Naturally: The Scientist as Artist and Vice Versa

On the surface one might think that art and science are not related, I used to wonder why almost every college or university had a school of art and sciences, thinking that these two things didn’t belong together. However, my opinion on the relationship between art and science has completely changed. I have come to realize that art and science have always somehow been intertwined, not only have many artists found inspiration from the scientific world, such as Andy Goldsworthy or Walton Ford, but art can inspire scientific study as well.  Today I  came across an interesting article in the  Art & Design section of the New York Times (which is also categorized under Science, further proving the point that art and science are related.), In Pursuit of an Underwater Menageriewritten by C. Drew Harrell, the associate director for environment at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, and curator of the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models. What I found most interesting about the article, which announces Harrell and filmmaker David O. Brown’s upcoming documentary Fragile Legacy  of which is focused on the fragility of oceanic life, was Harrell’s remark on the origin of inspiration for the project,

Our inspiration springs from an unlikely source: a collection of 570 superbly wrought, anatomically perfect glass sculptures of marine creatures from the 19th century.

The “glass sculptures,” that Harrell is referring to are the remarkable hand made glass sea specimens created by father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka that sway between tools for scientific study and works of art.

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The Blaschka’s, also known for their creation of the glass flowers on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, are as much scientists as they are artists or craftsmen with their mastery of technical skill, precision, and anatomical accuracy. It is of no surprise that Harrell, the curator of the collection of glass invertebrates at Cornell University, has found inspiration from these beautiful objects. He may consider them an unlikely muse, but I can clearly connect the physical fragility of these objects with the fragility of our planet’s oceans and ecosystem.

glass flower by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
glass flower by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Environmental awareness creeps into other artists’ practices. Probably one of the most infamous examples would be Andy Goldsworthy’s land art installations created only with found enviornmental elements such as leaves, rocks, and sticks. Essentially his works are temporary and are both created with and destroyed by nature, leaving no damaging impact on the environment.

Andy Goldsworthy, Japanese maple leaves
Andy Goldsworthy, Japanese maple leaves

The scientific, naturalist watercolors of John James Audubon serve as inspiration for contemporary artist Walton Ford’s satyrical paintings which have underlying political and social commentary. It is apparent that in these instances art, science, and nature blur together harmoniously. The artistic mind and the scientific mind simultaneously analytical and creative.

Walton Ford, "Bula Matari," 1998, watercolor, gouache, and ink and pencil on paper
Walton Ford, “Bula Matari,” 1998, watercolor, gouache, and ink and pencil on paper

In addition to their aesthetic/artistic qualities, these glass sea creatures serve as an ecological time capsule. In his documentary Harrell aims to find all of the once abundant creatures that Leopold and his son recreated out of glass. It is a beautiful notion, which will no doubt bring about a painful reality. Through the paralleling of time periods it is clear that these glass invertebrates will show that oceans have changed drastically in the past 150 years, but will it be even worse than we thought?

Here are more of the Blaschka’s superb glass sculptures…let’s hope Harrell and his team can find their real life counterpart somewhere out there in the deep blue sea.

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Photo courtesy William Warmus, http://www.warmus.com

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Photo courtesy William Warmus, http://www.warmus.com
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Photo courtesy William Warmus, http://www.warmus.com

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For further reading on the Blaschka glass sea specimens click here for an article published in Ocean Realm magazine written by William Warmus,an independent curator, historian, and appraiser, specializing in modern glass, abstract art, and the aesthetics of the natural environment.

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One comment on “Naturally: The Scientist as Artist and Vice Versa

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