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Curiosity drives Fargo microbiology professor in science and in her art

Birgit Pruess says her interest in photographing the wild horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park comes back full circle in her life as a microbiologist — two subjects for which she often draws parallels between art and the science of observation.

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From left, Dolly, Flax and Mischief. Birgit Pruess had the honor of photographing Dolly when she was less than a day old.
Contributed / Birgit Pruess
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FARGO — Whether she’s studying plant bacteria under a microscope or a family of wild horses through the lens of her camera, North Dakota State University microbiology professor Birgit Pruess loves to study living things.

“Curiosity is what drives a good scientist. But it also leads to creativity and innovation in both science and art,” Pruess said.

Her latest art project involved traveling to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota for several years now to document the wild horses that call the buttes and vistas home.

Pruess said her interest in the horses comes back full circle in her life as a microbiologist — two subjects for which she often draws parallels between art and the science of observation.

“I've watched the behavior of the horses and put it in the context of the ecology of the park,” she said.

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It’s all part of her new book, “Wild and Free at TRNP; The Wild Horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” which launched on Amazon in April and is the focus of an exhibit at the Spirit Room in downtown Fargo starting July 18.

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Flax is one of Birgit Pruess’ favorite stallions to watch and document in her photography.
Contributed / Birgit Pruess
The Arts Partnership interviews the visual artist and trained biologist about his approach, influences and past work experience as a software engineer.

Jumping in

Pruess, who was born and raised in Germany, had her own horse as a teenager. When she came to America in 1992, she focused more on being a scientist for several years until a visit out west refueled her interest in both the animals and photography.

“I started pursuing art more seriously in about 2014 because I felt I needed more balance in my life. I then advanced my photography skills and have spent some eight years doing frequent trips to Theodore Roosevelt National Park watching horses,” Pruess said.

A nod to her roots in biology, Pruess is also an accomplished jewelry maker who uses beads to create strings of molecules like oxytocin and caffeine.

“It’s a small audience for those pieces, like other scientists who think molecules are neat,” she said.

Pruess has put jewelry making on hold for now while she works to promote her wild horses projects. However, some of her pieces are available at Gallery 4.

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“Eye to Eye” depicts a bison peeking out from the brush in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A rendering of this photo can be found on a utility box located on 13th Avenue South in Fargo as part of a public art project led by the city of Fargo’s Arts and Culture Commission.
Contributed / Birgit Pruess

Here’s more about artist and scientist Birgit Pruess.

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Q: What is your artist origin story?

A: I have probably been an artist all my life without knowing it. But I did knitting in college, macrame in high school and always liked my camera. I also did science-inspired jewelry, such as wire/bead sculptures of molecules (e.g. caffeine) or microbiology objects (e.g. viruses). In a way, I came around full circle and still end up doing biology, which is the field I got my Ph.D. in. While I am a microbiology professor at NDSU now, my original passion for just about anything that is alive remains active. Art is just another way to express it and to share joy with other people.

Q: How would you describe your artistic style?

A: I think I found a niche in my nature and wildlife photography (Fargo has several excellent landscape photographers) and became innovative with science-inspired jewelry.

Q: Who do you admire or emulate in your work?

A: The goal is definitely to admire or express love and appreciation. In some ways, a photo is a match of what I see, but the interpretation of the subject is still up to the photographer and vantage point and frame can make a big difference. Likewise, the jewelry is modeled after the actual structures of the chemicals or biological subjects, but the interpretation through the wire and beads is up to the artist.

Q: What sorts of beliefs or social mores do you try to express in your work (if any)?

A: For the photography, I try to convey the value of the different forms of life whose environment we live in. I also try to teach people to respect nature and wildlife. For example, the book contains advice such as “keep your 25 yard distance and use a long lens” to prevent accidents. It also contains names of flowers and animals. So, there is definitely a teaching aspect. For the jewelry, I try to get the point across that science is important, everywhere, and that we don’t need to be afraid of it. I also think knowing a local scientist may form a bridge between the sometimes abstract teachings of science.

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Q: What do you want people to know about being a local artist?

A: First of all, anybody can do art. Once you get over the fear that you are no good at it, you can do it. Applies to science as well, by the way. Second, I think it is important that people know there are artists that are local and not in some famous museum far away. Most artists are not famous, nor are they rich. But they are here right among us and they need your support and appreciation.

Q: When you’re feeling uninspired, what lifts you up?

A: Nature, which gets us back to biology, science and art.

Q: Favorite tool or instrument?

A: My new camera.

The Arts Partnership profiles the Fargo singer-songwriter and her passion for music.

Buy the book

Copies of “Wild and Free in TRNP; The Wild Horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park” are available locally at Gallery 4, Zandbroz Variety and the Fargo Library. The book is also available for purchase at 4e Winery in Casselton, as well as at several stores in Medora, N.D.

Purchase print (black and white) or ebook (full color) copies on Amazon . Contact Pruess at her email address, birgit.pruess@gmail.com, for commission requests and other inquiries.

“Wild and Free in TRNP” is made possible through funding in part by North Dakota Council on the Arts and the Arts Partnership.

If you go

What: Opening reception for “Wild and Free at TRNP; The Wild Horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park"
When: 5-7 p.m. July 21

Where: Spirit Room Gallery Lotus Studio, Fargo

Info: A separate book signing is scheduled for July 23. Photos from the book collection will be on exhibit from July 18 to Aug. 13.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.
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