April 27, 2012 — Artists and scientists gathered at the University of Virginia's Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center April 20-22 to paint, as well as study, salt marshes on the Eastern Shore.
The center's manager, Art Schwarzschild, a research faculty member in the Department of Environmental Sciences of the College of Arts & Sciences, spearheaded the art and ecology workshop that taught local public school art teachers how to integrate environmental sciences into their classes.
Funds for the workshop came from the National Science Foundation's support for the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research Program. Nine teachers from the Eastern Shore, Newport News, Williamsburg and Yorktown areas attended, and each received certification credits for participating.
Schwarzschild said he believes that the best way to expand an academic audience, as well as inspire more young scientists, is through cross-disciplinary teaching. "If you can figure out ways to tie two disciplines together, it can create a much more meaningful and memorable learning experience," he said. "We're trying to forge linkages between the processes of art and science.
"There are a lot of similarities between the two disciplines. Both start with making observations about the natural world with the scientific and creative method. Both disciplines end at the same place – creating new vantages to see the world."
At the workshop, the instructors learned painting "en plein air," a French term for painting outdoors and capturing the landscape around you on canvas. At the center, the teachers focused on salt marshes.
Schwarzschild considers plein air landscape painting a "natural record of the world around you." The paintings can also help preserve a historical past of the landscape, he said.
In addition to painting the salt marshes, teachers also learned about the ecology of the marshes and the history of the Eastern Shore.
Salt marshes pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and this stored carbon dioxide can eventually become coal or oil underground, Schwarzschild explained. But when salt marshes are destroyed in favor of buildings or parking lots, much of the stored carbon dioxide is re-released into the atmosphere.
Learning the science behind the landscape can also pay dividends in the art itself, much like portrait painters have to understand anatomy to create a work "that's believable by others," Schwarzschild said.
"The same thing is true if you want to paint a landscape. You have to understand an underlying ecology and hydrology … if you want to draw a realistic landscape," he said.
Laura McGowan, an art teacher at Occohannock Elementary School in Northampton County, said, "I think the combination of plein air painting and ecology was a great idea, since plein air painting really focuses your attention on the natural world. It was great to know what we were looking at so intently."
She plans to use observational drawings and painting outside in her classroom and to incorporate science into her art lessons, she said.
The teachers' paintings from the class will be displayed in a traveling exhibit. The exhibit will first be displayed at a local cultural museum on the Eastern Shore, then in U.Va.'s Clark Hall.
In the future, Schwarzschild wants to expand the program, possibly including other arts such as dance, sculpture and photography.
– by Lisa Littman