Carter Shappy learned many skills in his undergraduate work as a printmaker. He learned how to use a press, mastered a variety of printing techniques and developed aesthetic tastes related to color and form. He also learned how to observe, listen and interpret.
The latter set of skills served him well for his latest piece of art, “Colorcosm,” which is part of the “Fantastic Empiricism: The Science of Mesocosms and the Expression of Light” exhibition at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. Shappy, a 2015 Maine College of Art graduate from Vermont now living in Portland, is Bigelow’s first artist in residence. His 20-foot, vertical cylindrical print, on view in the lobby of the East Boothbay lab through August, helps explain the ocean acidification research that’s ongoing at Bigelow.
Bigelow is one of two major Maine labs with nascent programs aimed at illuminating science through art.
Shappy’s piece is a series of six screen-printed plastic cylinders, hung in succession from top to bottom. It emulates a mesocosm, a large enclosure used in underwater research by Bigelow scientists.
The art hangs like a free-floating tube, suspended from above and subject to the natural movement of air and filtered light through the lobby windows and glass walls. It begins in shades of red at the top and descends into deep underwater blues at the bottom. The surface is printed with squiggly shapes that resemble algae.
The merging of art and science isn’t new, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the great Renaissance thinker, is the most famous artist who used science in his work. He was obsessed by observation, which led to his sustained interest in human anatomy and engineering. James Audubon gave us our first detailed look at birds, and Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt painted the glory of their travels in the American West, their work as much about naturalist exploration as dramatic landscape.
In Maine, contemporary Maine artist Kim Bernard uses quantum physics as a foundation for her sculptures, and the late Frederick Lynch based many of his paintings on mathematical ideas.
What’s new is the effort of the state’s most sophisticated research labs to seek out artists as a bridge to the public. Bigelow is the latest Maine science lab to hire an artist to help explain its work in a way that non-science people can understand. MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor has hosted art exhibitions and visiting artists for five years. This summer, MDI shows a range of traditional and contemporary Maine art as part of “A Fresh Field of Light: Artists, Naturalists and the Vision for Acadia,” on view through the fall.
“We’re working on a number of levels to make science more accessible, and art is one way,” said Jeri Bowers, MDI’s director of public affairs. “Our goal is to make people aware of who we are, what we do and why it’s relevant to them. Our art program has been a wonderful step forward in our ability to that.”
In addition to the exhibition, MDI also hosts regular Arts Meets Science Cafes, where artists and lecturers from the community address topics related to the exhibition or themes that involves art and science.
A SIMPLE EXPLANATION
Steve Archer, a senior research scientist at Bigelow in East Boothbay, said Shappy’s cylinder print does a better job explaining his climate research than he could ever do. He’s tried. People’s eyes glaze over, he said.
“They struggle with the scale of it,” Archer said. “We wanted something eye-catching to the public to build a story around.”
The story involves the impact of ocean acidification and the exchange of a biologically produced gas between the ocean and atmosphere. Shappy’s print isn’t a direct narrative of the research, but an abstract impression of his understanding of Archer’s work. As an artist, part of his job is simply to listen, observe and process information.
He spent four months with Archer and his research associate, Carlton Rauschenberg, asking questions and looking at things under the microscope. “I was allowed to do what I wanted. A lot was just being around what they were doing, and being a fly on the wall at times,” he said.
Their conversations covered “a ridiculous number of topics” but the artist and the scientists found common ground around discussions involving color and how light is absorbed at increasing ocean depths. Shappy’s studies at MECA involved a lot of color theory, so the topic resonated.
“Colorcosm” involves six vertical screen-printed plastic rings, each representing the light spectrum at various ocean depths. Red light disappears just below the surface. Blue light reaches deepest. Those light properties affect ocean life.
On each ring surface, Shappy printed images of coralline algae, which commonly washes ashore in Maine. He used a copper-plate printing process, which involves the use of acid, to draw a parallel to ocean acidification. Acidification, he noted, has begun to “etch” the shells of shell-bearing creatures, making it difficult for them to grow their skeletons.
