Artist Lab Report:
Nature as a Creative Reset

by Calee Cecconi

Hello again, Iowa …

… it’s been a minute!

Although I now reside in the Twin Cities, I spent most of my life (outdoors!) in Iowa. I grew up in eastern Iowa, spending most summers floating the Maquoketa River, feeding ducks at Iowa City’s city park, and running to and around Pictured Rocks State Park. In my 20s and half of my 30s I hung around central Iowa (Ames and Des Moines) with lots of trips to Ledges State Park and McFarland Park. Other than to visit family, the trip to the Iowa Lakeside Lab marks my first return to Iowa since I moved to St. Paul in 2016. I didn’t realize how much I missed having rural Iowa’s easy-access pockets of nature until I arrived at the lab on Sunday.

Art Residency Intention: Creative Reset

I arrived at the lab at a weird time. Classes are over and everything is winding down for the summer. I was rescheduled from the 2020 residency program and my work schedule this summer was weird, so I couldn’t come earlier. I still wanted the opportunity to immerse myself in nature, chat with some researchers, and have some time dedicated to my art. I wish I could have come when everything was in full swing. But I’m making the most of my time here—there’s still a lot of nature happening out there!

On my drive to the lab, I decided that this residency could be a total creative reset. Aside from my last year of grad school, I haven’t had time to dedicate to my creative practice. I’ve always used my skills for a paycheck and/or loaned myself to others for their projects. And I’ve been working full-time design job and teaching 2-3 classes a semester for the last 5 years. Because of this, I have consistently suffered from burnout and felt seriously limited in my understanding of my own creative practice.

During my time at the Lakeside Lab, I am working to find the daily habits that most benefit my creative work. I am focusing on journaling, meditation and exercise, capturing images, ideation, and making. This week I found that journaling right after I wake up, then taking a walk gets my brain going. Something about bi-lateral movement helps me do my best thinking. I often need a post-walk journal/sketching/making session to get the ideas out of my brain. I can’t do this fast enough this week. The floodgates of creativity are open again.

Making as Meditation: Daily Sketch Practice

Making can be meditative. For me, drawing patterns puts me in a meditative state. I’m tapping into this during my residency by keeping a daily pattern sketchbook practice. I quickly coded a random art prompt generator Sunday night so I wouldn’t waste time deciding on subjects or media each day. For this, I plugged in the media I brought, added a few fun objects, and threw in a random colored background. (Randomness sneaks its way into pretty much everything I do.) As I spend more time at and around the lab, I’m adding more stuff to the object list. Here’s a little documentation about the sketchbook idea generator.

laptop computer with the words "cassette tape" and "marker" with a sketchbook open to a page of cassette tape drawings

Immersive Solo Nature Expeditions

Since I’m here at a weird time, there’s not much happening on campus anymore. The interns gave final research presentations when I got here, and most folks are starting to head out. I haven’t popped into the art studio space yet since I wanted to spend this week totally solo to make sure I accomplished the stuff I wanted to do before jumping in with other artists. I’m planning to check it out next week, and am going to Space Saloon’s public art exhibitions next week as well.

Since the Iowa Lakeside Lab is about studying nature in nature, I decided to design my own course of study by taking a solo expedition to a different nature location daily.

Monday, July 26: Around the Lab

Monday I spent the day getting my bearings around the lab. I was looking for invasive wildflowers and wasn’t disappointed—they’re everywhere around here. I also stumbled across an adorable pickerel frog hiding in the grass.

a pickerel frog sitting on the ground behind grass and twigs

Tuesday, July 27: Emerson Bay

Tuesday I ventured to Emerson Bay to grab more invasive plant life and landscape photos. I found this particularly spiky thistle.

a very spiky thistle

Wednesday, July 28: Okoboji Tourism

Admittedly Wednesday’s solo expedition was not a nature trip. But we were under both a heat advisory and an air quality alert on that day, so I decided to take advantage of other people’s air conditioning. I visited the Iowa Rock-and-Roll Museum and exchanged info with the curator there since I’m working on a music/design exhibition opening in January 2022. Then I poked around in a couple of antique malls (and found one heck of a record shop tucked in the back of one). And on a whim, I stopped into the Okoboji Classic Car Museum, which was a totally unexpected art and design find. Definitely not the “man cave” experience I expected.

