Artists and Scientists Collaborate to Produce Artful Depictions of the Eastern Shore’s Ghost Forests

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Four of the 10 artists of the Ghosts of the Coast exhibit gather amid their work at the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo. From left are Carole Boggemann Peirson, Miriam Riggs, Donna Stufft, and Thelma Peterson. The exhibit will open online Nov. 1 at coastaleducation.virginia.edu. Photo by Jim Ritch.

By Carol Vaughn —

A collaboration between scientists and artists resulted in a virtual art gallery that highlights the ghost forests of the Eastern Shore.
The show opens Nov. 1 at the website www.coastaleducation.virginia.edu
No, a ghost forest is not a woods haunted by spirits of dead people.
The term is used to describe standing dead trees that mark the transition between high land and salt marshes retreating from the rising sea, according to Cora Johnston Baird, site director at U.Va.’s Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster.
The center is hosting the virtual show, Ghosts of the Coast.
Ghost forests tell the story of the changing coastline to both scientists and artists.
Their formation “is an old phenomenon that is now happening faster, like the melting of glaciers. The Chesapeake and Delmarva regions, which have one of the world’s highest rates of sea level rise, are a window into the future for the rest of the world,” according to a description for the exhibit.
“The goal is to make it an interactive, exploratory exhibit,” Johnston Baird said.
The effort involves five core scientists and several guests, as well as ten local artists who were chosen to participate out of around 28 who applied.
The artists work in paints, fiber arts, silver point, steel sculpture, and photography, among other media.
Artworks in the gallery will be available for purchase from the artists.
Participating artists are: Laura McGowan, Carole Pierson, Miriam Riggs, Donna Stufft, Thelma Peterson, Moe Spector, Marty Burgess, Barbara Hennig-Loomis, Buck Doughty, and Helene Doughty.
A Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ghostsofthecoast, also was created to document the months-long process that resulted in the exhibit.
The idea came together after Johnston Baird began talking a few years ago with colleagues from other research centers where art/science collaborations were being done. The center at Oyster is part of a national network of long-term ecological research centers.

Artist Thelma Peterson poses at the Barrier Islands Center with some of her artwork created for the virtual Ghosts of the Coast exhibit. Photo by Jim Ritch.

In summer 2019, the Lemon Tree Gallery in Cape Charles invited scientists from the center to a “conversation cafe” about art/science collaboration.
Many of the artists who ended up participating in Ghosts of the Coast attended.
Feedback from that conversation included requests for scientists to take artists into the field to see their research methods firsthand.
Still, there needed to be a starting point — a theme upon which to focus.
That winter, the national media started to give significant attention to research about ghost forest formation being done by scientists of the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research program and elsewhere — including Keryn Gedan, Ezra Kottler, and Sarah Noyes, of George Washington University; Alex Smith, of VIMS; and Elliott White, of the University of Virginia.
The media coverage resulted in articles in the New York Times, Time magazine, and other publications.
Johnston Baird saw that people were finding the topic intriguing. She also realized that, although Eastern Shore artists often depict coastlines, “you don’t often see (them) depicting ghost forests.”
She approached Gedan and McGowan with the idea of promoting an art/science “co-exploration” of ghost forests, which would bring public attention to the topic through art.
“We almost cancelled it for COVID (but) we decided everything was getting cancelled and everybody kind of needed something positive. So we had to get creative with it,” Johnston Baird said.
The original plan — to have scientists and artists go together on excursions to local ghost forests and pursue activities there jointly — had to be changed because of pandemic restrictions.
Still, the project went ahead.
Between online discussions, sharing information about ghost forest locations and ideas about what to look for once there, and mini-field trips by individuals to explore the sites safely, the collaboration progressed over the past several months.
Participants would explore sites on their own, then come together virtually to discuss what they had seen.
Scientists over a series of virtual meetings gave brief presentations on topics about which artists asked.
Kottler said the collaboration is valuable and makes sense.
“Both artists and scientists use keen observation of natural systems to make new discoveries,” he said, adding, “Scientists can help artists by giving them a deeper understanding of the drivers of things they are observing in nature: how and why things are changing in the way they are. And one way artists can really improve science outreach is in their ability to communicate a message through a visual medium, and produce works with real emotional impact.
“Particularly when it comes to issues of environmental conservation, we need to connect with people on an emotional level in order to promote changes that will protect both ecosystems and the people that live in or near them for decades to come.”
Artist Miriam Riggs can see the changes to the coastline happening right from her front door.
For the past two decades, she has lived and worked from a rustic old fisherman’s cottage near Broadway, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

Artist Miriam Riggs poses at the Barrier Islands Center with some of her artwork created for the virtual Ghosts of the Coast exhibit. Photo by Jim Ritch.

Her home is close to a marshy area with many ghost trees, mainly cedars and pines. The road leading to it floods more and more often in recent years.
“It is only recently that I have learned about the natural process that these trees represent. I now realize I am living within a larger ghost forest area, and that the property where I have put my life’s savings is transitioning into a different form of ecosystem,” Riggs said, adding, “At this point, rather than retreat, I wish to study and celebrate the beauty of our ghost forests, just as I have sought to examine the eelgrass beds, freshwater ponds, and salt marshes.”
Riggs also for the past decade has designed exhibits for the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, work which has led to her “becoming immersed in the study of man’s struggle to thrive in rugged coastal areas where nature seems to ultimately prevail.”
Kottler said scientists in their study of the Shore’s coastal habitats “are observing extreme and concerning changes: forests dying back, invasive species moving in, loss of arable farmland, and loss of marsh habitat to erosion and subsidence.”
Still, he said, “there is also a glimmer of hope in the darkness: if we are able to accept how things are changing and work to develop adaptive strategies that are informed by the science — such as allowing native marsh to migrate into coastal forest and managing invasive species, developing salt tolerant crops etc. — we have a much stronger chance of keeping pace and maintaining the economic, cultural and ecological benefits of coastal habitats as these changes continue.”