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Artists Charlie Brouwer and Jennifer L. Collins Explore Science, Spirituality in AAAS Show
Those who think science and religion—or spirituality, in this case—can't coexist might consider visiting the current, collaborative exhibit at the AAAS of painting and sculpture by father-and-daughter team Charlie Brouwer and Jennifer L. Collins. They'll likely find it to be a powerful expression of inquisitiveness, spirituality, and hope.
"I have an inquisitiveness about the natural world," Brouwer said, which led him to begin his college education as a biology major. He soon realized that this inquisitiveness can be fulfilled in different ways—through science, art, or religion—and decided to fulfill it through art, a more natural fit for him.
Collins, a painter, and Brouwer, a wood sculptor, are both fascinated with nature and its simultaneous constancy and mysteriousness. In her oil and acrylic landscape paintings, Collins says, she responds to places she feels a connection to: an open road at dusk; a rolling hillside under a canopy of puffy, white clouds; or a beautiful creek in autumn, full of stones and burgundy leaves.
Brouwer constructs with wood because it comes naturally to him, he says. His indoor and outdoor sculptures reflect his daily experiences, memories, or thoughts on life and spirituality. On many of his sculptures, Brouwer carves phrases relevant to the theme of the piece, such as "Some dark nights are filled with glory by lesser lights," inscribed on a small, wall-mounted sculpture—made of hemlock wood, acrylic paint and crayon—which depicts a wanderer gazing through a field of pine trees at a starry sky. These inscriptions are his own thoughts, quotes from songs, literature or the Bible.
The team's work will be on display in the AAAS gallery at 12th and H Streets, NW, in Washington, D.C., through 25 May. This show comprises 47 pieces and is called "Pay Attention," because, according to a statement from the artists, "paying attention is an attitude necessary for art, science, spiritual enlightenment, philosophy, interpersonal and intercultural relationships, common sense and just plain living."
When one pays attention to the artwork in the gallery, one sees that Collins expresses multiple ideas in some of her contemporary horizontal diptychs—paintings split into two horizontal panels—by depicting two different scenes on each panel. This is her exploration of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, she says. For example, the top panel of "On the Way Home," depicts the microcosm: A serene, open road at dusk that Collins must have traveled on many times and is quite familiar with. The bottom panel of the same painting, the macrocosm, depicts a beautiful mountain range, also at dusk. She seems to be saying that the world can be so familiar, like an oft-traveled road, but it is simultaneously vast and mysterious, like an infinite mountain range.
"My concept of art is something that's searching for meaning, using the landscape to explore and to push the viewer further beyond the usual," Collins says. "Scientists and artists both seek to understand this earth and its place in the universe."
And it's this search, common to science, religion, and art, that brings this show to AAAS.
As the search results in scientific advances in many fields, these advances are beginning to encroach on issues of core human values, leading to increased tension between science and society, and thus leaving many in the scientific community concerned.
AAAS works hard to address this tension through a number of programs. For example, to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities the AAAS created the Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) in 1995. Through national conferences, public fora, working groups, research seminars and lectures, DoSER aims to contribute to the level of scientific understanding in religious communities and to promote multidisciplinary education and scholarship of the ethical and religious implications of advancements in science and technology.
In response to the "Pay Attention" exhibit, DoSER Director Connie Bertka said: "This exhibit is a striking reminder of the awe the physical world inspires, a common denominator for both science and religion or spirituality. One of the pieces in particular, 'Sometimes on a Clear Day Two Worlds I Can See,' is reminiscent for me of one reason why the AAAS DoSER program exists: To encourage thoughtfulness about and an appreciation of the relationship between science and religion, an appreciation that too often only seems to come on an exceptionally clear day. In their work, these artists have captured those exceptional days."
Although he works in a different medium, Brouwer's work has an element of spirituality and optimism about the world that's similar to Collins'. Maybe that reflects the many family experiences they've shared over the years. They started working together 10 years ago, after their work appeared alongside each other in a group show, leading them to realize how complimentary it is.
"Because we're father and daughter, we found ourselves orbiting the same sun," Brouwer said of the interconnectedness of his and Collins' work. They're orbiting the same campus, also, as both father and daughter currently teach art at Radford University in Virginia.
Detail from "The Land"
Their collaborations often result in hybrids that could be described as three-dimensional paintings, or perhaps painted sculptures. Often Collins produces a painting and passes it along to Brouwer for his sculptural interpretation of it. The final product might be a painting in a wooden frame by Brouwer carved with images that mirror or compliment those found in the painting.
They use identical or similar metaphors in their work, such as the sky, the clouds, and leaves, for instance. Collins and Brouwer both identified leaves as a symbol for the passing of time, changing of the seasons, and the fragility of life. The family spent a lot of time hiking, Brouwer said, so the common symbols may come from those shared experiences.
One of the most prominent themes in Brouwer's work is ladders. In Christianity, they are recognized as bridging the gap between heaven and earth. To Brouwer, and in many societies, he said, the ladder is a symbol of leaving the earth and ascending to a state of transcendence. In his piece called, "The Arrival"—made of bass wood, hardwood dowel, and acrylic paint—he uses ladders to depict a figure that has arrived at the state of transcendence, with a suitcase.
"One of the main things an artist needs to do is be authentic," Brouwer said. "I have a strong interest in the spiritual side of the world, the side you don't see. I think it's an important part of my life, experience, and thought. And if I believe that artwork should be about things that are important to me, that's what is important to me, and it comes through."
He believes that the different disciplines of art, science, and religion might have much more in common than some people normally think. Brouwer mentioned a book of conversations with the poet Li-Young Lee, titled "Breaking the Alabaster Jar." What interested him was Lee's contention that science, religion, and art are all concerned with aesthetics. Usually, he says, only art is regarded as being concerned with aesthetics, and aesthetics is regarded as the philosophical study of the meaning of beauty.
"His observation that science and religion are also seeking beauty first surprised me," Brouwer said, "but then it started to make sense, because I have come to understand that whatever is beautiful is also good and true and that goodness and truth are always beautiful."
Virginia Stern, director of the association's Art of Science and Technology Program, who organized the exhibit with AAAS curator Shirley Koller, said that the AAAS is presenting this exhibit because it shows that art, spirituality, and religion can co-exist with science.
"While painters and sculptors are exploring the nature of the world on canvas, wood, metal, or marble, scientists are exploring nature in the lab," Stern said.
The AAAS gallery is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
6 March 2007