Art finds a place alongside science at New Mexico research station
Everywhere, cardboard was scattered across metal counters and test tube racks. Natasha Ribeiro, an exuberant photographer with a blonde pixie cut, displayed one of the finished products: a box with a tiny hole and a slot for photographic paper, sealed with black tape.
"A pinhole camera!" she exclaimed. "There are enough supplies for everyone to make their own" –– meaning her colleagues at the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research station, or LTER, a University of New Mexico facility located on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Every summer, college undergraduates participate in similar research experiences at field stations, labs and other sites nationwide, learning research techniques and developing projects. The National Science Foundation program -- called Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REU -- was designed for science students, but in 2010, Ribeiro became one of the first two art students to summer on the 230,000-acre refuge, south of Albuquerque.
This created the type of crossover that Jennifer Johnson, former director of the field station's undergraduate programs, hoped to achieve. As Ribeiro helped trap rodents and survey geological formations and science students entered the darkroom, each began to view their work differently. "The art undergraduates gave us the opportunity to see the beauty in the science we study daily," said one student, while Ribeiro yearned to "make a connection with the beauty in things that people overlook, step on, step over." Her final project was a series of haunting photograms –– single exposures of bones, dead cacti and other objects, placed on photographic paper and exposed to light.
"It's a natural effort," says Scott Collins, Sevilleta's lead principal investigator and president of the Ecological Society of America, who created the art program with artist and landscape architect Catherine Harris of UNM's new art and ecology department. "Ecological science and scientists are reaching out to other disciplines and broadening their collaborations for a lot of reasons -- to get a better understanding of environmental change, to try and understand humans and the decisions they're making, and to find different ways to convey information."
As more scientists realize the importance of communication, art has become a higher priority across the 26 LTER sites, which investigate the small ecological changes that accumulate over centuries. Around half now have some kind of arts program. One writing program at Oregon's H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest plans to collect a long-term artistic dataset for the next two centuries. Participants interact with scientists and the landscape, and their work -- essays, poems and photo essays -- is archived at Oregon State University.
The Sevilleta, however, has the only REU program of its kind. Fittingly, scientists describe the station as the place "where edges meet." Several Southwest ecosystems converge here, from desert to piñon-juniper forest, with the Rio Grande carving through them. Scientists spend years at the same sites doing routine, unglamorous work -- sifting soils, counting grass tufts, rising before dawn to measure the water content of drought-stressed plants. Their research requires, and cultivates, deep appreciation of the landscape.
That intimacy was what Harris hoped to share with her students when she first contacted Collins three years ago. The art students learn to gather data, becoming physically aware of small changes in their environment and the importance of careful documentation in ways that can inspire new ideas and approaches to their own work. One student, for example, created kites from found materials, hoping to fly them from the plateau behind the field station. The influence of this layered approach also appears in artwork emerging from UNM's introductory art and ecology course. One student's three-dimensional wood frame holds two overlapping transparent maps of Placitas, a small town near Albuquerque, in 1954 and 2003. Red threads radiate outwards from the old map to the new, depicting development's expanding footprint.
"The tools of art, and of science, are more ubiquitous now," says Harris. "Two hundred years ago, you had to know so much to take a photograph." Now, students can learn to extract DNA at a lab within an hour –– "a miracle, really," that makes it much easier to transcend the boundaries between art and science.
"It's very hard for scientists to explain what we do," Johnson says. "So making us slow down and think about how others perceive what we do and why we do it is very important." And scientific experience is good for art students, Harris says, because it emphasizes collaboration and broadens the mind, fostering the pursuit of shared goals. Artists can then question and communicate scientific issues through their work, "because art is not constrained by the formal professional guidelines of science," says art and ecology professor Szu-Han Ho.
"When we're in real conversation, either when the LTER and art faculty gets together or when the students are engaging with artists or researchers," Harris says, "I think that's when things really change."