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Both Artists and Scientists Observe, Ask Questions, Even Propose Solutions

Speakers at a presentation tied to the latest AAAS Art Gallery exhibit addressed the similarities between artists and scientists as well as the intersections between art, science and policy.

Current and former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows participating in "Visualizing Science Policy in 20 x 20" challenged themselves at the 20 September event to present 20 slides depicting their work for 20 seconds each. The fellows were joined by artists featured in "The Art of Science Policy," an exhibit in the AAAS Art Gallery celebrating the 40th anniversary of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships.

As director of the fellowships program, Cynthia Robinson strives to help people understand what scientists do. "One of the ways to tell our stories is through visual media and I think that's partly why this event and this exhibit is so special," she said.

The exhibit featured the work of 16 artists, including textiles, photography, illustration and paintings, inspired by subjects including public health, social media, technology, national security and climate change.

"Artists and scientists have a lot in common. They observe the world, question and even offer solutions to worldly conditions," said Olga Francois, senior project director of outreach and engagement for the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. "Of course, no one artist or no one piece of art can tell the story of global warming, for example, so tonight, we simply continue the dialogue represented in the artwork downstairs."

"Scientists are like artists whose medium is knowledge itself, juxtaposing old ideas and finding new ways of thinking in the space between," said Gwenn Seemel, a painter featured in the gallery. "We are necessary when we do our jobs right, when artists aren't creating propaganda or advertising, when scientists don't fall into the trap of ideology. When we are asking questions, we are the spark of democracy. We are conversation."

Seemel's portraits in the gallery, from her "Apple Pie" series, featured first and second generation Americans juxtaposed with American icons. For example, a painting titled "Ellis Island Pilgrim" features a portrait of a Bosnian-American man dressed as a pilgrim. The painting is a creative take on a green card where the portrait takes the place of the identification photo and a turkey handprint replaces the fingerprint usually included on green cards. It also includes a faint watermark that combines the seals of the Department of Justice, which previously issued green cards, and the Department of Homeland Security, which started issuing green cards in 2003.

"This painting is part of a series of 19 paintings and they're not answers to the question of what it means to be an American," Seemel said. "They're more access points into that question, another way of entering into it, maybe a way that you hadn't thought about pilgrims, immigrants, what they have in common, and so it allows you to, as the audience, react to it. Again, it's still about those questions."


Phographic art designChrysalis. Digital Photograph by Al Teich, 2008 [Courtesy Teich]

Ed Chen, inventor and CEO of Viceroy Chemical, Inc., a start-up environmental engineering company and artist Tara Cronin both drew inspiration for their work from blood and chlorophyll. The product of Cronin's interest, her "T for Transition" photography series, was part of the exhibit in the gallery.

"I found myself thinking, how crazy is this, that underneath all of the neurosis, all of the digging, all of the conscious experiences that we have, we're just blood," said Cronin. "We're sinew. We're synapses. We're just bone and skin. So I can't get over that. I don't know if that's really crazy to you guys but I love that contrast."

As an environmental engineer concerned about climate change, Chen was inspired to develop a reactor that sequesters carbon dioxide. "Basically, we're trying to simulate a plant," Chen said. "Everyone is worried about carbon dioxide but plants remove carbon dioxide from the air all the time so it makes sense that we can do the same thing. And it goes back to what Tara was saying about how there are kind of these basic components that make up nature."

As student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Samantha Dempsey, an exhibiting artist, decided that she wanted to make art that could affect and raise awareness of issues in science, including extinction. Cute endangered species, like pandas, receive lots of attention and financial support unlike ugly animals, like St. Helen's giant earwig, "even though they're both equally important to genetic diversity on our planet," Dempsey said. "So if I wanted to get people to start caring about the giant earwig as much as the panda, I just had to think about how do people show they're caring about loss as humans?"

Dempsey created commemorative temporary tattoos mourning the losses of three obscure extinct species - the Florida fairy shrimp, the oblong rock snail and St. Helen's giant earwig – and made posters of models wearing the tattoos. The tattoos will also be distributed at local events in the Providence, Rhode Island area, she said.

When Dempsey received the RISD-Maharam STEAM Fellowship, she went to the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation where she created a comic that communicated the principles of primary care redesign, an animation that explained genomic sequencing, and a kit for collecting visual patient narratives.

"Design is not something simply to be brought in at the end, to make data pretty," Dempsey said. "Design is something that affects our relationship with science and also affects the way that we make science. In the end, science and art have a lot more in common than I think any of us realize and I think that we are also the best when we work together."

View The Art of Science Policy image gallery on the FellowsCentral website.