From UC Davis

By Anna Davidson

I use life forms as artistic media to comment on their phenomenal nature, bring intrigue to the species at hand, and illustrate the diversity of life. I propose the following  questions: How does human manipulation of life impact the viewer’s perception of  themselves as a species and the organisms involved? Will working with living media  with relation to their environment call the viewer’s attention to environmental fragility? How does human manipulation of the natural environment affect the function, structure, and aesthetics that each species displays?

My entire life I have been intertwining my studies in art and science. I am a “bioartist” for lack of a better term, using biology to create large “paintings” and sculpture. I am also currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Plant Sciences at the University of California, Davis studying plant physiology. My dissertation research focuses on modeling the physiological effects of climate change (increasing levels of atmospheric CO2, temperatures and water deficit) on tree canopies, particularly fruit-crop species important to the state of California.  I will be finishing my Ph.D. this spring.

As a biological researcher, both artistic and scientific, I am interested in how physical environmental factors work in sync with genetics, resulting in unique morphology, anatomy, physiology and development of species, mostly within the plant and fungal kingdoms.

While I work with a variety of species in my artwork, most recently I have concentrated on fungus grown on potato dextrose agar (PDA), a material I work with as an artistic medium. During my artistic process, I extract different species of fungi from their natural ecosystems. Working in a laboratory and my studio, I create a synthetic environment and attempt to capture the fungus’ “behavior” in response to my manipulation of its environment. I’m interested in what the fungal painted agar is capable of as a material. Over the past year and a half, I have been working with this material based on the following two questions:  What can the material do, and how can I make it do what it does not do?

I use life forms as artistic media to comment on their phenomenal nature, bring intrigue to the species at hand, and illustrate the diversity of life. I propose the following questions: How does human manipulation of life impact the viewer’s perception of themselves as a species and the organisms involved? Will working with living media with relation to their environment call the viewer’s attention to environmental fragility? How does human manipulation of the natural environment affect the function, structure, and aesthetics that each species displays?

My scientific background in plant physiology has influenced my work a great deal while modeling the physiological growth and development of a tree canopy in response to environmental parameters in reference to climate change. At the molecular level, I studied the mechanisms by which plants load and transport their photosynthetic products and how those mechanisms may be environmentally induced. While I make my artwork, I think about this research as I remove the organism from its own environment and put it in a new context, transforming what we see in nature into uncommon sight.

Perhaps my work will arouse biological curiosity, invoke human empathy towards other species, and shed light on the importance of environmental protection.

In addition to my school and artwork I am also very involved in my community in Davis, California. Besides running the LASERS, I am also a co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the non-for-profit art collective called “Third Space.” We are a group of artists, performers and educators striving to enrich the culture of our community by making the creation and exhibition of art and music accessible to all people regardless of age or economic standing. Additionally, I have curated and juried a number of art, science and technology exhibitions in a number of  galleries around the area. I also started a group called W.I.S.E. (Women in Science Engaging), an organization that supports comradery among women in science located in Davis. We participate in academic/career support, guest lectures, field trips, and group dinners.

I have a big passion for teaching! Besides teaching many classes in the Biological and Plant Sciences Departments at UC Davis, I also teach for the UC Davis Art Science Fusion Program. The first two years I taught the found object and sculpture studio section of a class titled Entomology 1, Art, Science, and the World of Insects. This year I will be teaching linoleum block printing and design. I will now tell you a little bit about our program:

The UC Davis Art Science Fusion Program

The Art/Science Fusion Program at Davis is a trans-disciplinary program that enables scientific learning through the use of tools from the arts. A collaboration among design and science faculty, museum educators, professional artists, UC Davis students and community members comprises this program, which offers a new paradigm for experimental learning. The program is based on a teaching and learning model that combines lectures or workshops that present scientific concepts with site-specific contexts (artistic, scientific cultural and their interfaces) and hands-on experience with artistic mediums (e.g. ceramics, painting, textiles, sculpture, photography, performing arts, song writing). Founded by UC Davis entomology Professor Diane Ullman and nationally-known ceramicist Donna Billick, the program offers students and community members the opportunity to learn and practice art and science in hands-on, project-based settings (http://artsciencefusion.ucdavis.edu).

