Biocreativity on the Road: Over The River, in Colorado

Let’s talk landscape ecology today. And contemporary art. In fact, let’s talk about an art project so big, it’s been over 20 years in the making, and it’s the only one to have ever received a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Just last fall, the Bureau of Land Management gave their final approval for the Over The River project, a temporary art exhibition that will suspend 5.9 miles of translucent fabric over a 42 mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, Colorado. Known for their large-scale structure and monument wrappings, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of Over The River in 1992 and have since been working on details of the project, which include an incredibly lengthy design and permitting process.

OTR is a curious case-study in environmental policy. The federal EIS conducted for this temporary art project was financed entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a process that often happens without much public attention when it comes to more routinely-conducted activities on public land. The BLM allows many activities conducted by private entities on public lands including livestock grazing, oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing), mining and logging on public lands in the region. Most of these projects have not been subject the level of public scrutiny that OTR seems to have received. Nevertheless, Christo continues pursuit of the remaining permits to make OTR a reality. Christo paid for the EIS at an expense to himself of over $6 million, which was conducted over a 2.5 year period by a team of engineers, wildlife biologists and environmental consultants. The plans for OTR now include scheduling the two-week temporary exhibition to avoid major wildlife migrations, nesting seasons and to minimize noise and disturbance in any one place on the river to a minimum during the construction and take-down process.

Christo Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Collage 2007 in two parts: 77,5 x 30,5 and 77,5 and 66,7 cm (30 1/2″ x 12″ and 30 1/2″ x 26 1/4″) Pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, wax crayon, charcoal, enamel paint, hand-drawn topography map, fabric sample and tape. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz © Christo 2007.

Interestingly, the NEPA review process calls for environmental design arts and aesthetics to be considered in EIS reviews. As former National Director of the Bureau of Land management Patrick Shea explained in a 2010 letter to the director of the Colorado State Office of the BLM:

“It is striking to remember that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) itself provides that it is the Federal Government’s responsibility to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings”. In order to do this, NEPA states that the federal Government must “utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision-making which may have an impact on man’s environment.”

Despite widespread public support for Over The River, there is some opposition to this project from a small local group which seems to simply not want the temporary art exhibition of this scale in their own backyard. Curious to view the area myself, I drove alongside the Arkansas River on my way to Taylor Park Reservoir, Colorado this summer. As I paralleled the Arkansas, I encountered prospectors searching for gold, anglers hopeful for trout, rafting outfitters guiding the adventuresome, cattle grazing, ATV and motorbike trails, freight traffic, agricultural fields and even quarries. And, if you care to look past the immediate roadside to the adjacent landscape, the list of proposed private uses of BLM land out of the Royal Gorge Field Office (can anyone direct me to the list of current uses?) indeed includes energy trasmission, private development right-of-ways, oil and gas development, coal leasing, mining, cattle grazing and christmas tree harvesting.

Why then, I wonder, does the Over The River project seem to have been singled out as a “disturbance of the peace” by a handful of locals? There are certainly activities on our public lands that are much more disturbing to the local ecosystem and to wildlife, including ones with much more long-term consequences than the proposed Over The River project. Is it because Colorado has a long history with mining, fossil fuel extraction, ranching and agriculture? Are these activities therefore more comfortable, commonplace, and acceptable by local residents, despite our current knowledge of how they affect our environment? Is it because art is a much less common use of our public land? Yet, Colorado also has a long and rich history of art, from the artistic traditions of Colorado’s Native American cultures to nineteenth-century geological survey photographer William Henry Jackson and contemporary photographer John Fielder, whose comparative approach to photography has explored how the Colorado landscape has changed since Jackson’s first forays in to the western wilderness (see Colorado 1870-2000). Whatever the reason, just imagine if all activities by private entities on our public lands were held to such a level of public scrutiny as Christo’s temporary art exhibition. It seems that our public lands would be much different places. What do you think?

Over The River Life-Sized Test for aesthetic and technical considerations, four life-sized prototype tests were conducted in 1997, 1998 and 1999 on private property on the Utah/Colorado border. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz, © Christo 1999

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, however, are no strangers to opposition of their monumental-scale works. “This has happened before,” Christo recently told the Denver Post, “This is a natural process for which we are very familiar.” They seem accustomed to the lengthy permitting processes that accompany their projects, and demonstrate a love of their work, an admiration for public discourse and a level of patience that is itself quite admirable. A recent update from the OTR project page indicates that on-the-ground activities will be delayed yet again, perhaps until August 2015, because of ongoing litigation by a local group against two of the agencies that have approved the project (the BLM and the Colorado State Parks).

