Artists in Antarctica

A hot spot for scientists, art is also alive and well in Antarctica

Feb 04, 2014 | By David Bjerklie
COURTESY JYNNE MARTIN

Poet Jynne Martin poses for a photo at McMurdo Station.

For as long as they can remember Jynne Martin and April Surgent had both dreamed of going to Antarctica. This winter, they each made it to the icy continent as guests of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But they didn't go as scientists. Martin is a poet and Surgent is an artist. They went to Antarctica as participants in the NSF's Artists and Writers program. The NSF is the government agency that funds scientific research in Antarctica. But it also makes it possible for artists, including filmmakers and musicians, to experience Antarctica and contribute their own points of view to our understanding of the continent.

Explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice on his last voyage to the Antarctic.
CORBIS
Explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice on his last voyage to the Antarctic.

Where Science and Art Meet

The mixing of science and art in Antarctica isn't new. Some of the earliest explorers brought along painters and photographers. Edward Wilson was a British painter, doctor, and ornithologist (bird expert) who journeyed with Robert Falcon Scott on two separate Antarctic expeditions more than 100 years ago.* Herbert Ponting was a photographer who also accompanied Scott on one of those expeditions. In hundreds of photos, Ponting captured the beauty of the continent and recorded the daily lives and heroic struggles of the explorers.

Frank Hurley was a photographer who documented the expedition led by British explorer Ernest Shackleton. Some of the most dramatic and famous photographs ever taken of Antarctica were taken by Hurley.

A Critical Collaboration

"It's important for scientists and artists to work together," says Surgent, who spent six weeks at Palmer Station, the smallest of the U.S. research bases. "You need a lot of different perspectives and points of view to explain the world." One of Surgent's projects at Palmer was to use homemade pinhole cameras to take photographs that slowly developed over several days. “We are so used to digital cameras and instant images,” says Surgent. “This project was a way to slow down and really look and see again.”

Martin followed four different scientific teams on the ice and wrote articles and poems inspired by her experience. "Each day was the new 'best day of my life,'" said Martin, who said she also loved spending time in the library at the McMurdo Station reading the journals of early explorers. 

Explaining the Research

Today's scientists write articles for scientific journals. Unlike the early explorers' journals, scientific papers can now be very difficult for non-scientists to understand. Writers in Antarctica work to explain the research to the public. Peter Rejcek is editor, writer, and photographer for the Antarctic Sun, an online magazine devoted to news about the U.S. Antarctic Program. Rejcek began his career in the Antarctic in 2003 by spending a year at the South Pole. He has returned every year since, interviewing scientists about research at Palmer, McMurdo, and South Pole stations.

There are also scientists in Antarctica who work hard to explain their research to the public. Scientist Diane McKnight wrote The Lost Seal, a children's book that explains the research she and others are doing in an unusual ice-free area in Antarctica called the Dry Valleys.

Antarctica is full of stories and wonders that are scientific, historical, and personal. People such as Martin, Surgent, Rejcek, and McKnight are dedicated to bringing those stories to as many people as they can. "Some people are going to be scientists, some people are going to be journalists, some people are going to be artists, but we can all work together," says Surgent, “to celebrate this extraordinary place.”