________________________________________________________________________

Art Science Fusion Program’s Mission Statement:

The UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program’s mission is “to bring the creative energies of the arts and the sciences into a mixture that catalyzes change and innovation in learning for people of all ages.  Described by E.O. Wilson as ‘a spearhead for future creative work in the intellectual borderland,’ the program is a portal into a new creative territory in which people observe the world around them with fresh eyes, testing their ideas and transforming those ideas into new concepts and new insights”             (http://artsciencefusion.ucdavis.edu).

 

Figures 1 and 2. Entomology students learning about honey bees before starting on their public mosaic art piece in the Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis. Photo credit: Donna Billick.

  The UC Davis Art Science Fusion program includes many classes. Some examples are described below.

  • Photography: Bridging Art and Science. Offered by Atmospheric scientist, Dr. Terry Nathan, this class uses photography to explore the commonalities shared by art and physics. Topics include the artistic and scientific roots of photography; principles of space, time and light; composition in the visual arts; aesthetics and the geometric foundations of art and science; and photographic interpretation of the environment.
  • Earth, Water, Science and Song. This class is taught by Dr. Wendy Silk from the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. Lectures in this class describe water movement on earth, the natural history of soil formation, nutrient cycles, and resource management to sustain human and natural ecosystems using case studies.  Lake Spafford and Putah Creek on the UCD campus are living laboratories that compliment the lectures. While in the studio, students communicate scientific concepts through song writing and poetry.
  • Freshmen Seminar 2:  Plants in Art and Science taught by botanist Dr. Judy Jernstedt explores plant diversity, plant defences, and reproduction in the context of the history of plant art and artistry. Topics also include plant form and development and the benefits of plants to humans. Based on newly obtained botanical skills, students create a textile surface design illustrating the evolution of plants on the planet (http://artsciencefusion.ucdavis.edu).
  • Entomology 1, Art, Science and the World of Insects.

Offered by entomologist, Dr. Diane Ullman in partnership with artist Donna Billick, this course explores the magnificent world of insects. This class focuses on the biological components that allow insects to be successful evolutionarily, and consistent contributors to human technology, culture, architecture, religion, film and literature. This class consists of two parts; a lecture portion held twice per week followed by a three-hour “labudio” (a fusion of a laboratory and studio). In lectures students are introduced to topics such as insect anatomy, physiology, culture, and human/insect interactions. While students are provided a basic scientific framework, they are enabled to make connections between insects and human culture by forcing the students to think about the impact we as humans have on insect ecosystems and the impacts insects have on our culture. This is done through guest lectures from a variety of disciplines including artists, entomologists, environmentalists, humanists and even a lecture from an entomological anthropologist. The students are assigned to one of three “labudios” during which, they create an art piece that interprets an entomological concept or story. Currently, these three studio sections are: ceramics/mosaics, painting, or found object and sculpture. In the first weeks of the labudio, students are introduced to the history of their medium and basic concepts in art theory and composition. The class is assigned a themed public art project, but each student is responsible for his or her unique component. To the labudio, students bring with them lessons from lecture and invited speakers. They research their topic in depth and present their project through writing and in-class presentations before sketching their ideas. Students then translate their scientific research into an artistic masterpiece. At the end of the quarter, the piece is assembled and installed.

For more information about my experience teaching for the Art Science Fusion Program please check out this publication I wrote for the Balance Unbalance Conference in Noosa, Australia last year:Davidson, A. (2013). Transcending the Disciplines, Teaching for the UC Davis Art Science Fusion Program. Future Nature Future Culture(s). Balance Unbalance Conference Proceedings pp. 91–97.