Science/Art Connections in New Hampshire

"Rangeley Schist One," acrylic and oil on hemp, 2020

Rangeley Schist One, 2021. Oil and acrylic on hemp, 36” x 42”

The painting above is part of my newest series of paintings, which is on view at the Abington Art Center through March 13th. This series is really important to me: it’s the first time that that I have made work based on scientific research. So how did I get here? I have always liked the natural sciences, particularly the emphasis on observation. At one point in art school I started to wonder whether I’d be happier as a marine biologist but then remembered how bad I am at math. I didn’t think about it again until I began working at KQED in San Francisco in 2010. I was fundraising for their education work, which included arts and STEM-focused curriculum. As I wrote about this work, I started to see parallels between the creative process and inquiry-based science as two open-ended forms of problem-posing and solving.

As my artwork began to focus more explicitly on the natural world and humanity’s impact on ecosystems, I became more interested in the integration of science and art. I was inspired by other local artists exploring these connections, including Rebecca Rutstein, Deirdre Murphy, and Diane Burko. I started seeing the potential of art being the bridge between science and the general public in increasing awareness about environmental issues, including climate change and conservation.

In August 2020, I had my first opportunity to work directly with scientists at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Forest is home to the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, which was founded in 1963 and is one of the longest running and most comprehensive ecosystem studies in the world. The collaborative, multidisciplinary research efforts include long-term studies of air, water, soils, plants, and animals. I accompanied scientists Scott Bailey and Jenny Bower into the field as they conducted their research on the relationships between the hydrology, pedology (soil science), and geology of the forest, which included collecting hydrological data, gathering soil samples, and drilling bedrock cores. It was so exciting for me to be in the forest with people who could identify rocks but also talk about their dedication to better understanding the interconnectedness of forest ecosystem
Rebecca Schultz, Bedrock CoreA bedrock core that I helped drill

The revelation for me during this residency was learning how rocks are a dynamic and integral part of interconnected ecosystems. Both Bailey and Bower have geology backgrounds, but their research has expanded to hydropedology (a field examining the intertwined relationship between soil and water).  They are conducting chemical analysis of weathering bedrock as it breaks down and forms soil in relationship to the topography of the watershed to determine patterns of soil composition, with implications for carbon sequestration, soil chemistry, water cycles, and forest biodiversity.

I decided to make a body of work based on my experience that would visually represent the connections these two scientists are making with their research: the relationship between the hydrology and topography of the forest, which impacts water flow; the process of water weathering bedrock; and the structure/composition of the rocks themselves. I worked with three types of visual data: thin sections of rock under a polarizing microscope, the topographic map of the Forest, and the patterns in the rocks themselves. For the exhibit, I worked with University of the Arts student Eden Blas, who created an augmented reality experience in the Artivive app, which includes the visual data and a geologic time scale.

I am hoping to show my Hubbard Brook paintings in New Hampshire or Vermont later this year, and am excited to do more of this work. Next month I am headed to an area that I have a lifelong connection to—Northwest Connecticut—and will be learning about geology and forest ecology there. Stay tuned!