My classroom this year, as a Middle School art teacher, is on the science hall. As we work side-by-side, I have come to appreciate how much our two disciplines have in common, in attitude and approach.
For the past nine summers, I have taken on the challenge of painting the surface of a rain collection barrel for a Huntsville Land Trust fundraiser during the Moon Over Three Caves Dance. The only request the Land Trust makes is that the design include a moon.
Each year as I contemplate my design, I try to incorporate a story, a message, something for the viewer to ponder. This year, several ideas came to me along with a few special requests. I battled over which direction to go. Finally, I just could not pass up on the opportunity to put my efforts into capturing the upcoming eclipse.
My intention was to capture the moment, to celebrate it and learn from it. My process began as it always does by doing research. While reading about the phenomenon, I ran across information, thoughts from astronomers, astrophysicists, scientists and incredible images provided by NASA.
While looking through their images, I was reminded that NASA has an art collection. Founded in 1962 through the efforts of James Webb and James Dean, the program sought to “involve artists to help tell the agency’s story of adventure.”
"That’s the beauty of art," said Bert Ulrich, curator of NASA’s art program, "That it reaches people in different ways. The idea is that art is another way to inspire people. Artists try to interpret the unknown, and they do that with their imaginations. Artists share something with scientists and astronauts in that they are adventurers,” Ulrich said.
As I continued to plan my design, sketching, experimenting with various colors, applications and thinking about the message I wanted to convey, I began to realize just how much the process I was going through as an artist is similar to that of a scientist.
It began as a challenge, a question. Research followed. I formed a plan, imagined the possibilities, practiced through preliminary sketches, sought advice from trusted colleagues, experimented with color application. As I began my work, I thought about the shared attitudes between artists and scientists, including our intentions, practices, and ways of thinking.
A quote by Carl Sagan crossed my mind, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
The artist in me tried to push past the basic knowledge I had in hopes of entering into a realm of possibility unknown to me. I made a few choices that did not work out as I had hoped and had to seize the opportunity for a “rapid design change.”
As the late Dr. Elliot Eisner, art education specialist, explained, “Learning through art requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.” Scientists deal with mistakes in much the same way.
My progress on the barrel was somewhat delayed as the beginning of the school year was fast approaching. As I began to settle into my new classroom, I realized that I shared the hall with another artist and two scientists. When I expressed my elation to Mrs. Beck and Mrs. Van Bebber about being on the same hall because I felt that artists and scientists had so much in common, they enthusiastically agreed!
Thus began a conversation that has led to many revelations and put into perspective the mutual goals and hopes we have for our students.
My art colleague Michael Read, who also is on our hall, offered, “When I think about scientists and artists - and what they may have in common - a few things come to mind. I think of the importance of the observation of nature (the sketchbooks of Rembrandt and Michelangelo). I think about breakthrough thinkers – Picasso and Einstein, perhaps. I think of the repetition of trials. (How many times did Cezanne paint Mont Sainte-Victoire?) I think of the importance of accidents to scientific and artistic development. Also, I think of those who suffered for their research and made the world a better place by it: Marie Curie and Vincent Van Gogh, for starters.
“I also think art is commonly used to visualize and make more relatable challenging ideas in science; for instance, Salvador Dali’s famous surrealist painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ is popularly interpreted as an illustration of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The artist, however, says his inspiration for the image of melting clocks was a melting piece of Camembert cheese. I think there is much to be said for the commonalities between the two disciplines.”
What are our common goals and hopes for our students? The artists and scientists that both dwell within us are curious, courageous, unafraid to ask questions, to seek, to find, to experiment, to go beyond the quick, expected answers or outcomes.
We seek original thought to produce original results and the confidence to push through the ordinary to the extraordinary.
We pose more questions than we answer.
We imagine, surprise, are influential, diligent, determined.
We collaborate, solve problems, collect, reflect, preserve, transform, and communicate what we have learned or produced.
We take risks and expose ourselves to the possibility of failure, knowing that through failure unexpected results pull us in more powerful and often more successful directions.
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but, "That's funny..." said the late Isaac Asimov .
I overheard Mrs. Beck just the other day saying, “It’s ok if the experiment did not work the way we expected. We can learn from that, too. Experiments are not meant to answer questions, they are meant to discover something.”
Artists and scientists use old ideas to create new ones and inspire us to take a closer look and question what we know, or think we know, about reality. We are keen observers, willing to take the time to work out how things are related. If you really want to be more aware, to really see, practice direct observational drawing! We respond to the needs of those around us, designing objects that might make life easier while at the same time being aesthetically pleasing. We connect to the past, respond to the present and imagine the future.
Mrs. Beck concludes, “When you journey through the process of discovery in art and in science, you cannot help but notice the similarities. Both fields require questions of curiosity, creative perspectives, detailed observations, and a spirit of resilience. It is not a coincidence that some of my best lab scientists also excel in the arts.”
Albert Einstein’s thoughts on art and science validated our discussions with these words, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All of these aspirations are directed toward enabling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”
Mrs. Beck and I may wear different lab coats, but our hopes and goals for nurturing the attitudes, confidence in the process, behaviors and practices of the artist and scientist that dwell within us all are identical. All of us benefit from study and practice in art and science, and here at Randolph we are committed to both.
As for my barrel, I am in the final phase of the process, sharing my results. Its title, “Look Up,” invites us, as Carl Sagan and Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson urge us to “Stop and look up once in a while.”
My hope is that we not only enjoy and learn from celestial events like the eclipse, but that we look beyond, into the depths of space to marvel and wonder at the universe and the infinite discoveries yet to be made there and here on earth.
Whether those discoveries are made and communicated through science, art or the collaboration between the two, we all will be the beneficiaries.