May 21, 2013
Sometimes the connection between art and science is clear. When Barry Jacobs, a psychology professor at Princeton University, and Casimir Fornal, a research scholar, took a micrograph of a mouse’s hippocampus (shown above), they felt compelled to call it Starry, Starry Night, after the 1970s song by Don McLean about Vincent van Gogh. The dark, star-like bursts in the golden image are glial cells in the brain called astrocytes (“astro” meaning star in Greek).
A jury of photographers and scientists recently selected Starry, Starry Night and 42 other images for the 8th annual Art of Science exhibition at Princeton University. Each spring, the competition calls for Princeton students, faculty, staff and alumni to submit “images produced during the course of scientific research that have aesthetic merit.” This year, three winners selected by the jury, three people’s choice winners and 37 other works highlighted in the exhibition, currently on view at the Friend Center on Princeton’s campus, were chosen from an impressive lot of 170 entries hailing from 24 different university departments.
Worms and proteins, crystals and flames, even a compelling view of a fruit fly ovary are the subjects of the recent Art of Science images, which all in some way tie into this year’s theme: connections. “Some areas of research involve obvious ‘connections.’ Neural networks, for example, or the Internet. In other areas of research connections are more nuanced but just as valid. Fractal patterns in nature, the deterioration of architectural monuments due to the effects of acid rain, bridges, the wake that a jet of cool air generates as it passes through a hot flame, a qubit, the chemical signals than induce embryonic development,” according to the contest’s Web site.
In a statement released by the university, Adam Finkelstein, a computer science professor and one of the show’s organizers, expressed what he considers the strength of the Art of Science exhibition—its ability to create a new way of seeing for both artists and scientists. “At the same time,” said Finkelstein, “this striking imagery serves as a democratic window through which non-experts can appreciate the thrill of scientific discovery.”
Here is a selection from the exhibition:
April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
February 14, 2013
Happy Valentine’s Day, Collage readers! I’ll be brief. I just wanted to pass along this cool find—a print by artist and designer Jacqueline Schmidt. In a style that smacks of scientific illustration, Schmidt depicts 12 species that, generally, remain loyal to a single mate over the course of a lifetime.
With gray wolves (#1, in the diagram), couples pair off Sadie-Hawkins style. The female determines her mate. The alpha female and alpha male are the only pair to breed, from January to March each year, in a pack of wolves, and they keep things monogamous. Meadow voles (#6) are quite loyal. The rodents make the most of their short lives; a female lives less than a year, on average, but starts breeding with a single mate about 28 days into life. Males are sexually mature by 35 days. Termites (#7) have been found to use a “honeymoon” period to welcome other suitors to the log, but they ultimately settle down with one partner. Sandhill cranes (#12) also form until-death-do-us-part bonds. A male and female perform unison calls to solidify their relationship; then, leading up to mating, there is an elaborate dance ritual. Both cranes take care of the nest.
As the founder of Screech Owl Design, Schmidt is known for taking on natural subjects and delivering calendars, t-shirts, stationary and posters in an urban-chic kind of way. “This ability was first shaped by childhood migrations between New York City, where she was born and raised, and her Catskills summer home,” says Schmidt’s Web site. This particular print, made of 100 percent recycled paper, is titled “Mates for Life.”
Taxidermy: dying trade or resurgent art form? As an outsider—I have never hunted, let alone stuffed and mounted an animal—I was tempted to think the former. Then, I spoke with Paul Rhymer, a former Smithsonian taxidermist and model maker.”Taxidermy is alive and well,” he says. “Commercial taxidermy, for hunters, has probably never been stronger than it is now—and probably never been better. The skill levels have just gotten so good with all the different advances in materials and techniques.”
Rhymer is a traditionalist. He hails from the museum world, where he spent 26 years (1984 to 2010) creating realistic taxidermy for display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Rhymer and his colleagues produced 274 mounted specimens for the museum’s Behring Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003; he also had a hand in the now four-year-old Sant Ocean Hall. A bunch of his critters—a maned wolf, a grévy’s zebra, several primates and a pair of penguins, among others—still inhabit the museum. When he wasn’t making new mounts from donated animal carcasses, he was restoring existing ones. In 2002, he gave the museum’s panda a dye job, bleaching its yellowed hair white and dying it’s dark fur a deeper black.
