Beauty and the Scientist

ae1 SarahUpcoming exhibit features inspired collaborations between scientists and local artists

It’s not hard to find art that makes you think. It’s much less common to find art that actually requires scientific collaboration—a seemingly counterintuitive pairing. But, the upcoming show “earth • science • art / sixteen collaborative explorations,” at the R. Blitzer Gallery, does just that.

Featuring the work of 16 artists from the Central Coast and the greater San Francisco Bay Area working in collaboration with 16 research scientists from the Santa Cruz-based U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, the exhibit opens on June 1, with two evening panel discussions on June 7 and 14.

Participating artists will be presenting new work based on the research of their scientist-partner, alongside displays by the participating scientists that provide background to the artists’ works. “For me, the metaphorical wall between the art and the science worlds was a wonderful place to start to put together an idea for the show,” says Lisa Hochstein, the show’s curator. “How the two disciplines are seen as occupying very separate worlds made me want to think about what would happen if we started crossing that wall.”

Following a preliminary meeting earlier this year, scientists and artists were paired; during the subsequent months, the pairs remained in conversation as artists worked in their studios to create new artworks inspired by the scientific research. “The main thing that I asked was that the artists do work based on the research of their scientist-partner, but their job wasn’t so much to explain the science, but to use it as a starting point,” says Hochstein.

The scientists’ diverse research includes the study of migratory bird patterns, the movement of sediment through wind, waves, and currents, deep-water reserves of precious metals, the potential effects of natural and anthropogenic hazards, and mapping climate change as it impacts both human communities and natural environments. Their areas of specialization include geology, biology, geography, geochemistry, and oceanography.

One of the participating scientists is geological oceanographer Curt Storlazzi, head of the USGS Pacific Coral Reef Project. “We’re looking at the geologic and oceanographic controls on coral reef health and sustainability in the Pacific,” he says.

ae1 scuba“I think this idea of what happens [to corals] with their spawning, and how they can sort of miraculously develop into these very intricate structures, drew me to his work,” says artist Sarah Sanford, who was paired up with Storlazzi. “Their structures fascinate me; they just sort of morph into something based a lot on their environment. I could see a connection visually between his work and my own.”

“Coral reefs are a living organism that secrete calcium carbonate, so they kind of build the house they live in; just like humans or anything else, corals are born and they live and they die,” explains Storlazzi. “Sarah was really interested in this balance between life and death, and so the two things she wanted to focus on are the two ends of that spectrum, the life and the death.”

Participating artists work in a range of media including painting, printmaking, video, wood, and fiber. Their approaches include scientific illustration, contemporary abstraction, and time-based conceptual work. “I intentionally tried to get a variety of media and approaches, because part of what I’d like to do is represent the different ways that artists look at the world,” says Hochstein. “Part of what I hope people will get from the show is some thought about the different ways artists and scientists look at and represent the world, both how as disciplines art and science do that differently, but also within each discipline—different scientists look at different elements to study, to investigate, and artists also see different aspects that capture their attention and imagination.”

The concept encouraged artists to think outside their comfort zones. “For this project I really wanted to work on pushing my ideas through a different process than what I normally do,” says Sanford. “With the element of water, I decided to use paper, but hand-dye it and bleach it. I’m working on two pieces: one is going to be about 11 feet, possibly 12-feet wide, of individual paper strips that try to capture the time in which the surge of development happens, broadcast spotting; the other piece is a bit smaller, and it kind of looks at the disintegrating aspects with corals and the degradation of them due to environmental issues.”

Storlazzi has been impressed with the results of Sanford translating his work into art. “What she’s done has completely amazed me,” he says. “It’s a representation of how someone else sees the science we’re doing, and this is kind of a way to step into her mind and see how she views it and expresses it.”

While much of the work is still in progress, “What I’ve seen has been really exciting to me,” says Hochstein. “It seems that a lot of the artists have used this opportunity to launch a new body of work for themselves, and I get the sense that some of that work will carry over even after the show, and some of the things that they’ve gleaned from their projects will inform future work, which, to me, is the best outcome I could’ve imagined—that it has a life beyond this four- to five-month project, that it would feed the artists in that way.”

And that won’t be the only positive take-away for Hochstein. “It’s been very gratifying to me to see so many members of the community inspired by this and wanting to support it,” she says, citing—among numerous individual donors—the Ow Family Properties, Rob Blitzer, and Jane Reid of the USGS for making the show possible.

The exhibit promises to be unique, whether you’re looking for education or beauty—chances are you’ll encounter both, believes Hochstein, who says, “I think it’s going to be a really fabulous show for anybody who’s curious about the world around them, about studying the world, about understanding the rigor of both art and science, and is interested in experiencing—in some unexpected ways—how these collaborations have led to some pretty insightful work.”

“earth • science • art / sixteen collaborative explorations” opens June 1 with reception from 5-9 p.m., and runs through July 7, with evening panel discussions held on June 7 and 14, at the R. Blitzer Gallery, 410 Natural Bridges Drive., Santa Cruz. $5 donation requested for evening panel discussions. For more information, visit earthscienceartSC.com.

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