That’s a lot of information to pack into one piece of art. The idea is to grab people’s attention long enough to make them think and perhaps ask their own questions, just as Shappy did. It’s dramatic and unexpected, and creates a lens through which people can view the work that happens at Bigelow, Archer said.
“It does what we tried to set out to do,” he said. “It’s certainly eye-grabbing, and behind the beauty is a hidden story that begins to explain some of the work we do here at the lab.”
CELEBRATING ACADIA’S 100TH
Up the coast in Bar Harbor, MDI Biological Laboratory has hosted artists and exhibitions for five years. This summer’s exhibition, which hangs in the hallways and public areas of the lab, involves more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture from the past 100 years, and includes many contemporary artists working in Maine today.
The exhibition coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of Acadia National Park and explores the relationship between art and science on Mount Desert Island. The exhibition is a departure for MDI. Typically, the lab brings in artists to work with scientists on collaborative pieces, much like Bigelow did this summer with Shappy.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Acadia, MDI opted for a more comprehensive exhibition that looks at the history of collaboration between artists and scientists. Among the people who helped establish the park was George Dorr, who also was instrumental in beginning the lab in 1921. The park was founded to preserve the beauty of Mount Desert and also as a working laboratory to study nature, Bowers said.
Annette Carbajal works as an independent curator for the labs, and she co-curated the exhibition with Bonnie Gilfillan of the lab. Together, they selected and hung more than 150 pieces of art.
Among the contemporary artists whose paintings are included is Ben Lincoln, who grew up on Mount Desert and works in a studio that once was a workshop where his father built wooden boats. In July, Lincoln spoke about the power of observation in a public talk that was part of the lab’s ongoing Art Meets Science Cafe discussion series.
Medical illustrations, quantum mechanics, string theory and genetics have always informed his work, he said. The act of concentrated observation, he said, can change how we perceive things we think we know, adding depth to our understanding.
Lincoln’s paintings in the exhibition include a Cape May warbler, an example of the direct observation of nature; a hurricane-chasing airplane, which illustrates observational tools; and an allegorical work that explores the idea of observing one’s inner self.
He’s become friends with MDI scientist Dustin Updike, an assistant professor at the lab. They’ve learned to appreciate each other’s work and how similar their disciplines are. “I think people are starting to realize that there’s a lot of art biology,” he said. Having artists on site has created conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, he said, and those conversations have led to better understanding in the community about the work of the labs, he said.
South Portland artist Jeff Woodbury has two prints in the show, which he made by making rubbings of the surface of logs after he removed the bark. The rubbings reveal the calligraphic nature of the beetles that live in the surface of the trees. Their paths and the traces of their activity resemble maps, or mazes, after Woodbury renders his rubbings as black and white prints.
Actually, they look like a lot of things to him, including in his wildest imagination an ancient tribal fight involving warring factions of armed men. “It looks like they are coming over the ridge and attacking these guys and taking over their lands. At least, that’s what I see,” he said.
Woodbury collects logs during his walks in the woods. The logs he used to make the images that are in the MDI show came from the woods off Wilkinson Park in South Portland, where Woodbury’s kid was playing baseball.
Woodbury likes to find art “at the weird edges of my fascination with the world around me,” he said.
The images made by the beetles in the log may be random to the casual observer. To Woodbury, they represent the language of nature.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Fantastic Empiricism,” featuring “Colorcosm” by Carter Shappy
WHERE: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, 60 Bigelow Drive, East Boothbay
WHEN: On view through the fall; the lab is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Public tours are available from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12, with a reservation. Weekly Cafe Scientifique lectures at 6 p.m. Tuesdays, through Aug. 23
MORE INFO: 315-2567,bigelow.org
WHAT: “A Fresh Light: Artists, Naturalists and the Vision for Acadia”
WHERE: MDI Biological Laboratory, 159 Old Bar Harbor Road, Salisbury Cove
WHEN: On through Sept. 30; guided tours are held twice weekly at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, with a reservation. The exhibition is open for the weekly Art Meets Science Cafes at 5 p.m. every Monday in the Kinne Library Sept. 19.
MORE INFO: mdibl.org/events