What is SciArt?
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
How the world of science communication is getting creative and my take on the process
SciArt is the joining of science and art. This is not a new concept as both artists and scientists aim to explore their environment and understand it through their respective mediums. Leonardo da Vinci is a great example of a 'SciArtist' using techniques from both fields to understand the world around him. However, as time progressed, the education system began to separate these fields and many people are faced with the decision to follow only one of these paths. It is also a common thought that being good at science means being bad at art and vice versa, or if not to that extreme, it is common to see a disconnect between the two ways of thinking. In reality, scientists must be creative. As part of their job, they are constantly developing new ideas and ways of solving problems and answering questions. Artists do the same; artists are constantly analysing how to best communicate a message through their pieces, and that process commonly has a 'scientific' style.
Leonardo da Vinci's sketches that combine art and science to understand human anatomy.
A great way to think about SciArt is how Emei Ma sums it up. "Let’s define science as an organized body of knowledge about the physical universe. And let’s generously define art as any creative process. Cobbling together these two words, science art, or SciArt, might be defined as follows: Any creative expression where the intent of the artist is to convey an observable understanding of the physical universe." Emei Ma is an amateur woodworker, producing art with a science narrative. Her work has focused on the immune system, hepatitis C infection, and mental health in some of her recent projects.
Because SciArt has been reinvented and has recently started receiving attention in universities and institutions, it has become a popular way to raise awareness on climate change and environmental issues. However, there are challenges that arise when scientists and artists initiate collaborations. The interdisciplinary approach to solving these problems is still very young and both scientists and artists come with their own mindset and vocabulary on how to communicate, approach and solve these problems. The effectiveness of using art for science communication has been questioned and the actual process has not been perfected, but the movement is growing and progressing quickly.
As a science communicator and self-taught artist, I often find myself in the SciArt space where there are not many guidelines. For any scientists reading this, I'm sure you will agree that the lack of guidelines is actually very daunting. Scientists have worked with a structure that has existed for hundreds of years and there is a traditional path in the world of academia and research. Now, imagine creating an entirely new path that also joins a discipline that seems to be the exact opposite of science. This is the path of SciArt. As I find myself here quite frequently, I have started to develop my own communication styles using art and the interaction with it.
One of many artists that have inspired my journey and SciArt content is Courtney Mattison, who has captivated audiences with her large ceramic coral gardens that highlight the threat of climate change and coral bleaching.
Her large-scale work is renown and has been highlighted in many news channels and magazines in the US.
Courtney is just one example of SciArtists raising awareness of climate change impacts. And although there are many other science topics to focus on, I am driven by the topic of coral reefs in the face of climate change.
"Symbiosis" is a piece I created to show the many symbiotic relationships humans have with each other and coral reefs. Each 'brain' is represented by a brain coral coloured brightly to show the symbiotic relationship between corals and their microscopic algal partners which photosynthesise and provide the coral animal with most of its food requirement. The brain coral is then placed inside the brain space of the skeleton to represent the symbiotic relationship between humans and coral reefs and to challenge how we think about coral reef systems and the resources we gain from them. The skeleton profiles are overlayed onto the profiles of women from many different ethnicities and races to represent the symbiotic relationship between diverse people in society. The images are large and bright and demand attention.
The second piece is an interactive acrylic block with removable slides that allow the audience to overlay different images of the art onto each other. When people are invited to interact with art, they can create their own stories and attach their own emotions to the message. Because people are ultimately driven by the emotions, art can be a powerful way to promote action for environmental causes.
One of my first pieces was made of coral fragments left over from a colleague's research project. Instead of fating these pieces of calcium carbonate skeletons as trash, I re organised them into forms that resembled human skeletons.
"Growing on the Bones of our Ancestors"
This piece became a focal point in an exhibit which was themed "growth." Here I aimed to communicate a few things. First, as coral reef scientists, we often forget we are working with living organisms and the process of sample collection, lab work, and data analysis becomes just a job. The coral skeletons left over from a heating experiment highlight that these samples were once alive. To help this message hit home a little more, I shaped the fragments into human hands to connect our existence with theirs. The idea of growing on the bones of the deceased is something we do metaphorically, while corals do it literally. When coral dies and leaves its skeleton behind, new polyps settle on it and continue to grow new colonies. Coral skeleton is actually a valuable resource for baby corals trying to find a home on the reef. Here the audience is free to decide what growing on the bones of our ancestors means to them.
Info-graphics are examples of SciArt that strictly use art as a tool for science communication. Here the focus is on scientific facts rather than evoking emotion through art. It is very important to know the difference between using art to communicate science and using the interdisciplinary approach of to create something new. Info-graphics are a great place to start when working on creatively communicating science, but they purely use art as a tool. I enjoy making visuals like these, but strive more to meld the two worlds to create emotional-evoking pieces.
Great Barrier Reef info-graphic
Illustrations by Hana Kanee @hanakanee.illustrator
Layout and design by Melissa Pappas