Sunday, August 10, 2014

Peter Sheesley - Week 7; Reflections On the Practice of Science & the Practice of Art; Watercolors from the Summer, T-shirt Design, Coral Costume

Imagine this. It is 11pm and a person is going to bed. He sets his alarm clock for 5 am, switches off the light and gets into bed. He lies there, running through the events of the next day in his mind. Each step of the morning is imagined and the possible kinks in the plan are ironed out mentally--he runs through it again, and again . . . Before the sun has come up his alarm clock startles him awake. He puts on the working clothes laid out the night before. He collects the gear; the tools for the day are vital. He runs through the process in his mind again, just to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything. It all goes in the trunk of the car. With a sack lunch and mug of coffee he is in the car and on the road within 15 minutes of waking. He knows the site well, having been there several times a week in the last few months. As the sun comes over the horizon in his rear window, he sips coffee from his mug and follows the same roads he’s followed before. Arriving at the site, he grabs the gear from the trunk, straps on the backpack, and has a tool under one arm and another tool in his hand. He leaves the parking lot and follows a trail through underbrush to the site. Now it’s go time. Things are unpacked, set-up, calibrated. The work begins. It is all encompassing and requires focus. Time is both urgent and ignored. Then, just as quickly as it began, the job is over. The gear is packed up. The “thing,” the “artifact,” the object of the work is handled carefully on the walk back to the car. It is now the most important thing, the evidence and result of the work. He stretches and breathes freely when the car is packed. When he gets back he moves the “artifact” inside first and places it carefully on the table. He looks at it once more before going to unpack the rest of the gear from the car, knowing he’ll be returning to it again and again.

Hopefully this sounds familiar to you, like something you’ve experienced. But, what specifically was he doing? He clearly planned something, went somewhere, used tools, and returned home with an “artifact” that somehow represents the place he was. For me, the scenario above could describe several activities. The two activities I was thinking of while writing it are 1) going out to collect samples for a science project, or 2) going out to make a plein air (on-site) landscape painting. At the end of week 7 of this summer internship, I am again finding the processes of science and art too remarkably similar to ignore.

In general terms, both of these processes involve a person having an inquiry, followed by a planned experience of reality, resulting in an abstracted artifact. In other words, the person is curious, goes to observe, and records his responses. Or you might say, we have ideas, we check them out, we take evidence to show what we’ve found. The real world in it’s 3+ dimensions is siphoned, squeezed, brushed, tabulated, digitized, into a 2 dimensional record, concept, or data—image, words, numbers, symbols.

In neither case is the actual concrete place or thing being observed the end product. Instead it is filtered somehow, abstracted into the results. Several things will influence the results; the tools used, the historical context in effect, and the observer’s intentions. Just as the types of paint, brushes, canvas size, etc., will in part determine the what the painting looks like, so too the size of the sampling tube, the method of casting, and the methods of counting, will influence the data found. Just as the historical context of the science (what is already known, what needs to be known, what is the accepted form of practicing) will impact the results found, so too the historical context of painting (what styles are already done, what styles are drawn on) will impact the image made. Just as the scientist’s particular question will influence what he pays attention to, the painter’s particular interest will drive the marks he makes. Tools. Context. Intentions.

What we have in the end, in both cases, is an artifact that tells us something about the actual place or thing observed. Of course, with Art and Science they are not the same types of artifact. The content is different. Usually a scientific artifact consists of words, numbers, and logical concepts, whereas an artistic one is made of colors, lines, shapes, and symbols. And they are generally put to different use. The scientific is often used to better understand how something works, why it is the way it is, or how it can be classified. The artistic is often used to move a person’s imagination to a different place, recall memories, provide visual stimulation. (I admit that attempting to define what science or art are used for in two sentences is inevitably very inadequate. These questions could fill books or even libraries). Yet, maybe there are times when scientific results are used in artistic ways, and visa versa. Maybe a well formed hypothesis and result provides a reader with a certain logical pleasure, or moves the imagination. Maybe a piece of art helps to classify something or describe how it works. Taking it to an even more exciting level, maybe a scientific finding inspires art, or visa versa.

Here is an interesting quote from the introduction of DeBoyd L. Smith and Kevin B. Johnson’s book A Guide to Marine Coastal Plankton and Marine Invertebrate Larvae (Second Edition, Kedall Hunt), a quote from Stanford University Professor Emeritus, Rolf L. Bolin, 1971, “In addition to their importance to our well-being, these planktonic organisms claim our interest because they are strange, beautiful, grotesque, and have adapted to their environment in manifold marvelous ways. It is an inert student indeed who cannot sit fascinated over the microscope for hours simply watching and admiring them. But no real student is content to watch. They want to know.”

With my above reflections on art and science in mind, I’m going to share the watercolor paintings I made this summer. They do loosely connect to our water samples because many of them were painted at, or nearby, the actual sites where we took samples. They were all painted on site, and generally took about 1 – 1.5 hours to make. The image sizes are app. 8x10.5 inches on 9x12 inch, 90 lb paper. And so I wonder, did the water sampling and inquiry about plankton content and hydrodynamics of the surf zone, impact the watercolor paintings. Maybe the watercolor paintings will, in addition to doing what art does, inspire some further scientific inquiry—or at least a sense of awe and wonder about the place they were made.

Cape Arago

South Cove Fog

Charleston Spit, Looking South

Charleston Spit, Looking North

Arago Shelf

Pack Trails

South Cove, Looking South

Shell Island

Additionally, this is probably a good time to share two other collisions of art and science; my OIMB T-shirt design, and my costume for the Invertebrate Ball.

Inspired by all the phytoplankton I've been identifying and counting.

A coral. Inspired by a hoola-hoop and plastic basket at Goodwill.