A guitar, velvet pantsuit, and a record with a woman and a fan on the cover in a display case

Thursday, July 29: Kayaking Miller’s Bay

I was going to head out on a collection expedition with the interns but I missed the boat! So I grabbed a kayak and spent the afternoon on Miller’s Bay. I soaked a bunch of watercolor paper in the lake for some future paint experiments (ideally sans E. coli).

an oar overlooking lake water with green plant life

Friday, July 30: Recreational Trail by Gull Point

My morning walks are spent on the recreational trail that goes past the Lakeside Lab, but I’m usually deep in thought instead of paying attention to nature. So I took a longer, purposeful walk and spent time with the ducks, frogs, and a Great Blue Heron that was fishing at the pond near Gull Point. I didn’t bring my good camera, so sadly I missed a good shot of the heron.

prairie grasses and a pond with ducks and a great blue heron

Saturday, July 31: Horseshoe Bend

I set out for Freda Haffner Kettlehole State Preserve, but it was fenced off and I wasn’t sure which land was public and which was private. Since I have had run-ins on the Maquoketa River with not-so-friendly farmers wielding shotguns, I decided to hike around Horseshoe Bend instead. I captured some landscapes, wildflower images, bird and insect sounds/videos, and the (most likely haunted) playground equipment.

I want to go back to Horseshoe Bend for more videos and stills of the playground equipment and of tree trunks in various states of regrowth. A lot of my work is related to mental health and wellness. I’m at the beginning stages of a gallery show about trauma, and both of these images hold significance. The rotting playground equipment has a pretty obvious trauma connection, and I’ve been looking at tree trunk regrowth as a symbol of resilience for this show. Glad I ended up at Horseshoe Bend!

decaying rocking horse riding playground equipment trunk of a tree that has been cut down with sprouts of regrowth

Project Seedlings

Earlier in this post I mentioned the “floodgates of creativity” have opened. Here are some of the projects I’ve been working on so far.

Invasive Species + Repeat Surface Pattern Design

I’m collecting images and information about invasive species around the Iowa Lakeside Lab. One of the interns has been working on a mussel project, so we’ve been talking about zebra mussels at meal times. Zebra mussels are invasive to Iowa and Minnesota. I want to get a data set and more info from him before he leaves so that I have something to work with. I’d really like to go on a mussel collection expedition, but I think he’s done with the project for the summer.

Meanwhile, while I figure out data sets, I’m working on coding a draft with floral motifs, including native coneflowers and invasive thistles or burdock. Hopefully I’ll have something to share out by the end of my time here!

Physical 🔁 Digital Workflow(s)

Speaking of thistles, I spent some time this week working on streamlining a physical 🔁 digital workflow through a thistle repeat pattern. I’m interested in further melding physical and digital methods of making in my own practice and in my teaching. The most interesting stuff happens when I include both physical and digital making in my artwork. I also notice that students tend to silo these skills, so by creating workflows for myself I can teach students how to bring their skills together into their practices.

Here are a couple of screencaps of the thistle pattern process, specifically color scheming (my favorite step!). I like to work in bright, non-realistic colors.

artwork of bull thistles in a diamond pattern

The next screencap is from Illustrator. No matter what media I’m using, I like to use Illustrator’s re-color art tools to play with color combinations for pattern design. It’s a powerful tool that speeds through all possible color combinations using palettes you’ve input into it. This tool helps me visualize the impact of different color applications quickly across repeat patterns and other art. This tool only works on vector graphics, and I don’t like being beholden to vector art. I often use Illustrator’s blob brush and shape tools to quickly block out dummy vector versions of my art to take advantage of the re-color art tool. This practice helps me try lots of color combos I would have otherwise steered clear from if I were recoloring the artwork by hand.

several swatches of a repeat thistle pattern design and a color artwork tool on a computer screen

pink bull thistles on a yellow background with a diamond patterned backgroundLake Water/colors

I don’t typically do representational artwork, but I realized I want to include more representational work in the trauma gallery show I’m starting to think about. This week I started sketching landscapes I found around the lab. I decided it would be fun to stretch my watercolor paper using actual lake water. (Although after hearing about the water quality sample results from the interns at lunch, maybe this isn’t the best idea…) I soaked and stretched my paper so it’s ready to use this week.

I’m enjoying my time at the lab and am so grateful for this opportunity. Thanks for reading!

“Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways”
Alex Braidwood
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artists-in-Residence Program
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