But, even with his institutional background, the second-generation taxidermist is quick to express his appreciation for a new sect of bold artists working in the field. Armed with the know-how to skin, clean and stuff animals, these “rogues” place animal specimens in fantastical contexts; they even build strange hybrids of different species. “This element has been around for a very long time too. You have Victorian guys making whole wedding scenes with little kittens dressed up in wedding dresses,” says Rhymer. “But rogue taxidermists are just taking it to another level.”
“Immortalized,” a new television show premiering on AMC tonight (10/9c), pits taxidermists of both types against each other in what its host, Zach Selwyn, calls “creative combat.” I was able to screen two kooky episodes in the series’ first season, and although the show seems to lack the shiny finish one might expect from a big network, I have to admit I got a kick out of its premise. Oh, and its tagline too. “Immortalized,” says Selwyn, at the close of each segment, “where it is not whether you win or lose, but how you display the game.”
The concept of the show is this: There are four superstars in taxidermy—two traditionalists and two rogues—who, for the purposes of the show, are called “Immortalizers.” Each episode, one Immortalizer takes on an outside “Challenger.” The challengers, like the veteran immortalizers, can be artists or commercial taxidermists. The two contestants are given a theme—some examples include “End of the World,” “First Love” and, the even more confounding, “Self Portrait.” They prepare a piece at home over the course of a few weeks and then return to the studio for a face-off. Rhymer was tapped to be one of three judges; he is joined by artist-taxidermist Catherine Coan and the nasally-voiced comedian, actor and writer, Brian Posehn. Together, the trio scores each submission on craftsmanship, originality and adherence to the theme in each submission, and the total score determines the winner.
“I thought this could really be a lot of fun, and it was! I had a great time doing it,” says Rhymer. “I have my favorites. But, I thought that, by and large, the work that all of the taxidermists brought to it was really, really neat.”
Rhymer has competed extensively at taxidermy conventions, but “Immortalized” was different. “The competitions I had been to in the past were ‘mount this duck,’ ‘mount this fish,’ ‘mount this deer.’ These [challenges on "Immortalized"] were much more open to the imagination, and just much crazier scenarios. Someone put a lot of thought into figuring out which themes would really produce some provocative pieces,” he says.
In one bout, immortalizer Page Nethercutt, the award-winning proprietor of Moore’s Swamp Taxidermy in New Bern, North Carolina, and challenger CJ Fegan, an up-and-coming taxidermist from Edgewater, Maryland, presented two very different pieces meant to convey the same theme, “End of the World.” Nethercutt created a mount of a fierce bobcat attacking a quail; Rhymer describes it as “very intimate, natural, very precise.” Then, in the opposite corner, Fegan prepared a “sci fi and epic and colossal” scene capturing multiple animals in a panic.
Taxidermy is a unique blend of science and art. Any taxidermist with years of experience will have a solid understanding of animal anatomy. But that alone does not make for great mounts. “As an artist,” adds Rhymer, “you have the deer head that is just sticking on the wall and it is looking straight ahead, or there is a way of creating that thing, mounting it and doing something that is not only natural and scientifically accurate but also beautiful.”
Rhymer hopes that “Immortalized” will show that someone who prepares taxidermy can still respect animals. “I would like the general population to see taxidermy in a new light,” he says, “that it’s not just rednecks who do it and that even we who define ourselves as rednecks, and I count myself among them, have a real deep appreciation for wildlife.”
December 28, 2012
This New Year’s Eve, in addition to the typical resolutions to exercise more or spend more time with family, consider resolving to take better advantage of the cultural offerings of America’s cities and towns. Whether you seek to attend concerts, listen to lectures by authors and visiting scholars or become regulars at area museums, a few exhibitions slated for 2013 on the intersection of art and science will be must-sees in the New Year.
The skyline of New York City will be transformed next summer when 300 water tanks in the five boroughs become public works of art, calling attention to water conservation. Artists, including Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Lawrence Weiner, and even Jay-Z, have agreed to participate in the project. Their original designs will be printed on vinyl, which will be wrapped around the mostly wood tanks, which typically measure 12 feet high and 13 feet in diameter, perched on top of buildings. The art will be a welcome addition to the city’s rooftops, while also providing more awareness of the global water crisis.
