I cannot end my series of miscellaneous posts (1,2,3) without mentioning one of my favorite topics: the relationship between art and botany. The example I want to explore here comes from a Kent State University blog post. This institution has an Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative (ESDRI), an intriguing title for a collaboration among individuals from across the university who are interested in connections between the built and natural worlds. One participant is Taryn McMahon, an assistant professor of print media and photography. Concerned with plants and ecology, she was looking for someone with similar interests and was led to Andrea Case, an associate professor of biology doing research on plant reproduction. I know from experience that individuals who share common interests but are sequestered in different colleges at a university may never find each other. That’s why an interdisciplinary enterprise like ESDRI is so important: it makes these links more likely to form.
McMahon was seeking to understand plants more deeply for a print-making project called “Intersecting Methods” curated by Matthew McLoughlin, a Maryland artist. Every two years he invites a number of printmakers to each submit a piece made in collaboration with a scientist for a portfolio that is exhibited and then each participant receives a set of all the prints. There is a website where you can see some of the earlier series. In the course of their collaboration, McMahon and Case discussed their research interests and processes. They came to appreciate how each approached the ideas they found intriguing. Case, curator of the Kent State Herbarium, showed McMahon specimens to emphasize that small details in plant structure matter in terms of identification and in how plants function. McMahon in turn was struck by the fact that her prints were about the same size as herbarium sheets and also, the plants in her prints were arranged very much like specimens as well.
There are also similarities between the working methods of print makers and scientists. Both start with an initial idea, question, or problem to solve, then experiment to find the right techniques, refine them as they go based on experimentation, do more experiments or make more prints after changing variables, and keep doing this until they come to a final result with which they are satisfied enough to make it public. Since Case does research on the genus Lobelia, she and McMahon decided to use plants she was growing in making the prints, work which they did together.
What I find most interesting about this collaboration is how the interests of artist and botanist coincided. Not surprisingly, they both emphasize the importance of observation. Case mentioned the need to be meticulous in documenting and observing plants. McMahon noted that a drawing starts with staring at the subject and understanding it; drawing comes only after understanding the form. One of her most important influences is the 17th-century Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, known for her paintings of insects and plants. McMahon’s work is very different but it shares Merian’s bold graphic style. The artist also quoted the philosopher of science Bruno Latour (2004), who argues that matters of fact for scientists can become matters of concern through art.
This is a beautiful and powerful idea. It says a great deal about both endeavors and speaks of a potent feedback loop between them. Art makes us look more carefully and feel more deeply, in this case, reaching a different level of understanding of the plant world as a source of color and form. This experience can make us more willing to look carefully at the plants we encounter. Looking often leads to questioning: why are the leaves hairy or the stems sticky or the flowers vividly colored? Looking more makes the plants in our environment more important to us. I know this for a fact. Since I’ve become plant-mad, I see so much more, examine so much more, and am amply rewarded with new knowledge and new questions to answer.
McMahon also sees the scientific viewpoint in dialogue with the art: asking questions about its meaning and its impact. Obviously her practice and Case’s are now in conversation with each other, and I hope they will continue their collaboration in the future. It could lead to a mutual enrichment of their respective projects, and also, perhaps most importantly, enrich their students’ learning experiences, so that the next generation will think of art and science as more closely and inextricably connected than was the case in the 20th century. The print that the two professors produced together is called “Layered Similarity” (see above). Bringing my own interpretation to it, as McMahon has invited, I see the dark silhouettes in the foreground as the pressed herbarium specimens and the colored forms bursting behind them as the living plants ready to jump from the page, full of life and in bloom. Yet they too have a hint of being specimens as well, note the insect damage to the leaves. These are plants that have been captured in the middle of their lives, warts and all—a disembodied leaf may suggest that its reverse side is being displayed. There are both literally and figuratively many layers to this print, and if you look at McLaughlin’s site you’ll see prints from other scientist/artist collaborations that all reward careful observation.
Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248. https://doi.org/10.1086/421123