The opposition remains small, however, and the Over The River project has gained an incredible list of supporters including the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce and City Council, current and former governors of Colorado and the Colorado Council for the Arts, to name just a few. Since Jeanne-Claude’s passing in 2009, her husband Christo remains dedicated to making Over The River a reality. As an art lover and former Colorado resident, I can’t wait to write a future On The Road post along the Arkansas River, under the shimmering canopy of Over The River. Until then, here is Christo in 2010 talking about the origins of the project back in 1975 as he and Jeanne-Claude were wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris:

Over The River perfectly reflects the type of artistic, social, and cultural engagement that public art seeks to create. Public art such as Over The River is by definition meant to provoke reaction by engaging the public outside the framework of a traditional artistic exhibition — outside of the four walls of a museum, and outside of the four corners of a painting.” – Patrick Shea, Former National Director of the Bureau of Land Management

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Biocreativity On The Road: Ecological Society of America Meeting 2012

The 97th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, Oregon is here! Though I won’t be able to attend this year, I had a lot of fun putting together last year’s list of biocreative activities at the 2011 ESA meeting and it got me thinking about how the biocreativity blog recently passed its one-year anniversary! So, without further ado, here’s this year’s lineup of biocreativity at #ESA2012. If you find anything I missed, or see any interesting biocreativity going on at the meeting, please let me know about it in the comments or via twitter using #ESA2012 and #biocreativity!

Monday

The first day of the conference starts off with a really biocreative-sounding workshop organized by Karim-Aly Kassam, Teresa Mourad, James Lassoie and R. Jamie Herring about how to use the Internet-based platform called ‘ConservationBridge’ that supports interdisciplinary, ecological conservation education by using real-world case studies. (WK 24 – Creative Multi-Media Approaches to Conservation Education for the Next Generation, 11:30-1:15pm, D139).

Monday night also kicks off a week of musical activities by ESA ecologists! An Evening of Music: Live Performance by ESA Musicians (SS 13), hosted annually by Nicholas Gotelli takes place Monday night from 8-10pm in A103 at the Oregon Convention Center. Also, Monday through Thursday 5:00-6:30pm and Friday 11am-12:30pm bring your instruments to ESA Musician’s Central in the Ginkoberry Concourse!

Tuesday

Tuesday morning begins with what may be the most biocreative event on the schedule: WK 35 – Engaging Arts/Humanities with Long-Term Research and Education Programs: Outcomes, Approaches, Networking (11:30am-1:15pm, B116). This workshop, organized by Mary Beth Leigh and Frederick Swanson, focuses on how “the visual arts, performance, environmental ethics and history, and creative writing have all found expression in place-based, long-view programs”. The workshop will cover examples of art-science collaborations, business models and funding, and will include a discussion of how to foster future art/science/humanities collaborations at individual sites.

Tuesday afternoon you might want to stop by COS 59 – Education: Tools And Technology for some biocreative takes on citizen science and classroom teaching. COS 59-5 – Combining art, science, and technology for environmental outreach in an urban watershed (2:50pm, D139) and COS 59-9 – Project BudBurst and FieldScope: Piloting continental-scale citizen science data visualization tools (D139, 4:20pm) sound particularly interesting! SYMP 8-7 – Ecology of self: Stories of trying to use ecology as a verb (Portland Ballroom 252, 4:10pm) also sounded great, though it overlaps with COS 59-9, so you’ll have to choose.

A couple of posters for Tuesday afternoon’s poster sessions (4:30-6:30pm, Exhibition Hall DE) caught my eye. PS 21-49 – Using visual imagery and service learning to teach ecological concepts by Dana Garrigan and Laura Rodman Huaracha describes Carthage College’s course Interpreting Nature: Effective Visual Communication About the Environment. “This course was designed to bring interdisciplinary teams together to complete community-based service projects to facilitate learning about ecological concepts and conservation issues.  During the course, Graphic Design and Communication majors partnered with students from Biology and Environmental Science to produce environmental education materials for a local state park.” PS 23-62 – The Evolution of Sustainable Use, a flash-based classroom tool for teaching population biology and sustainable resource management describes yet another science and digital arts collaboration between Christopher Jensen and Aaron Cohen of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. “Students act as fishers sharing a fishery, and must make decisions about how to exploit their common resource. Players have the potential to over-exploit or under-exploit their fishery, both of which can cause their fishing village to fail. Playing the game allows students to discover the Tragedy of the Commons first hand, and to experiment with different approaches to regulating a limited resource. The game empowers students to answer questions about population growth, predation, cooperation, and sustainable exploitation through an inquiry-based process.”

