than the documentary-style, as-it-happened field sketches.

If you want to see more of Coryell-Martin’s work and other projects, you can check out her website. There are also works available for purchase, and even a kit similar to the one that Coryell-Martin uses herself when in the field, complete with watercolors, brushes, paper and color palette.

Coryell-Martin has learned from experience the hazards of watercolors in cold climates. Her trick of the trade? A dash of vodka in the water will keep it from freezing.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com