Teaching the Body: Artistic Anatomy in the American Academy, From Copley, Eakins, and Rimmer to Contemporary Artists
Naomi Slipp, a PhD candidate in art history at Boston University, is organizing an ambitious exhibition of more than 80 sketches, models, prints, books, paintings and other works that tell a full story of artistic renderings of human anatomy in America. On display at the Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, from January 31 to March 31, the exhibition spans two and half centuries, from the very first anatomy text by painter John Singleton Copley, dating to 1756, to works by contemporary artists, such as Lisa Nilsson, who creates paper sculptures depicting cross sections of the human body. ”This exhibition examines both what that study of artistic anatomy meant for these artists and for the way we, today, think about our own bodies and how they work,” said Slipp, in her successful bid to raise funds for the project on Kickstarter. ”In looking at artworks created by artists and doctors, I hope to unite this diverse audience, bringing together people who are interested in art and those who are interested in medicine for a rich, shared conversation about what it means to occupy, treat and picture our own bodies.”
“I believe my most important role remains as artistic interpreter of all that I see. I need to understand the science, but I want to capture the poetry,” writes Brian Skerry, in his book, Ocean Soul. A National Geographic wildlife photographer with decades of experience, Skerry has captured enchanting portraits of harp seals, Atlantic bluefin tuna, hammerhead sharks, beluga whales, manatees and other creatures of the deep. His line of work requires loads of equipment—underwater housings for his cameras, strobes, lenses, wetsuits, drysuits, fins—to get the perfect shot. “While no single image can capture everything, in my own work I am most pleased when I make pictures that reveal something special about a specific animal or ecosystem, pictures that give viewers a sense of the mysterious or in effect bring them into the sea with me,” says Skerry, in a dispatch on Ocean Portal. Earlier this fall, Ocean Portal asked the public to vote for a favorite among 11 of Skerry’s photographs. The viewers’ choice and other images by the underwater photographer will be on display at D.C.’s National Museum of Natural History beginning April 5.
On May 18, 1980, stirred by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, Mount St. Helens in Washington state’s Cascade Range erupted, forever changing the landscape surrounding it. Separate from one another, American photographers Emmet Gowin and Frank Gohlke documented the devastation (and in Gohlke’s case, the gradual rebirth) of the area. The Cleveland Museum of Art is bringing the photographers’ series together, side by side, in an exhibit, on display from January 13 to May 12.
Interestingly, the museum will also play host to “The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection,” looking at art by masters ranging from the 18th and 19th century artists Piranesi and Ingres to more modern contributions from Duchamp, Rothko and Warhol, all inspired by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The exhibit will be on display from February 24 to May 19.
Gogo Ferguson and her daughter, Hannah Sayre-Thomas, live on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia. Morning, noon and night, the pair walks the beach, collecting interesting skeletons, seaweed and seashells brought in by the tide. “Nature has perfected her designs over millions of years,” writes Ferguson, on her Web site. And so, the artist incorporates these organic designs into jewelry, sculptures and housewares. Her first museum exhibition, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from January 19 to July 7, features more than 60 works, including a six-foot by eight-foot wall sculpture modeled after seaweed from New England and an ottoman fashioned after a sea urchin.
Photographer Michael Benson takes raw images collected on NASA and European Space Agency missions and enhances them digitally. The results are brilliant, colorful views of dust storms on Mars and Saturn’s rings, among other sights. The American Association for the Advancement of Science Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. will be exhibiting images from Planetfall, Benson’s latest book, as well as his other titles, including Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle (2009) and Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (2003), from mid-February through the end of April.
If you missed it at New York’s American Museum of Natural History this past year, there is still time to see “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence” at its next stop, Chicago’s Field Museum, from March 7 to September 8. The exhibition highlights the diversity of animals, from fireflies and glowworms to jellyfish and fluorescent corals found upwards of a half-mile deep in the ocean, that use bioluminescence, and the variety of different reasons for which they do. A firefly, for instance, glows to catch the attention of a mate. An anglerfish, meanwhile, attracts prey with a bioluminescent lure dangling in front of its mouth; a vampire squid releases a cloud of bioluminescence to befuddle its predators. The show also explains the chemical reaction that causes the animals to glow. “The one real weakness,” wrote the New York Times, at the opening of the exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, “is that with only a few exceptions—like the tanks of blinking ‘splitfin flashlight fish’ found in deep reefs of the South Pacific—this is not an exhibition of specimens but of simulations.”