Maria Coryell-Martin’s Latest Greenland Expedition

Erik Born told me to be sure to look up every couple of minutes and check for polar bears. The last documented fatal attack of a polar bear in Greenland was an artist in the 1920s. I didn’t want to be next”—Maria Coryell-Martin Team snapshot drawing

She did it! Our favorite expeditionary artist, Maria Coryell-Martin, spent three weeks last summer working with Danish scientist Erik Born (Greenland Institute of Natural Sciences) and colleagues on Sand Island, a tiny island off the remote east coast of Greenland in Northeast Greenland National Park (the world’s largest National Park) tagging and collecting genetic samples from the summer walrus population.

Coryell-Martin raised the nearly $8000 that enabled her to join the field party through tax-deductible donations made through the Allied Arts Foundation, a Seattle nonprofit that supports local artists and artist organizations. Sponsorship supported the first phase, the field phase, of Coryell-Martin’s project, High Latitudes: Science and Art in the Arctic. Her goals included documenting as much science as possible, gathering plenty of material for studio paintings, and having fun—all three of which she easily accomplished.

Coryell-Martin first travelled to Greenland in 2005 as part of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship which allowed her to spend a year traveling to and painting in remote areas following her graduation from Carleton College. (The National Science Foundation supported her with a trip to Greenland’s Summit Station, which she documented via sketches, notes and paintings available on her website; she also wrote a story for us that you can read if you click here.)

Since then, she has traveled to Antarctica twice and has painted glaciers in the Northern Cascades. Through her art, Coryell-Martin brings awareness of climate change to the public through exhibitions at a number of national galleries and museums as well as community education events in her hometown, Seattle.

Packing bags sketch

For last summer’s trip, the team met in Copenhagen, then traveled together to Daneborg Station (74°N), a jumping-off point for field research, historical trapper hut preservation efforts by the North East Greenland Company, and headquarters of Greenland’s SIRIUS Sledge Patrol, a faction of the Royal Danish Navy that patrols northeast Greenland by six dogsled teams. At Daneborg, Coryell-Martin and colleagues spent a couple of days organizing the last of their supplies and field gear before the fifteen-minute boat ride to Sand Island.

On Sand Island, a dynamic 200m x 500m pile of sand—the subaerial part of a terminal moraine at the mouth of Young Sound fiord—the group set up camp, five personal tents and one kitchen tent, and got to work.

Sand Island from the air

“I knew it was going to be a small island, but when I saw it from the plane…,” Coryell-Martin says, “I really respected him [Born] for taking someone sight unseen for three weeks in the field!”

During the summer months, male walruses (who separate from females and calves in summer) feed on Young Sound clams. The walruses spend a couple of days at sea filling up. Sand Island beaches provide a convenient haul-out adjacent the summer feeding grounds where the animals can rest and molt. Sometimes there would be no walruses at all for a couple of days and then, suddenly, a group could grow to more than 35 walruses all sleeping on the beach. Different groups cycled though during the three weeks the team was in the field. The island is also a predator-free sanctuary for Arctic Tern, Sabine’s Gull, and Eider Duck colonies.

The science party’s main objectives were to tag every walrus that hauled out on the beach and to collect samples from the entire population for genetic information, building on a database started in 2002.

“They wanted to take skin biopsies from every walrus. Apparently, walruses don’t like vertical figures which meant that they had to be approached first by crawling on hands and knees and then by belly-scoot. All this while carrying a cross-bow to take skin biopsies. The cross-bow arrows had small cylinders at their tip that took small cores of walrus skin when fired. After shooting, the arrows could be retrieved with a fishing reel attachment,” explains Coryell-Martin.

Sand Island Treasure Map

Coryell-Martin spent her time observing and helping out the team where she could.

“This was a great project to be an artist on. There was lots to do, but it was a small area. And the scientists were really respectful of what I was there to do—paint,” she says.

During her two weeks in the field, Coryell-Martin created more than 100 field sketches. The images not only record the life and science of the team, but are also studies of the colors, wildlife, and icebergs particular to the Greenland coast. These sketches will become the basis for larger watercolors painted in Coryell-Martin’s studio. Her largest piece, now 5 separate 10” x 30” sketches, will be compiled into a 360° panorama which she composed from the middle of the island. This she plans on making into a large installation piece—something akin to a giant lampshade into which people can step and be completely immersed in the world of Sand Island.

Coryell-Martin also experimented with sound recordings using an Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM, a handheld digital recorder about the size of a cell phone. She used it as a nightly audio journal, and also recorded interviews, and natural sounds that she plans to use as a compliment to her artwork.

Listen to Sand Island's Arctic Terns:


Arctic Tern field sketch

“I want to create large atmospheric studio paintings that illustrate elements of the polar environment that are vulnerable to climate change, contrasting the stark, rugged landscape with smaller details of life: marine mammals, birds, and even the tiniest of wild flowers."

Coryell-Martin and husband Darin Reid, an independent web developer, are currently settling in to a new house in Seattle after a year in rural Twisp, Washington. Her polar paintings will be featured in upcoming shows at the Washington State Convention Center and she is also the Featured Artist on Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website. Her next painting expedition will be to the Grand Canyon this February. For more information, on upcoming exhibitions and expeditions, visit—Marcy Davis