Exploring nature with an artist is like seeing the world with new eyes. Last week I brought Conservation Artist Mollie Doctrow to one of Archbold’s oak hammocks.
Mollie brought everything she needed to plug herself into the natural world: a small fold-up chair, a sketchbook, a large notepad, a camera, and a backpack with drawing supplies. After meeting up at Archbold Biological Station, we set out in a pickup truck to Archbold’s ranch, the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center, also known as Buck Island Ranch. Much of the Ranch’s 10,500 acres is pastureland, but there are also ditches, a large canal, hundreds of seasonal wetlands, and several oak hammocks. The oak hammocks are shady forests growing on land that is a little higher and dryer than their surroundings.
After walking around the hammock for only a few minutes she found a tree she wanted to draw. An hour and a half later, when she was finished with her drawing, it was time to go, but we decided to take a little longer to explore. A moment later we encountered a magnificent and ancient Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). Its branches seemed to reach forever in all directions and were home to many ferns and air plants. The sight was awe inspiring. When I showed a photo of the tree to Archbold researchers, none had seen it before and didn’t know its age, but it is likely a few hundred years old. In fact, this tree may even have been alive since before the first Europeans ever visited Florida. Mollie immediately felt a connection with it, so we decided to stay the rest of the afternoon.
Mollie is known for making woodcut prints of landscapes and endangered plants in Florida. She told me that making art is a powerful emotional experience for her. She explained that it isn’t emotions like happiness or sadness she feels, but an intense connection with her surroundings and the forces of time and nature. For instance, when drawing a tree she tries to understand its root system and the story of how it was shaped by geology, sunlight, and weather.
Mollie’s artwork helps people fall in love with Florida’s natural wonders. Part of this is because Mollie tries to stay true to the places she represents. She told me, “I certainly take liberties as an artist by moving things around in the landscape or simplifying forms, but I would not put a tree in a landscape if it didn’t grow there.” To do this, she has to learn about science. One of her favorite ways to learn is to visit Archbold Biological Station and spend time with the researchers and educators there. Mollie is an artist inspired by her emotional response to nature, but staying up to date on Archbold’s ecological research is an important part of her process.
The sketches Mollie made of the ancient Live Oak may eventually get worked into a more complete drawing or print. I really hope she does this, because I would love to see how it comes out. For now, I’ll just look forward to the next time I can take an artist out to the oaks. Who knows what we will find?
- See more of Mollie Doctrow’s work at her website.
- Mollie is also the curator of the South Florida State College’s Museum of Florida Arts and Culture and the creator of the Wildflower Wayside Shrine Trails at SFSC and Archbold.
- Learn more about the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center our website.
- Learn more about Live Oaks here.
Written and photographed by Dustin Angell, Archbold’s Education Coordinator