Art and Science, Science and Art: Science outreach to young artists

This post is by MSU grad student Cybil Nicole “Nikki” Cavalieri

Figure 1: Leonardo da Vinci Antonym of a women; Ernst Haeckel Thalamorpha Plate; Young REACH artist with a Terror Bird

“I am not good at science, I am more artistic.”

“I have decided to drop biology, I am changing my degree to packaging I want to work in a field that lets me be creative.”

“I can’t draw the shape of this skull I am not an artist.”

These are things undergraduate students at Michigan State have told me. Science and art have not always existed in the polarized state we think they do. They have always been connected. In fact, the similarities between artists and scientists far outweigh the stereotypical differences. Neither fear the unknown. They welcome it.

Art communicates scientific research. Art is how we visualize our data. Every scatterplot, phylogeny, and manuscript are art. They might not be judged on their beauty, emotion and uniqueness, but they are still art. Collaborations between artists and scientists can be fruitful. Artists can serve as partners in the communication of scientific research. They can help us visualize data in new ways. They can help us make our results easier to understand and present them more compellingly. Also, they can help us reach a larger and different audience with our scientific message. Not only can art help visualize data, art is data. Researches have examined paintings from the Tate and National Gallery in London (1500 – 2000 BCE) of sunsets as a proxy for information about the aerosol optical depth after major volcanic eruptions. Historically science has produced the materials (pigments, canvas, photographic emulsion etc.) and methods of art. Modern collaborations are more than just better paint. Modern artists use materials from the realm of science such as bacteria, robotics, and computer languages to express their visions. Scientists and artists have even teamed up to explore how art affects the human brain.

Figure 2a: Nikki Cavalieri shows artists pygmy hippo skull.

Figure 2b: Nikki Cavalieri explains the evolution of morphology in primates.









Figure 3: Kasey Pham botanical artist drawing squash.

In recent years there has been a push to change STEM (Science Teaching Education and Mathematics) to STEAM (STEAM plus an A for art) to ensure that creativity is not left out of education. A group of MSU scientists have been spending one afternoon each month communing with teen artists at a fantastic local (Lansing) community arts center called REACH!. Our goal is to connect MSU students and staff who seek to bridge science and art with junior high and high school artists. Through activities at REACH, we aim to link art and science in as many ways as possible. In one of our earlier visits, I brought museum specimens (Figure 2) for the REACH kids to sketch, emphasizing the link between biological form and function. Later, I helped them develop chimeras incorporating morphologies of plants and animals, endowed with adaptations befitting a randomly chosen (‘wheel of fortune’ style) environment. During another visit, Kasey Pham (Figure 3) brought a live chameleon and tarantula for students to draw. This gave them a chance to focus on the dynamics of animal movement, and the intricacies of the integument – how light catches hairs, scales, and colors. As a talented artist who is also a plant scientist, Kasey spent one afternoon teaching teens about the chemistry of henna tattooing and then left the kids (and us) with favorite animals stained on our arms.

Figure 4: Young artists examines a human skull, it is important to note there was a concurrent costume party.

Figure 5: Kasey Pham shares her artist notebook with students.

Figure 6: Artist drawing goliath frog, pygmy hippo and Dinocrocuta skull


Figure 7: Kasey Pham gives Eben Gering a henna tattoo.

Figure 8: Artist showing off their sweet henna tattoos.

Figure 9: Artist showing off their sweet henna tattoos.

The world is a much poorer place when we separate things that should be together. It is important that developing artists and scientists see that science and art are not opposed. Through this program and programs like it hopefully future students will understand it is not art or science it is art and science.


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