Art and Science Collide at Appledore Island

The famous island has dual personalities

photo by liz davenport
Gardens maintained on the island are tributes to Celia Thaxter, one of Appledore’s most famous denizens, who died there in August 1894.

The Isles of Shoals are, as a whole, an intriguing bunch, full of ghost stories, pirate legends and Colonial history. Of all the islands in this small chain, Appledore Island, the largest, is one of the most interesting. The experience on Appledore Island is a blend of history, art, nature and science that permeates the island’s beautiful gardens and rocky shorelines. The symbiosis of these seemingly disparate fields often leaves visitors with a sense of wonder and a desire to discover.

In the late 19th century, the island — seven miles off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine — was an artists’ retreat. Writers, painters and creators of all kinds used the island’s 95 acres for escape and inspiration. Remnants of these creative times still linger on other islands, but over the course of the last 51 years, the Shoals Marine Laboratory (SML), run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, has turned the island into an outdoor classroom with the largest program for undergraduate research in the country. The island is not closed to the public — everyone is invited to take part in the immersive programs SML offers to learn, experience and still, to this day, create.

Just over 8,000 people — researchers and students involved with SML aside — visit Appledore Island each season. The island is open to the public from mid-May until mid-September, and the only way to reach its shores (very experienced swimmers may be excluded from this fact) is on a ferry run by the laboratory. As long as the students are on the island, the public can explore the island via walking tours — around 10 per season, according to SML’s executive director, Jennifer Seavey. The Garden Walking Tour explores the restored and maintained gardens of poet and essayist Celia Thaxter. It was Thaxter who turned the island into an artists’ retreat. She hosted artists at her home on the island, creating a renowned salon. The era’s leading musicians, writers and painters came from all over to spend time there until her death in 1894. History and science enthusiasts, meanwhile, will enjoy the Island History Tour, which also includes the lab.

“Best way to get there is on one of these tours or on one of these family programs, and we will take care of everything,” says Seavey. “You just get to the dock in Portsmouth and that’s it.”

More extensive programming for the public begins in the middle of August, after the students leave the island. It is within these programs that everyone can experience the island as the researchers do, and maybe even how the artists did centuries before. The retreats during this time vary in focus from writing and cooking to ecology and art. Seavey notes that the introduction of art into both the retreats and the undergraduate program is in part to pay homage to the rich artistic history of the island, and to express the belief that creative thinking is an asset for all scientists, a skill that can be strengthened by art.

“Good science stems from asking good questions, and finding a good, juicy question means being a critical, creative thinker,” says Seavey. “You can look at your ecological system in many ways, and a great way to hone and develop your skills in observation is to have art experiences.”

The Artist in Residence (AIR) program brings artists and students of science together. As in the days of Thaxter’s salon, artists spend time on Appledore working on their own projects, but they also spend time with the students, hopefully inspiring them to look at their research in different ways. New Hampshire artist Christopher Volpe has taught students during their time at the lab. He encouraged young researchers to use creativity as a means of exploring and synthesizing the knowledge they gain in their academic work, and the emotions surrounding it, in expressive forms.

Scientists, says Volpe, are fueled by a passion to know. In a moment of wonder, they are fired up with inspiration. Artists, he believes, are fueled by the same passion, so though it is rare that these two disciplines interact so closely, in his perspective it makes complete sense that they should. Seavey agrees and believes that AIR creates a mutually beneficial relationship for both the artists and students. It’s not just the students that are influenced by this partnership, but the artists too.

“Science starts bleeding into their [the artist’s] work — it’s a really wonderful two-way street,” says Seavey.

Appledore Island has changed over time, from a Colonial village to an artists’ retreat and now a center of scientific research, but it remains an inspiration for those who are willing to learn from it.

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