Me and my rental car were lost, on a skinny gravel road that Google maps claimed was the way to Cedar Point Biological Station. I reached a padlocked gate and pulled over. At the same time, another car was headed away from the gate, so I waved it down and out stepped John Janovy, Jr., a familiar face in an unfamiliar place.
By happy accident, I had run into University of Nebraska professor emeritus, biologist, author, and former director of Cedar Point. He got me through the gate, letting me know that going in the front entrance is much easier. It was the start of my week as artist in residence at the station, where I would seek to deepen my connection with the Great Plains — my favorite place — and expand my knowledge of science — one of my favorite subjects — and put them together in art.
Along with artist for the week, I was also visiting as a representative of the Center for Great Plains Studies, where I am the associate director and communications coordinator. The Center is a home for interdisciplinary learning, just like Cedar Point.
Janovy himself, who has published both science and general writing with illustrations, is a great representation of what Cedar Point does: mixes many disciplines with the natural environment. It’s both a field research station and experiential classroom. During my week there, students in biology, forensic science, English, hospitality, and habitat and facilities management were taking classes, teaching, or fulfilling internships.
For an artist whose subject matter mostly ties to the Great Plains, Cedar Point is a paradise of inspiration: cabinets of pinned butterflies (watch out for that mothball smell), drawers of taxidermied species, a library of guidebooks, plus the surrounding environment. Much of my inspiration came from interacting with the students there. I traveled to Fort Robinson with an English class and listened in on their discussions about Crazy Horse. I ran across super hot sand on Lake McConaughy to find tiny frogs on the shoreline. I visited a parasitology class and learned about the squiggly creature in the microscope. I led an artmaking workshop with several students and encouraged them to get creative.
It was a place to push myself. I hiked, alone, through a wildflower field filled with wasps and didn’t scream. I scrambled to the top of one of the Cheyenne Buttes in 102 degree heat and didn’t pass out. Phone service wasn’t great, so I listened to the cicadas. I created art from the things actually around me, instead of a screen.
I spoke with the scholars around me and learned about what species were special to this place. I hung out with Associate Director Jon Garbisch, who gave a great tour, and Director John DeLong, who saved me from stepping on a bull snake. I saw the physical representation of almost everything I put into my art. I could hold my subject matter in my hand or see it flying out over the lake.
There’s a rhythm to Cedar Point. Breakfast early. Hike in the morning when it’s not too hot. Make art in the lodge until lunch. Then make art in the library where there’s AC in the afternoon or escape to the lake to cool off. Dinner at 5:30. Head back to the cabin and make art on the porch until sunset over the lake. Watch the biology students catch bugs after dark with their headlights bobbing along the gravel paths. For an artist, a student, a teacher, there’s nothing like experiencing your subject matter first hand and matching the rhythms of the place you’re in. It builds deeper connections, drives new ideas, and leaves lasting memories.
When I returned home to Lincoln, I found myself missing that rhythm that was so connected to daylight and the heat of the summer. But there are ways to find that place connection where you are. I spend a little more time watching the killdeer and ducks on my bicycle path to work. I keep my little Nebraska bird guide nearby and try to get a little more morning sunlight. I’ve learned that these trips to connect with my subject matter are so important whether they are near or far. For me, learning more about a place attaches me to it and makes me care even more about it. That can be learning about birds while wandering through the prairies outside Lincoln or attending one of the talks the Center for Great Plains Studies hosts.
Cedar Point and other opportunities for experiential and interdisciplinary learning are special. If you’re an artist, I encourage you to apply for the artist in residence program. If you’re a UNL student, think about taking a class there. If you’re a fan, consider supporting them.
Katie Nieland is the Associate Director and Communications Coordinator at the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska and a former journalist living in Lincoln, Neb. She also creates art for her business: Katie Nieland Art, which focuses on the bright and fun aspects of the Great Plains. See her artwork on Instagram @katienielandart or her website https://katienielandart.bigcartel.com/