The Art of Science: Students look through microscopes to find inspiration
By Amanda Granato
For the last decade, the architecture of the Baylor Sciences Building has housed 508,000 square feet of bare, beige walls. However, a small committee has large-scale plans for the bland walls, and they have taken their first steps with the installation of six pieces of student art in the building.
This past fall, students from the Advanced Drawing class, taught by Julia Hitchcock, associate professor of art, spent six hours in Dr. Dan Sample’s histology lab observing tissue slides and creating their initial sketches for the pieces. The drawings are abstracted works made with graphite and alcohol inspired by various tissue samples such as heart muscle, ovarian tissue and nerve.
“I wanted the students to realize that there’s a difference between what we see here and what we see below the surface,” Hitchcock said. “The microscopic imagery was a vehicle to explore something different.”
Put up through the efforts of the recently formed Committee for Art in the Baylor Sciences Building, the pieces are displayed on the second floor landing at the entrance to the A hall. Yukon, Okla., senior Carolina Low said she enjoys knowing her artwork is the first to hang in the building.
“It’s neat to bridge the gap between sciences and humanities and arts,” Low said. “I think anyone can benefit from seeing something interesting, especially when it relates to them. To see scientific artwork in the science building is special.”
Known for incorporating artwork and paintings into his lecture slides, Samples, a temporary full-time lecturer, said he believes firmly in celebrating the similarities between scientists and artists, noting that centuries ago scientists like Leonardo da Vinci were artists as well.
“If you think about it, scientists generally are curious and creative and they’re observant,” Samples said. “They record what they see, their observations. Artists are curious about what’s around them, they have really strong powers of observation, and they record what they see or their interpretation of what they see in what we call art.”
When Samples brought the art students into his lab, he found the students could pick out irregular pathologies in the tissue samples faster than many of his histology students did. Not surprised by this, Mark Anderson, chair of the art department, said art students spend hundreds of hours learning how to see things, as opposed to simply looking at them.
“There are several kinds of learning,” Anderson said. “The university talks about critical thinking as a goal for students, as it should, and visual awareness is an important part of critical thinking.”
Leander senior Kendal Kulley said she felt the experience expanded her idea of the resources science can provide for art.
“We went into the lab and I was just blown away by how much I had access to that I didn’t realize,” Kulley said. “Getting to know more of the science department was actually really helpful because I got a lot of pictures.”
Motivated by the project to take up a deeper interest in science, alumna Sarah Groman spent extra time looking at slides with Samples and began taking introductory courses in science after graduation.
“I think that art is a science and that science is an art,” Groman said. “Both are an attempt to discover a truth and both offer a lot of possibilities as far as learning and discovery goes. When you put the two together those possibilities are just exponentially increased.”
Dr. Lauren Barron, medical humanities associate director, said the idea of introducing artwork into the building came from 2012 Cherry Award winner and organic chemist Dr. Brian Coppola, an art enthusiast. Barron said she is extremely passionate about incorporating more art into the science building because she said she believes enriching the visual environment is important for students.
“Scientists need to be able to see things from different perspectives,” Barron said. “They need to be able to shift paradigms, they need to be able to step out of their own habits of mind and be able to approach problems from a different angle. Science is very creative. There is a tremendous amount of creativity and artistry that goes into good science.”
The committee for art in the Baylor Sciences Building has only met a handful of times. The committee consists of Samples; Hitchcock; Barron; Anderson; Dr. Robyn Driskell, divisional dean for humanities & social sciences; and Dr. Kenneth Wilkins, divisional dean for sciences. Anderson, the committee chair, said there are many challenges involved in bringing art into the science building, not least of which being the size of the building and the lack of pre-developed spaces to display pieces safely. However, he said he feels that art is important to a building.
“In my experience, and I’ve been teaching 38 years, any time you put art up in a hallway or in someone’s office they will never be comfortable with bare walls ever again,” Anderson said.
With the large size of the science building and the difficulties involved in finding resources for a project of this scale, bringing art to BSB walls is expected to take several years.
“It’s not something you want to rush into,” Samples said. “We’re not trying to decorate the building, we’re trying to bring art into the Baylor Sciences Building, and in my opinion there is a big difference.”
In addition to searching for scientifically inspired art from outside sources, the committee wants to work on making more collaborations between the art and science departments possible and potentially making some of the equipment and instrumentation at the BSB more available to the art department.
“Science is here to serve humanity; art is here to serve humanity,” Hitchcock said. “At the end of the day, the scientists go home and they have to navigate the same world the artists have to navigate when they go home. If we can each enhance the quality of life through our different disciplines then we are doing our jobs.”