Nature has been the muse of artists for centuries. Students in Megan Marlatt's summer class are learning firsthand how powerful that inspiration is.
Marlatt, a University of Virginia studio art professor, designed the course, "Beginning Drawing I and II: The Landscape, Small and Large," as an intensive immersion into the study of art through nature. The six students in the pilot session are spending two weeks at the University's Mountain Lake Biological Station in the hardwood forest of the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia, exploring the station's rich collection of insects, skulls, bones, stuffed animals and living specimens in the surrounding landscape.
Mountain Lake Biological Station, the field station for the College of Arts & Sciences' Biology Department, draws scientists and students from around the country to conduct research. But director Edmund D. "Butch" Brodie III said he was eager to have other disciplines share all the station has to offer and approached the College's McIntire Department of Art.
"I've been keen to get more of the University community to discover and use Mountain Lake Biological Station," Brodie said. "Because of our beautiful setting in the forest on top of a mountain, art seemed to me an obvious group that would appreciate the opportunity at the station. We have no shortage of natural inspiration and subject matter for those in the creative arts."
Third-year biology and art history major Maeve Hoyt, a January transfer student to U.Va. from McGill University in Montreal, said, "I feel like Mountain Lake is a little Utopia."
The experience is having an impact on both her fields of study. "I have already learned to visually analyze objects in a different way. I pay more attention to their texture, volume, lights and darks. These skills are the same used to analyze a work in art history, and the manipulative skills used to create a work are not much different than those used in experimental work," she said.
Marlatt experienced a similar discovery, while on a hike, she stumbled on experiments biology students were doing in the woods. They had placed little boxes around plants to measure growth, which visually struck her as being a work of art.
"Why does it look like art?" she asked and pointed out the parallels between the way artists and scientists work: Develop a problem or hypothesis and then come up with a strategy to solve it. "The method of exploration needs to be created by the scientist or artist," Marlatt said.
Brodie said he reached out to the art program for just that reason. "I believe the production of art and scientific research are more similar than most people realize. The creative processes have many parallels, and the motivations often are not so different. For many scientists, the major goals of research are to understand and communicate the details of the natural world," he said.
Fourth-year College student Jen Christoph, an economics major, is pleased to have time to take an elective away from her major and enjoy the mountain surroundings. "I have really enjoyed the way this course is structured specifically for Mountain Lake. A couple of times last week we spent most of the day sitting in the woods working on drawings," she said. "I have begun to look at everything differently. I find myself thoughtfully looking at everything around me now, trying to imagine how I would begin to capture that on paper."
She said that she enjoys the freedom art offers, in contrast to his more formulaic studies in economics. "Art is completely the opposite," she said. "You may have an idea but with endless ways to create art, the end result is often not what you first imagined. I think the two balance each other nicely."
Engineering student Quang Pham, who plans to minor in studio art, also appreciates the balance art and science bring to his life. "I cannot live without one or the other," he said. "One represents my logical side where everything makes sense and follows the rules; the other side allows me to let go and draw my strength on creativity and freedom where anything is possible.
"It's a balance I need in life. Plus, every engineer needs creativity."
Although they spend full days drawing, the students have free time to enjoy a hike or a dip in the water; to participate in the station's volleyball tournament or attend biology seminars; to simply mingle or talk at meals with others at the station.
Pham said he's taken in all the seminars. "I'm just trying to take advantage and am soaking them up like a sponge. For someone who is not knowledgeable about environmental and biological studies, these seminars just blow my mind away," he said. "These scientists and researchers are doing so much interesting work."
For Marlatt, art is a tool for visually thinking that can be applied to many different fields, and she embraces a campaign in Britain that advocates the importance of drawing for all disciplines. "Drawing is a tool for thinking visually and can be applied to many different fields," she said. "It's a tool that they do not have to be an art expert to use.
"I'd like to get the biology students to come draw with us."
Brodie applauded the alliance. "I hope this is the beginning of a long collaboration with the Art Department, and that it stimulates other groups to think about what they might do at Mountain Lake Biological Station," he said. "It has been wonderful to see the station through another set of eyes."