EcoScience + Art

Posted: November 5, 2013 at 8:56 am, Last Updated: November 7, 2013 at 6:52 am

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By Michele McDonald

ecoscience logoScientists and artists don’t live in such different worlds and can find inspiration in each other’s work, say two George Mason University professors.

And to prove it, the pair — Changwoo Ahn from ecology and Mark Cooley from art — have launched a new project called EcoScience + Art. It kicks off at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, in Research Hall, Room 163, with a talk by eco-art pioneer Patricia Johanson.

“I think both artists and scientists use creativity in our discoveries and we share goals and ideas,” says Cooley, an associate professor in the School of Art. “Artists ask questions and so do scientists. It’s a good union.”

Finding connections in other fields is inspiring, says Ahn, associate professor in Environmental Science and Policy. He specializes in the field of wetlands research, which brings together disciplines from natural science to engineering to public policy.

Patricia Johanson. Photo by Scott Hess

Eco-art pioneer Patricia Johanson will speak at Mason. Photo by Scott Hess

“I think EcoScience + Art can be a great way for the Mason community to have people from other fields meet and talk with each other,” Ahn says. “I want the campus to be a place for students to stay longer because they have so much to do.”

Ahn and Cooley are starting EcoScience + Art with a speaker series, but they hope ecologically minded artwork, along with art shows, could be a future result. Ahn wants artists to understand and be inspired by the science behind ecology. “A healthy ecosystem provides clean water, clean air and healthy food,” he says.

Art can give new expression to scientific fact and help change how people look at their world, Cooley says. “In terms of ecology, it’s important to understand it’s not just about getting the data, it’s about changing the culture.”

Frequently art is almost an afterthought — for example, a large sculpture is added at the end of a major project to adorn the grounds of a building. But it can be more than that, Cooley says, as he envisions artists, architects and engineers working together in the beginning stages of a project.

Johanson’s work shows how art can enhance a large-scale industrial project. Since the 1960s, Johanson has lent an artistic perspective to such facilities as water treatment systems, municipal flood basins and sewers in Utah, California, Texas and Pennsylvania.

“She’s the epitome of what we’re talking about,” Cooley says of Johanson’s scope. Sewage treatment plants can include artistic elements that shape how people see and relate to the project.

EcoScience + Art also is part of finding new ways to explain science, Ahn says. Ahn wants to push his students by encouraging them to present their project findings to grade-school students because they need to be able to explain science to anyone. “If you cannot explain your work to a 6-year-old, you may not fully grasp it,” Ahn says. “You may need to learn more.”

And wanting to learn more about how other fields affect each other is what brought Ahn to art. “I just started searching, being a detective,” he says. That’s when he spotted Cooley’s Eco-Art class and wondered if they could combine interests.

“I brought Mark to the Wetland Mesocosm Compound to show him what we do,” Ahn says. At the compound, small versions of wetland habitats are kept in plastic bins for student research. Ahn calls them “mini-universes in plastic tubs.”

Cooley has taught an EcoArt class at Mason for several years. It’s a natural offshoot of his interest in ecology. “I really enjoy the cross-pollination of art students and science students,” Cooley says.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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