Maria Coryell-Martin is an artist who works, as she says, “in the tradition of traveling artists as naturalists and educators.” She combines field art and science, traveling to polar and glaciated regions and collaborating with scientific teams to create paintings for exhibit, presentations, and workshops.
Whether she’s imagining the arctic or depicting migratory birds, we admire the way Maria captures atmosphere and imbues emotion into her interpretations of places. Don’t those big bleeding clouds make you feel something?
More than just documenting a place or her own experience, Maria’s creative work from the field and studio, along with her Expeditionary Art blog, increase environmental awareness.
She also hopes to inspire observation and inquiry in others, and her art toolkits quite literally equip people to create wherever they go. Maria makes the poles feel closer, and painting feel not so intimidating. It’s been a pleasure to learn more bout her and her creative process.
Learn more in her own words.
A major aspect of your work Expeditionary Art is the combination of art and science. Tell us about your passion for these, and what is special about drawing them together in your work.
I’ve always loved science and grew up thinking I wanted to be a field biologist, inspired in part by my father’s polar research. To me, science represents staying curious about the world, making observations, asking questions, and looking for answers.
As my professional path focused more on art, I kept following my passion for outdoor exploration and immersing myself in making quiet observations of the natural world. Art and science are not always so different!
My friend, the biologist Kristin Laidre, observed,
“There are parallels between art and science, how both perceive and interpret the world, using creativity to inspire others.”
I’m interested in making my paintings more than just beautiful pictures. Each one is part of a story from an expedition and our changing world. I hope they may spark people’s curiosity about science and our environment.
You often paint landscapes that many people don’t have the opportunity to visit in person. When you’re depicting these lesser-seen places, how is interpretation important?
I feel incredibly fortunate to have painted in the remote regions I’ve visited, from the Antarctic Peninsula to the Greenlandic coast and the North Slope of Alaska. My paintings are not a literal replica of the landscapes. They reflect my interpretation and interest—I focus on the elements and stories that capture my attention, from icebergs’ sculpted forms to the expansive polar sky.
Viewers may bring their interpretations as well, finding connections to their own experiences. I believe art can be a two-way street, what we communicate as artists and what we bring to the art as viewers.
In an Instagram post, you called out capturing the light, atmosphere, and scale of polar and glaciated regions to be both a physical and emotional process for you. Can you speak more about this?
Part of my love for the polar regions is rooted in the vast scale of the landscape. There’s both the geological scale of time, present in the massive glaciers and carved shorelines, as well as the physical space. I feel humbled and feel part of something bigger. I am also aware of the fragility of these highly specialized ecosystems—they are rapidly changing with global warming.
It’s challenging to capture the scale and light of these spaces in my smaller field sketches. Home in my studio, I can work on larger sheets of paper (such as 24″ x 24″) and take the time for my watercolors to dry in smooth layers of paint.
Painting this large can be exciting and a little daunting to get started. I usually start with the most extensive areas, such as the sky or water. I dampen my paper, typically working on a lightweight sheet of gatorboard. Then I take a deep breath and apply paint in broad, sweeping strokes, moving my whole body. As the paper dries, I set it aside and wait. Will the painting work out? Maybe, but one way or another, I’ll learn and move forward in my vision and practice.
There’s a quote I often think about from the book Art and Fear:
“Vision is ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is our contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.”
In expeditions and other travel, you work between the field and studio. We’re curious about the process of moving between them—how do the tools, techniques, and headspace differ in these places?
My fieldwork is all about discovering my “palette of place,” a vocabulary of color, climate, landscape, and experience. I relate to scientists gathering data as I record as much as possible, from sketches to photographs and audio recordings.
My field tools are small and lightweight so that I can keep them with me at all times. Due to changing weather and limited timeframes, I’ve learned to sketch very quickly. Helicopters don’t wait for watercolors to dry!
My studio gives me the time and space to explore my fieldwork (sketches, notes, and photographs) more deliberately. Indoors, I can work larger and create layered watercolor washes to capture subtle light and atmosphere.
One of your other passions is empowering others to use art in their own explorations. You help equip artists with kits and also encourage us to create ‘in between’ and when we can. Tell us more about your intention to inspire expression.
I believe in art as a tool, not a talent. So many of us stopped making art in grade school and have a sense of “I can’t draw.” I hope to inspire people to move beyond the idea of talent and delight in the process of creation. We can use art as a tool for observation, exploration, self-expression, meditation, scientific inquiry, and more!
I developed the Art Toolkit and Pocket Palette for my own field expeditions and am so thrilled to share these tools with others. I hope that having small, portable, well-designed materials will inspire others to explore the world through art.
Like a camera, the sketchbook you carry is the one you will use. We all have full lives, but there are often moments “in-between” where we can make time to sketch. Maybe it’s waiting for a ferry or a break on a hike or bike ride. Perhaps it’s waiting for an appointment or waiting for your coffee to brew. Simple sketches can be completed in just a few minutes and can bring joy to your day!
Learn more about Maria at ExpeditionaryArt.com and see more on Instagram, @ExpeditionaryArt and @ArtToolKit. She Explores readers can use discount code SheExplores on discountable Art Toolkit items through the end of the month!