Art and Science by Cedar Sanderson
Monday, I went back to school. I’m at the point where it’s all downhill from here, and I’m looking forward to wrapping it up. The first day of a semester, I’ve learned after 4 years of this, is usually sitting in classrooms having a syllabus read to us. Personally, I’ve usually reviewed it if the class was published online… and done the homework. I was scaring my highschool-age daughters by informing them that in college, you often have homework before the classes start. This doesn’t bother me, but I’m a non-traditional student.
I’m non-traditional, I’ve learned, in many ways. I’m pursuing a science degree (with a ridiculously long name. Let’s just say I recently made a judge raise her eyebrow and comment that it sounds impressive) but I am also an author and an artist. Now, once upon a time this wasn’t necessarily thought of as unusual. Although I’m not sure we can consider Leonardo DaVinci in any way normal (and no, I am NOT comparing myself to him!) science and art did walk hand in hand. Cameras were unknown, and the ability to sketch accurately was a necessity if you were trying to describe a specimen and give a visual of it.
Now? My classmates think I’m very odd indeed to be put out over the loss of an art class this semester. One of them was telling me how he’d taken art history because it was ‘good with girls’ and he could take dates to the art museum and impress them. I shook my head at him, laughed, and pointed out what I wanted was hands-on instruction, so I could learn to paint. I’d have managed it, except for some reason the school decided that Biochemistry students for some degrees didn’t need a lab, so they shut the second day option down… and I have to take Biochem. Art is a personal preference.
Now, this is my drive, to take the art classes for sanity, but I’ve discovered that my science classmates just don’t take art classes. My art classmates look at me like I have a second head when I talk about Bioinformatics or Analytical Chemistry, shudder, and say they are happy not to have to deal with anything that hard. Meanwhile I sit there and wonder when the two got separated.
It certainly seems that in schools as young as elementary ages, you either are on the STEM track, or the arts track, or the sports track… when my son was telling his teacher about how much he loved to read, and wanted to take band, and chorus, my husband was worried that in our small, redneck town, he’d get teased for his preferences (so far, he’s not had a peep from his new friends and he’s part of a happy study group that meets at the local library almost daily). I can’t help but wonder if this sort of tribalism has always been there, or if this is something new that has sprung up since the advent of the modern school system.
It’s not that you can’t be good at both art and science. I’m not a great artist, but with daily practice I’ve improved muchly. I’m left suspecting that it’s the myth of the talent. I hear “oh, wow, you are so talented! I can’t even draw stick figures!” all the time from classmates when I’m sketching in class (and other people when I’m sketching in public). The truth is that at one point, I couldn’t even draw a respectable stick figure. Heck, being able to draw a stick figure doesn’t bar you from being an artist, look at Randall Monroe and XKCD. What I did, was apply science to art. Look, in science you experiment, document, and the gold standard is reproducibility. In art, you can do the same. For me it was sparked by Mona Brookes’ Drawing with Children, a book I got to start teaching my children to draw. Her method is to break the drawings down into shapes, lines, dots, and so forth. I realized that I could manage that. In the Observational Drawing class I took in college, it was again not about ‘feeling’ the art in some way, tapping into an inborn sense of what art should be (snort. Hah! Ahem…) but it was about measurements, angles, and teaching the student to look, really look.
And it’s that part of art that makes me think we have lost a great deal by separating our art and science students into separate tribes. The artist’s eye is trained to ‘see’ at a greater level of detail than most of the rest of us. They are also taught to look, and look again. Simply snapping a photo isn’t enough to imprint onto the brain the specimen you are observing; when you have drawn it, you really know it.
Art isn’t something you are born with magic in your hands, to be able to create without effort. It’s a lot of work, and requires training. I can remember being told as a girl that you either had an art brain, or a science brain. While I do know that there is a lot of difference between the creativity necessary to create original art, and the dedication of the scientist to performing the same task over and over, jotting each result down as you do it… I don’t think that isolating the scientist from the artist is a good thing. The spark of creativity that is necessary for art, the imagination the writer brings to fiction, those are vital to the science world, if the science is to proceed beyond the paths of the known into the possible and mists of ‘what if?’ and ‘what happens if this goes on?’ and that’s where science fiction is born. Or perhaps the science fiction artist. I was creating a piece the other day, working on a scene set on an alien landscape, and contemplating the nature of light while I painted ship’s exhaust and the muzzle blasts from a mecha. If the light isn’t the Sun’s light, and the air is full of particulates, what do you get?
Science, and Art, meant to be together. It might get me funny looks, but I’ll finish my year of daily artworks, and I’ll be the better for it. I already am, some 240 days into the challenge. I’ll never be a great artist. But I will be a better one and it’s teaching me a lot. Maybe not as much as Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Invertebrate Zoology, or Botany, but at least I can sketch specimens, molecules, and so forth to convey my meaning in a legible manner!