Artist Laura Von Rosk has traveled to the end of the earth for the sake of science.
Von Rosk spent the fall of 2011 in Antarctica with a team of researchers, led by Albany biologist Samuel Bowser, analyzing sediment samples in search of foraminifera, a single-celled aquatic organism.
“It was fun for me to do something I’ve never done before. I’ve always been interested in science,” said Von Rosk, a painter and director of the Lake George Arts Project’s Courthouse Gallery. “It was fascinating for me to get immersed in somebody else’s world.”
Although the project is pure science, Bowser chose Von Rosk to be part of team “Bravo 043” based on her artistic skills.
“Artists are good at recognizing patterns, which helps in picking out specimens,” said Bowser, who also paints and takes photographs. “They have technical skills and can work with tools, and their brains and eyes can pick up the things we need.”
Von Rosk and Bowser will show art inspired by the research in “AntARTica: Exploring Art and Science at the Bottom of the World,” an exhibit running March 30 through April 24 at the Widlund Gallery at Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek. They will speak about the research trip on March 30 at the gallery.
Bowser, a scientist with the Wadsworth Center of the New York Department of Health, has traveled to Antarctica more than 20 times since 1984 to study the oceanic foraminifera, also known as forams, as part of his work on cell structure and function. He has brought several artists along for the research, including musician Henry Kaiser, who also is an underwater diver.
“The artists are there to work, but they have an experience — and then they take that back and share it with other people,” Bowser said.
Von Rosk spent more than two months in Antarctica, primarily working at Explorers Cove, a remote field camp at the base of Taylor Valley, west of McMurdo Station. In addition to the artist, Bowser’s team included scientists Jan Pawlowski and Andy Gooday and divers Cecil Shin, Danielle Woodward and Hilary Hudson.
“The whole team is there for a single purpose. We are on a mission to collect these little specimens of forams,” Von Rosk said.
For the artist, that meant conducting detailed analysis of samples the divers brought in from the ocean floor.
“I was sitting at a microscope looking for 12 species. They are all shaped a little bit differently. They look almost like these little jewels,” she said.
The work became more intuitive for Von Rosk as the project progressed.
“Once I knew what I was looking for, it was like a treasure hunt,” she said.
Although the forams are tiny, the organisms Von Rosk was seeking are actually giants compared to species in other parts of the world.
“Most creatures in Antarctica are very large, which is why Sam gets his forams down there. They are easier to work with,” she said.
The single-celled amoeboids remain primitive near the southernmost continent, according to Bowser.
“That’s where the dinosaurs are — they are ancient,” he said of the organisms in his research.
Studying the creatures might have practical applications for humans. According to Bowser, the forams secrete a gluelike substance used to meld grains of sand.
“Perhaps it could be used in biotechnology or medicine,” Bowser said. “It could be used for drug delivery or suture surgery, for example.”
The researchers worked during the summer season, which actually falls during North America’s colder months — but even summer on the continent can be frigid. To prepare newcomers for the experience, the team puts them though an exposure exercise.
“You have a couple of days of training when you get there. You stay overnight in a tent, and you learn to cook in the cold,” Von Rosk said.
In addition to teaching survival skills, the activity is meant as a rude awakening.
“The real purpose is to make sure you are so miserable that you will never end up doing something stupid,” Bowser said.
The bitter, dry weather with fierce winds meant the group saw little snow fall. The sun was visible at all hours of the day, and ice surrounded them.
“You can’t tell the difference between the ice and the shoreline,” Bowser said. “It’s all covered in sand or snow, which is blown in from somewhere else.”
Although Von Rosk had little time to work on art during the trip because of the hectic research schedule, she did some playful sketches on an iPad and took photographs. When she returned to her home in Schroon Lake, she began to process the expedition.
Von Rosk is known for dreamlike landscape paintings, often lush with vegetation. After her Antarctic journey, icy scenery became more prevalent in her work.
“I was immersed in this white world, but I realized that it’s not really a barren landscape. There are a lot of different shades of white,” she said.
Von Rosk said she was intrigued by the simplicity of the environment.
“When you don’t have a lot of distractions in the landscape, you notice different things. The sun never really sets there, and the light is always changing,” she said.
Von Rosk and Bowser, who first met when the biologist was working on the “Raising the Fleet” exhibit in 2009 in Lake George, have appeared together several times to share their experiences with schools and community groups.
Although people are interested in Bowser’s research and details about the rarely-seen continent, one question comes up more than any other, according to the biologist.
“’How did you go to the bathroom?’ That’s the one they always ask,” Bowser said with a laugh.