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.