Artist Laura Von Rosk didn’t go to Antarctica to paint scenes of snow and ice.
Her adventure was all about foraminifera, single-cell organisms that live below the frozen ocean.
Two years ago, during the Antarctic summer, Von Rosk was a field and research assistant, joining a team of scientists on a 21⁄2-month trip to Explorers Cove, a remote field camp west of the McMurdo Station research center.
One of her jobs was to use a melting machine to make holes in the ice so that divers could drop down into the ocean and gather specimens. She hauled fuel and equipment, she worked in a lab, sorting samples for study under microscopes. In temperatures that ranged from 20 to 30 degrees below zero, she lived in a camp surrounded by mountains and glaciers.
Von Rosk was hired by Sam Bowser, a biologist at the Wadsworth Center, a state research institute in Albany, who has been leading trips to Antarctica for more than 25 years; occasionally he takes along an artist or photographer.
Since the team returned from Antarctica in January 2012, Von Rosk and Bowser have presented PowerPoint programs to audiences of all ages in upstate New York. They have traveled to more than 15 schools, talking to children as young as first-graders all the way up to college students.
Von Rosk, 49, lives in Schroon Lake and has worked since 1999 as gallery director at the Lake George Arts Project.
Her oil-on-wood panel paintings have been exhibited nationally in both solo and group shows, and her awards include a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship and a grant from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation.
She has been honored twice with a residency at the Yaddo artists colony in Saratoga Springs.
Von Rosk holds a bachelor’s degree from SUNY at Purchase and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Q: Two years later, is Antarctica still on your mind?
A: I think about it all the time just because it was such an experience being in such an unusual place. Antarctica is like a desert. It’s the driest, windiest and coldest place on earth.
Q: How has it influenced your artwork?
A: For the year 2012, just about everything I did was based on the experience of that trip. I come back and I make the same kind of painting over and over again. But this time it’s white and blue, cool colors. A lot of those paintings weren’t really specific to the place. Some of them were, some of them are Mount Erebus. But the one of Mount Erebus with a dive hole in front of it but that’s not the view that I saw. It’s not a real place. I was a dive assistant. One of my responsibilities was to help make these dive holes. This image of a dive hole, I just saw it all the time.
Q: Did you make any art while you were there?
A: I didn’t do any painting. I hardly sketched at all. I brought my iPad with me, but I hardly did anything. We were so busy.
Q: What did you bring back with you?
A: You’re not allowed to take anything. You’d be fined. No rocks, feathers, anything. I did have a lot of photos, which were fun to go through. I rarely used them as a reference for painting, though.
Q: Was it difficult returning to painting after three months away?
A: When I came back, I was really kind of lost. I’m a pretty disciplined person when it comes to working in my studio. A day or two every week I try and get a good chunk of hours in there. I didn’t know what to do with this experience. I started making these little paintings, and the dive holes just started popping up.
Q: How thick was the ice that you had to melt through to make the holes?
A: We probably made a total of 10 dive holes at different locations. Most of them were around our camp. And that was about 8 feet thick.
Q: What was it like watching the diver go down into the hole?
A: It was always very stressful for me. Then I got used to it. They go down for 45 minutes. They stay near the dive hole. They are not tethered. They can see the beam of light coming from above. They just go down to the sea floor to collect the specimens. There were times that I could see 80 feet down, I could see starfish on the bottom. The water is very clear. It’s not like diving in Lake George.
Q: Antarctica is bare, surreal. Those words could also describe your paintings.
A: It is kind of a natural fit. It’s funny talking about my work. I always get put in these landscape shows. And I am a landscaper, there’s no escaping that. But often what I am trying to do is using the landscape to evoke other things.
Q: What can you tell me about “Moat Melt,” your painting in the Mohawk Hudson Regional now at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls?
A: In camp, we are surrounded by these mountains. And you can see seven glaciers. When it gets warm out in early December, a little stream is coming from the hills and trickles down toward the ocean. We’re probably a hundred yards from the ocean. But it’s frozen, not open. Where the land ends and the sea ice begins, it’s moving ice because that’s where the pressure ridges are. In Explorer’s Cove, there’s a moat. It’s not very deep but you don’t want to fall through it. When that moat starts melting, it’s time to close up camp. I kind of exaggerated it to make it look more like open water.
Q: Twenty years ago, when digital art-making was just beginning, you were manipulating the landscape with your paintbrush.
A: Definitely. I tend to do the same shape over and over again. People talk about the female form in my landscape. That’s there. But that’s not always a conscious thing. I’ll do some sketching and I’ll start painting and there it is again. I don’t consciously do it.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: It’s a rocky path, a square painting that kind of goes off into the distance. Because I’ve made so many of these paintings, it’s like a variation on a theme. And I do have some Antarctic work in progress.
Q: Is there a story behind the rocky path painting?
A: I would rather leave that open-ended. But sometimes I do kind of feel that in my own head, I’m referencing certain things in my life, and making some kind of symbols for what’s going on. But they change as I’m painting them, too. It’s just sort of a starting point.
Q: Your paintings are all about 12 or 14 inches. Why?
A: I like that size because you have to get close to it. It’s the size of your head pretty much. So when you get close to it, it fills your field of vision.
Q: What’s your studio like?
A: My studio is a room in my house right now. I’m actually building a small studio. It’s going to be like a garage-type building, 16 by 24 feet.
Q: Where else can we see your work?
A: At the Laffer Gallery. It’s a group show, a landscape show. [“Tribute to Nature” closes today at the Schuylerville gallery, thelaffergallery.com]
Q: Are you an outdoorsy person?
A: I live up in the Adirondacks. I chop wood. I have a big garden. I’m self-sufficient in a lot of ways. I love to cross-country ski.
Q: Were you into science and art as a child?
A: I’ve always been interested in animals and insects. I was one of those kids that liked to get down on the ground and look at bugs.
Q: Did you know about foraminifera?
A: Foraminifera was completely new to me. Everyone had access to a microscope. It was a new world to me. Now I find that incredibly interesting.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up on Long Island. We would ride our bikes to the beach. The landscape there kind of got in my system at some level.
Q: How long have you lived in the Adirondacks?
A: I moved up here in 1996. I fell in love with the place.
Q: What’s your gallery job like?
A: I love working there. I’ve met so many artists. It’s a national call. It’s very competitive because it’s only six shows a year. We keep them small; solo or two- or three-person. We get great stuff in there. There are so many incredibly talented people in upstate New York.
To see more Laura Von Rosk paintings, go to www.lauravonrosk.com, where you’ll also find a link to a film about her Antarctic adventure.