By Sydney Widell
When Rebecca Jabs, Trout Lake Station’s 2017 Artist in Residence, arrived on station, she was captivated by the series of old photographs that hang in its main lab.
In the photographs, which date back to the early 1900s, men dressed in suits haul long nets through the water off the sides of boats. They were looking, she was told, for zooplankton, or the microscopic animals that drift through the water.
As a science illustrator, these photographs and stories captured Rebecca’s imagination. So, when Carl Watras, a DNR researcher based at Trout Lake, offered to take her on the lake to cast nets of her own, she said yes.
Back at the lab, Rebecca studied the samples she’d taken under a microscope, and what she saw amazed her. The tiniest drops of water were teeming with life — colonies of translucent zooplankton floating in and out of her field of view.
“They are such an important part of our ecosystem,” Rebecca said. “We never even think about them when we are swimming or near water, but they’re there.”
Rebecca said her visions under the microscope inspired her as she began to paint. The resulting artwork, Zooplankton of the Great Lakes, is a digital painting that illustrates some of the species she collected at Trout Lake.
A year later, one copy of that painting hangs at Trout Lake Station. The other is on its way to Washington, D.C., where it will be featured at the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators’ 50th Anniversary Conference next month.
“It is a pretty big honor to be selected for that exhibit,” Rebecca said.
A second piece by Rebecca, also inspired by her residency, is on display at Trout Lake now as well. The gouache landscape Crystal Bog, widens the minute perspective she used to approach Zooplankton of the Great Lakes and is a departure from the hyper-realistic style that characterizes most of her work.
“A bog is a pretty magical place,” Rebecca said. “If you’re walking through a woods, it’s more familiar. But then you step out into this opening and there are these strange plants and squishy ground covered with sphagnum moss and enclosed by tamarack all the way around the edge — I wanted to recreate that feeling.”
But Rebecca also realized that feeling is something not everyone gets to experience. That’s part of the reason she said she chose to paint Crystal Bog as a landscape and to feature as many plants as she could. Normally, she said she paints her subjects without background context, which is more typical of science illustration.
“If you’ve never been to Crystal Bog, it’s not easy to find your way there,” Rebecca said. “You don’t know where you’re going. But I remember feeling so excited to learn the name and characteristics of every plant I saw, and I was asking a lot of questions and thumbing through guide books as I tried to give everything a name and a place in my understanding of what a bog is.”
Rebecca said she often uses art to achieve that understanding.
“I wanted to learn more and the way I make art is always such an incredible learning process,” Rebecca said. “Once I render something, I’m reading about it and learning so much about it. That way I really get to know my subjects — I’ve spent so much time studying and drawing them.”
Rebecca has only been working as a science illustrator since 2016, but it’s something she said she’s always imagined herself doing. Before she returned to school to pursue that dream, she taught art in the Wisconsin Public School System.
In many ways, she said her roles as a teacher and a science illustrator are similar.
“Science illustration is a form of education,” Rebecca said. “You’re bringing concepts to life, essentially. Education is central to what i’m doing.”
Zooplankton of the Great Lakes and Crystal Bog were not painted as a set, Rebecca said. However, she still sees them working in tandem to express the larger relationships that connect freshwater ecosystems.
“Every aspect of limnology is interconnected and I really appreciated learning how factors all influence each other,” Rebecca said. “So in that respect, both of them catalogue different species of a particular environment. They are not completely unrelated, although they are not intended as a connected set of pieces.”
Following her exhibit in Washington, D.C., Rebecca will be opening a show at the UW-Madison Arboretum’s Steinhauer Trust Gallery, beginning Sept. 9.
To see more of Rebecca's work, please visit her website
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