To cap off a very busy Tuesday, check out WK 39 – Submit Your Teaching Resource to ESA’s EcoEd Digital Library (8-10pm, D138). This session will provide participants with a hands-on opportunity to submit their own ecology teaching resource to ESA’s EcoEd Digital Library (beta). EcoEdDL is a peer-reviewed online digital commons where ecology educators can share the unique resources they have developed for teaching with the ecology education community. The library provides free access to high-quality teaching resources that have been peer-reviewed for scientific accuracy and instructional value.” Well, that sounds awesome, and even illustrations and photographs are eligible for submission to the library!

Wednesday

Wednesday is a bit more relaxed (art-science wise, anyway). It starts off with SYMP 11-4 – Creating new ways to bring people and knowledge together: Evolving ‘translational ecology’ into ‘transformational ecology’ (9:15am, Portland Ballroom 252). The speakers will be discussing transformational ecology, “a new effort to encourage ecologists to work and communicate with the public and policymakers”. Of course, one of my favorite ways of doing this is through the arts, and that seems to fit well with the transformational ecology philosophy.  “This model requires new multi-way language replacing one-way communication words like ‘outreach’, ‘technology transfer’, and ‘dissemination’ with ‘engagement’ and ‘co-learning’, and borrowing tools from the humanities and social sciences like participatory action research, qualitative data collection, and narratives.  It also requires a basic philosophical shift so that knowledge is not only about data, but about experiences, stories, and spiritual connections.”

Wednesday afternoon’s OOS 33 – Growing Pains: Taking Ecology Into the 21st Century promises some really great talks about maintaining and increasing the relevance of ecology to society. I’m perhaps most intrigued by filmmaker Randy Olsen’s talk Storynomics: Proof that scientists evolved from humans. In fact, I nomintate it for Best Abstract of ESA 2012:

“Scientists suffer from “storyphobia” (the irrational fear of the words “story” and “storytelling”) AND they think they are sooo different from normal people, BUT they need to communicate more effectively, THEREFORE they should work harder on their communication skills (did ya get the “And, But & Therefore” template?). We now know that scientists descended from humans and, more importantly, that the split occurred not that long ago.  This is revealed by the recent common ancestor, “Renaissance Man,” who was in fact capable of both writing literary novels whilst also engaging in scientific inquiry.  More powerfully, we can see the evidence of how recent the divide occurred through the three “Storytelling Vestiges” of speaking, writing and thinking.  Scientists still respond to “well told stories,” they write their papers following a structured template that is clearly descended from three act structure (alignment analysis confirms this), and the “problem/solution” approach of the scientific method is no different than the “question/answer” approach of your basic “who dunnit” novel.  The bottom line is that it’s time for scientists to come down off their high horse, admit they still have human DNA in their genome, realize there is no such science as “Storyomics” that will instantly solve the challenge of effective communication, and accept the need to learn the same age old storytelling processes that all humans have used since before the time of pipettes.

Wow! Right!? This is one of the reasons I write this blog, and why I recently founded Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, TX: to help scientists become more engaging and down-to-earth storytellers about science. Wish I was at the meeting this year to hear this talk!

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Melissa Nelson presents Toward a poly-cognitive science: The Native ecologies of tribal canoe revitalization (2:10pm, A107) about reviving the cultural traditions that go along with reviving the traditional ecological knowledge around watercraft (though, I’m not sure how I feel about the need to abbreviate “traditional ecological knowledge” as “TEK”).

Thursday

If you’re interested in art-science collaborations, don’t miss OOS 39 – Insights and Innovations From Sustained, Place-Based Collaborations In Arts, Humanities, and Environmental Sciences (8-11:30am, B110)

“The objective of this Session is to inform the ESA community of the fruitful and natural collaboration of arts and humanities with environmental research, education, and outreach programs at sites with a long-term commitment to learning about the natural world and our place in it.”

