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Devon Hugdahl, artist in residence at Sauk Creek

Devon Hugdahl: Artist in residence at Sauk Creek Nature Preserve

April 21, 2020  |  Topics: featured artist

The Natural Realm presents Devon Hugdahl, who is one of 12 artists participating in a year-long residency program called ARTservancy, a collaboration between Gallery 224 in Port Washington and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. The mission of ARTservancy is to promote the visionary work of both the artists and conservationists. Each artist has selected a preserve to spend time in and to engage with.

Artist statement by Devon Hugdahl

I approach art with reverence and awe. It is my hope that these attitudes will inform this residency.

There are several interrelated components to the work I am undertaking during the residency period: aesthetic, scientific and social/educational.

The artist walking the woodland trail next to Sauk Creek.
Photo by Eddee Daniel.

First, I am relinquishing control of the creative process and allowing nature to create the aesthetic in a series of canvases. My aim is to examine Sauk Creek Nature Preserve from a perspective that goes beyond the surface, beyond trees and flowers, to what makes the ecosystem of the preserve a living organism. To this end, I am having the creek “paint” the canvases. By partially submerging the canvas in the creek for a period of time, I hope to show the rise and fall of the water. In this way the creek will leave a high-water mark as well as deposit debris, algae, and dirt directly onto the canvas. This will result in an image of the creek’s flow and varying depths. When installed these canvases will be titled with the dates they were submerged, illustrating changes in the creek over time. 

The artist removing a canvas from Sauk Creek.
The artist removing a canvas from Sauk Creek.
Photo by Eddee Daniel

This is all very experimental. To date some elements have been successful and some have failed. Another such experiment is intended to show the human tread in the preserve. To this end, I have attached a canvas to the underside of Sauk Creek Preserve’s only bridge. Debris falling through the cracks in the bridge decking should give a sense of the foot traffic in and out of the preserve.

Canvas installed underneath Sauk Creek bridge.
Canvas installed underneath Sauk Creek bridge.

For my scientific research, I am taking monthly water samples from the creek using a kit from EarthEcho International. I test for Ph, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, temperature and phosphorus content. The EarthEcho Water Challenge is an international water monitoring program aimed at all ages and abilities. Results are added to an online database that tracks water quality around the globe. I will also use my data to create graphs showing the rise and fall of these elements in the preserve. My intention is to demonstrate how this place is affected by everything around it, including the miles of agricultural land Sauk Creek runs through before entering lake Michigan. I reveal the creek to be an organism within its ecosystem, an ecosystem that is greatly influenced by human hands. 

The artist testing for phosphorus.
Testing for phosphorus. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

Too much phosphorus can cause excessive growth of aquatic plants as well as algae blooms. Phosphorus is added in large quantities to farm fields in the form of fertilizer. Some of this runs off during rainfall and into the creek. Sauk Creek travels through approximately eight miles of agricultural land before entering the preserve. Then, farther downstream, it empties into Lake Michigan.

Testing for Dissolved Oxygen.
Testing for Dissolved Oxygen. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

Dissolved Oxygen is important for all aquatic life. Too much Dissolved Oxygen can cause algae blooms, and too little can cause die offs of fish or other aquatic animals.

For the educational component of the project I am building a bike trailer/field station that will contain materials for scientific exploration, scavenger hunts and nature-based art-making. I see this field station as an opportunity to engage the public both in the ARTservancy project and the land trust. The bike trailer/field station is a work in progress. Once the wheels are attached, it is meant to be pulled behind a bicycle.

Bike trailer under construction.

The final component of this residency will be a site-specific installation in the gallery space during the exhibition. My intention is to express the nature of threats to the preserve by invasive species. The major threats are honeysuckle and garlic mustard. The site was once agricultural land and all the forest growth is first generation. These smaller trees have a hard time competing with honeysuckle, which is widespread. Another aggressive invasive species is Chinese lantern, which has infested the ruins of a homestead located within the preserve.

My plan for the installation is to cut large quantities of these invasive plants and place them in the harbor-facing windows at Gallery 224. I would like to make them thick enough to block the view through the window, illustrating the pervasiveness of invasive plants.

This work is not done in a vacuum; I have been greatly influenced not only by nature itself but by other artists. Most notably Ellie Irons and her “Invasive Pigments” project (, Agnes Dane and her wheat fields, Jacek Tylicki’s painting with nature, and Ed Erdman, who uses nature to create beautiful canvases.


"Ava Gardner," spray paint on cabinet door.
“Ava Gardner,” spray paint on cabinet door.
"Bucky," spray paint on board.
“Bucky,” spray paint on board.
"Captain Ferguson," spray paint on board.
“Captain Ferguson,” spray paint on board.
"Boxer," spray paint on found panel.
“Boxer,” spray paint on found panel.

Work in Progress

Canvas installed in Sauk Creek.
Canvas installed in Sauk Creek.
Newly removed canvas.
Newly removed canvas.
Canvas after drying.
Canvas after drying.
Bike trailer, detail.

For more information about Sauk Creek Nature Preserve, click here. This residency is being sponsored by Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, which is also a partner organization to A Wealth of Nature.

This is the latest in our series of featured artists, which is intended to showcase the work of photographers, artists, writers and other creative individuals in our community whose subjects or themes relate in some broad sense to nature, urban nature, people in nature, etc. To see a list of previously featured artists, click here. The work of the current ARTservancy artists in residence will be exhibited at Gallery 224 in September 2020. To meet the other ARTservancy artists in residence, click here.

All images courtesy of the artist, except as noted.