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Dec. 8, 2010
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Artscape: departments connect art and science

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – You can find artists who draw inspiration from science. And you can find scientists who paint, but you don’t often see a merger of fine arts and geology like Slippery Rock University’s interdisciplinary research program in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
         The “Synergy on the Landscapes” collaboration involves teaching geology majors how to include artistic considerations of light, dimension and perspective in their notebook illustrations of the land. The improved sketches enhance students’ ability to analyze and understand the landscape and its geologic processes.
        Art majors, who participate in the fieldwork, learn a little geology and find inspiration for sketches, paintings, sculptures, fibers and prints.
        “Our goal is to foster profound outcomes in great student enrichment at a relatively minor expense and to do it in an interdisciplinary fashion,” said Patrick Burkhart, SRU professor of geography, geology and the environment. “Geologists really are profoundly captivated by landscapes. And they enjoy seeing a wonderful painting or drawing nearly as much as going to distant lands themselves. Geologists really have a soft spot in their heart for landscape.”
       Since launching the collaboration in 1999, more than 50 SRU students have participated in the two-week field experience, logging more than 1,000 field days in the 244,000-square-mile park.  Katherine Mickle, assistant professor of art, teaches geology majors how to sketch and has participated in several Badlands expeditions.
          Burkhart, Mickle, and Eli Blasko, an art major from Mercer, wrote a paper that was the basis for Mickle’s recent presentation about integrating art and science at the Geological Society of America’s National Conference in Denver. Art majors have also presented Badlands-inspired art at conferences, symposia and exhibitions.
           Burkhart, who has been taking students to the Badlands every May for 10 years, said the idea for a partnership came to him during a 2005 expedition. He said students were consistently failing to recognize elements of the landscape such as the stepped lower prairie, escarpment and upper prairie.  He wanted to enrich their examination of this compelling landscape, which includes unusual caves.
           “I sat the students down on a high peak with a fine vista and asked them to draw,” Burkhart said. “I really realized that I didn’t know how to teach students to draw. I didn’t know how to give them appropriate instructions so that they might stand a chance of seeing what I was seeing on a landscape.”
         While many students take digital cameras into the field, sketching improves students’ power of observation, Mickle and he said.
            “With a digital camera, you can shoot 24 pictures in a minute,” he said. “But you’re so busy pointing and clicking, you fail to look at the subject; you fail to analyze the subject. Now I have the luxury of allowing students to sit and look at the landscape for hours on end, which is what it takes to produce a decent drawing of a complex landscape. So your eye sees in greater detail, and you start to learn perspective, lighting and tonation.”
          Burkhart said the Badlands experience could be pivotal for students interested in pursuing geology, as well as for those who are not.
        “As a professor, I am fisherman. I cast nets and hope for a large catch,” he said.  “Some of the students find out that roughing it in the badlands is not for them. Part of a young person’s search for direction in life is to find what they want to do, and along they way they find out what they don’t want to do.”
           Kelly Wood, a 2008 SRU graduate who received a degree in fine art, said the trip to the badlands was one of her most memorable SRU experiences.
          “All the students piled into one big SRU van and drove west,” she said. “We stopped at many great places along the way, and we went for an impromptu swim in the Mississippi River, saw great land formations and drew them.”
         The art majors coached the geology majors on drawing. She said students learned to work together, even though there was friction over the pace of hikes and outdoor work.
         “The geology students were getting the hang of it when they were doing drawings and looking at our drawings we made,” Wood said.  “I know I would look at the soil formation and think to myself, ‘yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber.’ The geology students would look at the same formation and think, ‘Oligocine Epoch, 30 million years ago.’”
         There we funny moments, such as being covered with greasy sunscreen, dirt and grime and wondering about your next shower, Wood said. Students also experienced the exhilaration of seeing a wild bison wander through camp – a giant beast that “looked right back as it grunted and stomped about seven feet away from me…still to this day, just…wow,” Wood said.
         When students arrived back on campus, Wood said she helped geology students mat their photographs, and she created a collage of photos that she keeps in her room. Creating sketches on site improved her drawing skills as well, Wood said.
        “I learned patience with art as well as creating quality art faster,” Wood said. “The trip has changed the way I create art and think about the world. I learned a bout history, geography, teamwork, art, survival and life. There are so many memories I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
            Mickle said the collaboration shows that science is not all about logic and facts, but also beauty and creativity. Her goal is the help geology students improve their technical drawing skills so that they can better interpret the landscape, improve observation and see something different in the rock, such as the outline of a face.
            “I talk to them about drawings and impressions and point out, that as artists, we can go in so many different directions. It’s not just a scientific illustration. It’s fine art. I try to get them to observe and visually translate what they’re observing, which is very difficult in any case and takes practice. It’s mostly just practice.”
            Mickle recalled the weather as extreme.  “We had this storm that was blowing 70, 80 miles per hour wind,” she said. “There was one tent that they never found again.”
          Burkhart said the elements make the Badlands special.  “The Badlands have a world class, rugged, intriguing landscape, and they are well named.  They are a difficult place for people to live. They are either too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. And the wind, ah, a kid from Pittsburgh can’t even believe there is wind like that. Any given day the Badlands would kill a fool, and they do.”