A different perspective
NSF program lifts the arts to equal standing with science in Antarctica
Posted November 29, 2007
Guy Guthridge flashes an image onto a museum wall of cartoonist Bill Watterson’s iconic character Calvin making one of his droll observations about life.
In the panel, Calvin remarks to no one in particular, “That’s the whole problem with science. You have a bunch of empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder.”
While not suggesting scientists are incapable of describing their work beyond prosaic terms, Guthridge does want his audience in Laramie, Wyo., to understand that art deserves more than lip service from specialists in other disciplines.
He spent 35 years of his life with the National Science Foundation (NSF) pushing that point, playing a pivotal role in creating the foundation’s unique Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. The program has drawn the likes of well-known photographer Norbert Wu and filmmaker Werner Herzog to the Ice in recent years.
Such modern-day artists, Guthridge would argue, are part of a rich and long lineage that dates back to the earliest polar explorers. Men like Robert Falcon Scott, who famously perished with his four companions on their return trip from the South Pole, employed a sort of staff photographer. The pictures taken by Herbert Ponting during the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13 remain iconic images of any era.
“If you look backwards [to the past] … It would have been abnormal not to have artists and writers to an expedition to the Antarctic or to the American West or wherever you were going,” Guthridge says during an interview at the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie, Wyo.
Looking fit and 10 years younger than his recent 66th birthday would suggest, Guthridge has been invited to speak about art in Antarctica for the museum’s three-month-long exhibition featuring seven artists whose works portray the icy continent in all its majesty and brutality.
In addition to Ponting’s landscapes, the Antarctica exhibition features works on display by Eliot Furness Porter, one of the first fine art photographers to visit the continent under the NSF Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, as well as four contemporary photographers and one sound artist similarly supported – Stuart Klipper, Neelon Crawford, Jody Forster, Joan Myers and Douglas Quin.
An old friend of Guthridge’s thanks to their long collaboration in the program, Crawford is also in attendance at the exhibition that features several of his large format images that use a technique called photogravure, a photomechanical process in which an image is transferred to a copper plate that is chemically etched. For each print, the plate is hand-inked, creating a rich image.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Crawford first went to the Ice in 1989. His voice deep and words measured, the Wyoming-based photographer still seems awed by the experience. But not by just the beauty that he captured in five trips to Antarctica, including two winters, but a program that allowed him such access in the first place.
“My mouth dropped open, because it was so clean. … The cleanliness of saying, ‘We’re not giving you any money, but we’re giving you all the support and you can do whatever you want, as you defined it, and you own the results,” he says.
“It was the gift of time,” Crawford adds. “I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.”
The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program offers grantees the same sort of logistical support as scientists while working on the continent. They aren’t paid for their effort, but the NSF doesn’t attach many strings to the deal either.
Notes Guthridge, “It’s unique … in the art world for sponsorship of art, but enabling artistic freedom is not unique for the National Science Foundation. That’s the way science is supported.”
Guthridge’s work to build the program moved in fits and starts in the program’s nascent period. Hired on with the NSF as editor of the Antarctic Journal of the United States in 1970, the aspiring man of letters decided early on that he wanted to wed the “beauty of words with the wonders of science.”
He certainly raised a few eyebrows back in those days. But Guthridge took inspiration from a presidential memorandum – issued the same year he was hired – that instructed NSF to maintain, “an active and influential presence in Antarctica designed to support the range of U.S. Antarctic interests.”
He took that directive to include the interests of the arts and humanities. By the 1980s, the core of the program had taken shape. In 1982, Guthridge supported a proposal by historian Stephen J. Pyne. The result, five years later, was a New York Times best book. Documentaries, Smithsonian exhibitions and a library worth of projects followed.