Many of the talks in this session will explore how artists and scientists can work together to engage the public in ecology and conservation, and introduce more people to long-term thinking about these fields.

At 11:30, join Liana Vitali in WK 42 – Arkive.Org: Using Audio-Visuals to Preserve Threatened Life On Earth (11:30am, D135). I had a great time in this workshop last year and really enjoyed meeting Liana and visiting with her more at the ARKive.org booth in the exhibit hall. Make sure to check it out!

Thursday ends off with some high-tech biocreativity in OOS 46 – From Books to Barcodes: Challenges and Opportunities of Next-Generation Field Guides for Ecologists, Students, and Educators where you can learn about some great new innovations in digital field guides, online biological collections and identification keys (LeafSnap, GoBotany, Merlin). I wrote a little bit about my wishes for more apps and games that could help teach ecology last year, and this session seems to highlight some of the best innovations along these lines in ecology!

I hope you all have a great time at ESA this year! Don’t forget to tweet using #ESA2012 and #biocreativity (or make a comment below) about any biocreative happenings you see that aren’t covered here. Safe travels, everyone!

Art from the Ashes Goes to Texas

This image by Austin author and photographer Deanna Roy (taken at Loop 360 and Lost Creek Blvd just west of Austin, TX) went viral in the first few days of the Bastrop County Complex Fire. The 'live' version of this terrible sight inspired me to write about Art + Fire back in September.

A few months ago, as the wildfires were just beginning in Bastrop, Texas I wrote a post about the art of fire, and about the ecological function and renewing power of fire in the landscape. Since then, the Bastrop County Complex Fire (the most destructive in Texas state history) has destroyed 34,000 acres, 1649 homes and claimed the lives of two residents. The fires also burned over 90% of Bastrop State Park, and much of the remaining Lost Pines habitat of the critically endangered Houston Toad (Bufo houstonensis; Yes, I am old-school. I still call this Bufo).

Image of Houston Toad by Texas Parks + Wildlife Department's Chase A. Fountain.

Little did I know that my post would end up connecting me with some very caring and creative folks in California who were independently hatching plans to use the healing power of art to aide my neighbors in Bastrop. In my research for my Art of Fire post I came across Joy Feuer and the organization she founded, Art from the Ashes (or, AFTA). I think their mission statement does a pretty excellent job of introducing them:

“Our goal is to support communities devastated by natural disasters through the creation of art. ART from the ashes is about transformation. By using reclaimed materials as our medium, we hope to inspire and support the heart, mind and planet.” -AFTA Mission Statement

Joy and AFTA’s PR + Marketing director Stacy Conde immediately replied “YES!” to my requests to use AFTA images in my post and told me (to my delight) that they were already talking about their first show outside of California to support the victims of the Bastrop wildfires.

I am excited to report, after these few months, that they are here! This past weekend Joy Feuer and Nina Savill came to town to reclaim materials from the Bastrop fires and distribute them to Texas artists. By February 2012, these materials will be transformed into works of art that will be shown at an exhibition in mid-March and then sold to support reforestation and other fire recovery efforts in Bastrop. I am so honored to get to be a part of this exhibition to support my neighbors in Bastrop, and I finally got to meet Joy + Nina in person last Saturday when I picked out my reclaimed materials.

Materials salvaged from the Bastrop County wildfires by Nina and Joy.

Rebecca, Hayley & Cole choose reclaimed materials for the AFTA for Texas show.

A few of the salvaged materials from the Bastrop fires that I chose for my AFTA project.

For more details about the March 2012 benefit show you can visit the AFTA Goes to Texas page of AFTA’s website. You can also view photos of Joy + Nina’s recent trip to Texas and meet some of the artists on AFTA’s Facebook page. What will my materials become? Stay tuned…but it will probably have something to do with toads. Until I’m done with my piece, enjoy this beautiful woodcut of a Houston Toad by artist Lisa Studier, who will be featured in my ECO Art + Science series soon!

Reduction woodcut print of Houston Toad by Lisa Studier. Used here by permission.

