Exploring the intersection of biology and environment through art

Patrick Nagatani, 'Fin de Siècle, Bat Flight Amphitheater, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, 1989
Patrick Nagatani, U.S. 1945-2017, ‘Fin de Siècle, Bat Flight Amphitheater, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, 1989. Chromogenic Print, Gift of The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art Association, 2021.

This post was co-authored by

Mariëlle Hoefnagels, University of Oklahoma, Dep’t of Microbiology and Plant Biology
and Amanda Boehm-Garcia, University of Oklahoma, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

Art can highlight environmental issues and be a vehicle for change. While the role of art is as varied as the artists who create it, there are those whose practices intentionally challenge our perspectives, raise awareness, and pose difficult questions to give shape to the world around us. This approach is akin to the impetus that drives the sciences. Many artists, such as American photographer Patrick Nagatani (1945-2017), have melded the methodologies of visual language with detailed scientific study to raise public consciousness about environmental distress.

In fall 2021, we collaborated with Matt Taylor, non-majors biology instructor at the University of Oklahoma, to create a hands-on activity with a similar blend of science and artistic imagery.  The goal was to help students in BIOL 1005 (Concepts in Biology) illustrate an environmental issue that they care about and underscore its effects on people. 

To prepare for the activity, we had students first list three environmental issues that they care about, and for each, write 1-2 sentences that relate it to the biological concepts they had been learning about in class. Then, in another 1-2 sentences, we asked them to briefly describe the potential social and economic impacts of not only the issue but also its potential solutions.

We then convened at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (FJJMA) at the University of Oklahoma to view and discuss Nagatani’s exhibit Nuclear Enchantment (visit this link to click through all 40 images). After moving to New Mexico in 1987, Nagatani visited sites of nuclear testing and radiation in the state. He saw parallels between narratives constructed around the nuclear industry in New Mexico and those found in the film industry in Hollywood, where he had previously worked as a set designer. The Nuclear Enchantment series, created between 1988 and 1993, plays upon New Mexico’s nickname the “Land of Enchantment” to raise awareness of the effects of the nuclear industry on the state’s land and people. In Nuclear Enchantment, Nagatani makes visible a New Mexico whose “enchanting” vistas are poisoned by atomic waste and whose arsenal—whether celebrated by monuments or by missile displays outside schools—continues to threaten New Mexico’s inhabitants. 

Click the image above to take a virtual tour of Nuclear Enchantment: Patrick Nagatani, previously on display at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Amanda Boehm-Garcia, FJJMA’s Director of Learning + Engagement, gave the students a brief explanation of Nagatani’s background and allowed time for the group to explore his works on their own. The students then reconvened in the center of the exhibition for a discussion covering some similarities between art and science (e.g., both artists and scientists raise and address thought-provoking questions), as well as some ways that images and objects serve as a means of communicating ideas through visual language. Students were asked to hone their observational skills by describing various visual elements of the works, including color choices, mood, and lighting. 

The conversation then shifted to the rationale behind different compositional techniques. Through Nagatani’s photographs, the students studied conceptual reasons for depicting various locations, including outdoor landscape scenes, interiors, and constructed spaces. Additionally, the students thoughtfully considered the use of foreground, middle ground, and background, and the exaggeration of pictorial depth that Nagatani developed into a signature style. 

We then challenged the students to create an image in the style of Patrick Nagatani, using photography and props, to represent an environmental issue. We also asked them to write a paragraph describing how/where they created the image and what it represents. “Rules of the road” included the following: 

  • The image must be composed primarily of your own photo(s).
  • You may incorporate content from the Internet, but it must be credited to the original source and make up less than 15% of the total area of your submitted image.
  • If you have more than one photo, use Photoshop or a similar application to mesh the photos together into one image that shows how the issue affects nature and people.

Students had one week to turn in their images, after which groups who selected similar environmental issues presented their images to the class during lab. 

A number of students gave permission for their work to be publicly available online. We have included a small selection of the students’ work below; click to find all of the images, with accompanying descriptions. As you view the images, it is important to understand that none of these students had an art background or had taken any classes in the School of Visual Arts previously. We found it remarkable that the students picked up on Nagatani’s methods and were able to apply them to their own photographs, despite their not having had any experience working in this medium.

After the activity we surveyed the 55 students in the class and received 43 responses. The answers indicated that students appreciated the opportunity to be creative and to use visual media to explain environmental problems that were important to them. In addition, nearly 75% indicated they would like their image and description to be included as part of the museum’s exhibit, indicating pride and satisfaction in their work. We were particularly glad that students also came to appreciate the museum as a place to enrich their educational experience—over 80% indicated their interest in returning to it on their own. Most of all, we are confident that the class grasped the value of artistic means for communicating scientific ideas, especially about topics of vital concern, such as environmental degradation. As one student put it, 

I learned that art can convey many things in biology and it can have an impact on how people look at the environmental issues being conveyed.

Soiling the World

compost bin
On a cold morning after a winter storm, I start my day by putting a green bin at the top of my snowy driveway. Walking the dogs a few minutes later, I observe the pattern of brightly-colored containers in front of houses as if they were signs, green symbols of allegiance to compost, an ancient and Continue reading

World Soil Day 2021 – Sustainable land and water management to halt soil salinization

Salt affect soils poster from FAO
Figure 1: World Soil Day infographic from https://www.fao.org/world-soil-day/en/


Every December 5 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations recognizes World Soil Day. Through this celebration, the FAO acknowledges the importance of soil as a resource – in other words critical infrastructure – and sets a theme of soil science education for the subsequent year. This year the said theme is “Halt Soil Salinization, Boost Soil Productivity.”

Continue reading

The Critical Zone as Critical Infrastructure

Soil profile

Soil profile (northern France). Notice the distinct horizons— darkest at top, where it’s most organic rich and—below that— various shades of brown that reflect leaching and accumulation of minerals over the millennia of formation of this soil. All photos by author.

Infrastructure— “the set of fundamental facilities and systems that support the sustainable functionality of households and firms. Serving a country, city, or other area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function.” [Wikipedia] Continue reading

Moving: Rethinking Knowledge Production in the Anthropocene

This video embedded above is a trailer for Moving, an audiovisual presentation intended to be presented as a multichannel installation. Here, composite imagery and multi-tracked sound simulate the presence in exhibition of several video and audio sources.

Academics are a leading source of knowledge about ecosystems and about societies. They are also highly unified advocates for societal change to confront ecological crisis. However, academics rarely turn to their own practices with the same transformational demands. Why shouldn’t biologists, sociologists, or, to take up my own case, art historians fundamentally alter how they work to do better with respect to what their own inquiries tell them about humanity and the planet?

Continue reading

Solve Climate By 2030

image for blog

In honor of Earth Day 2021, we are posting the video of a webinar Lynn Soreghan and I organized at OU two weeks ago as part of an international initiative led by Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College. At over 100 universities around the US and across the world local experts presented steps individuals can take to address the climate crisis.

Our own Oklahoma Climate Dialog was moderated by Lynn, and featured four speakers talking about what each of us can do to make a difference when it comes to climate.

  • Edith Wilson, a Tulsa-based consultant on renewable energy and climate mitigation, spoke about the energy transition generally, but then focused on the carbon implications of our dietary choices.
  • Dirk Spiers, owner of Spiers New Technology, a leader in recycling batteries for electric vehicles, spoke about the benefits of electric vehicles–for climate and other aspects of life.
  • Sharina Perry, founder of Utopia Plastix, and inventor of the plant-based plastic it manufactures and distributes, spoke about being an intentional consumer.
  • Lindsey Pever, an attorney specializing in renewable energy clients, spoke about how to be an effective participant in the political process.

(For more information about the speakers, see the event website. The webinar was sponsored by OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, and the Environmental Studies Program in OU’s College of Arts and Sciences.)

An aspiration for the Solve Climate By 2030 project is that educators will devote class time to discussing climate change–under the rubric #MakeClimateAClass. To help with this effort the organizers at Bard have assembled a rich set of educational resources, including discussion templates for classes in a wide range of subjects. Other videos from this year’s series are being added to the Solve Climate By 2030 YouTube channel (you can also view videos from 2020’s dialogs). If you teach, our or another video might help get a discussion going in your class–and you might find one from your own state or country.

Our dialog did a great job of bringing into focus the question of how individual action bears on collective problems like climate change. Lynn and I will be back next week with some thoughts on that issue.

The End of Incrementalism

Step by Step Watercolor SketchVincent Desplanche, Sketches for a ‘Sentier Randocroquis’ at https://flic.kr/p/bhNYLM, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[We welcome Robert Lifset to the blog, to comment on the talk by Dr. Joe Nation posted here last week. This post completes our series on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health.]

This is a tale of two bills. Continue reading

The Human Harms and Many Meanings of “Rough on Rats”

[This post completes a set of three on pesticides, part of our current series on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The others, by Jennifer Ross, include an overview of insecticides, and a talk on the impacts of insecticides in south Texas.] Continue reading

Jennifer A. Ross on Pesticides and People

This spring we are offering a series of posts on the topic of Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The series is organized in conjunction with Continue reading

Pesticides and People

DDT advertisement

[We welcome Jennifer A. Ross to the blog, to continue our series on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The video of her talk in the associated speaker series will available next week.]

People have a long and complicated relationship with pesticides. It starts with us defining what a pest is, and then seeking Continue reading

“Toxic Masculinuty: California’s Salton Sea and the Environmental Consequences of Manliness”

Traci Brynne Voyles. 2020.  Environmental History 26, no. 1, pp. 127–141.
In 2018, two military aircraft flew over the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland body of water occupying the desert area of Imperial and Riverside Counties. Midair, the pilots decided to pull a prank: they used their planes to draw Continue reading

How do you solve a problem like the Salton Sea?

[We welcome Traci Brynne Voyles to the blog, to kick off a series this spring on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The video of her talk in the associated speaker series is available here.]

For the past decade and a half, I’ve been immersed in studying environmental disasters. I’ve focused on the ways they are shaped by various intersecting power structures: Continue reading