Interestingly, “fire” continues to be the #1 search term drawing people to the biocreativity blog (though I like that “cool snakes” is also on the top 10 list). I hope that I have, in some small way, helped to give some ecological perspective on fire, which has been a part of human life for millennia. I also hope that I can directly contribute to wildfire recovery by creating art for AFTA’s Texas show and indirectly by encouraging all of you readers to spread the word about AFTA and their efforts. Joy and the rest of the AFTA crew are deep in the planning stages for the Bastrop show in March 2012, and financial donations to support the show would be greatly appreciated (click here to donate). AFTA is especially looking for volunteers in the Central Texas Region who can help in the planning stages as well as the execution of thier series of fundraising events. Interested sponsors, partners and volunteers should contact AFTA4Texas@artfromtheashes.org.

Top 10 search engine terms connecting readers to the biocreativity blog.

ECO Art + Science: Illustrator + Wildlife Biologist Kevina Vulinec

I’m pleased to share my interview with the fourth participant in the biocreativity ECO Art + Science interview series: illustrator and wildlife biologist Dr. Kevina Vulinec of Delaware State University. Trained first as an artist, she turned her artistic skills to scientific illustration when she first learned about the science of ecology. She is also dedicated to educating the public and schoolchildren about science and nature through creative endeavors such as the Florida Scrub Coloring Book which she illustrated while a graduate student at the University of Florida and an intern at Archibald Biological Station.

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Kevina! What type of work do you do? How would you describe your interests or profession?

[KV] I am an Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology at Delaware State University. I teach and do research and mentor both undergraduate and graduate students. What I LOVE doing is fun field ecological science and mentoring students! But I also love art—I love pen and ink, painting, and drawing, and would continue to do art if my hands would cooperate. I had an unusual background; starting college as an art major, later realizing that one could actually study animals in the wild (wow, Marlin Perkins was my only role model at that time and I had no idea that there was a science of ECOLOGY!)

Cedar Waxwing illustration by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? What is your primary training?

[KV] I am more of a scientist; but that does not diminish my artistic commitment (in fact I tested 60% right-brain dominance). I encourage my students to consider filmmaking, wildlife art, photography, and writing as careers outside of the traditional wildlife or ecology professions. I started life as an artist (and art major), but quickly realized that I was not at the point where I could do top-quality fine art. At that time, the alternative as a career was to become an advertising artist, which was not appealing to me. I had no idea that I could make a living as a natural history artist! But I did help put myself through my university training by doing scientific drawings.

Green Treefrog illustration by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KV] The best part of science is the art of science: the creative design of experiments and inquiries. The creativity involved in designing an “elegant” experiment—a very cogent term—requires an openness of mind and some “right-brain” thinking. Good designs require an integration of artistic creativity and scientific rigor. And, the best artists have a background in anatomy, natural history, and an understanding of habitat relationships (think Turner, Picasso, Kahlo, and O’Keefe).

[biocreativity] Do you have specific images in mind when you mention these artists?

[KV]Yes, Picasso painted lots of animals in his paintings (like the horse in Guernica) that symbolized emotions. Kahlo obviously often thought of herself as part other animal, and O’Keffe treasured the anatomy of bones. There are many others–but thought I’d keep the list short.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937, oil on canvas).

Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas y Colibrí ("Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming-bird"), Frida Kahlo. 1940.

Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1935.

[biocreativity] Please describe your art + science endeavors for the biocreativity readers.

[KV] I incorporate art into my career as a scientist when I can. In addition to looking for creative solutions to experimental designs, I also like to use art in my university teaching. Currently, I have assigned my Advanced Wildlife Course students a video project focused on wildlife or a conservation issue, but open to as much artistic input as they would like, including animation. I also enjoy drawing rapid silly cartoons on the board to illustrate concepts during my lectures.

The one art/science project that makes me proud to have been involved with is the Florida Scrub scientific coloring book.

[biocreativity] I really love the coloring book – I really got into marine biology as a kid because of Thomas Neisen’s Marine Biology Coloring Book. What inspired the Florida Scrub coloring book project?

[KV] The coloring book was a collaboration between Dr. Mark Deyrup [of the Archibald Biological Station in the Florida Everglades] and me to highlight the ecological uniqueness of the Florida Scrub—a very small but important and rare ecosystem. We wanted to introduce youngsters to this unusual habitat and the distinctive animals and plants that live in this ecosystem in a hands-on format that allowed for interactive learning. Now that it can be downloaded on the web, teachers and parents all over the world can have access to it. My other art projects (drawing, painting and photography) have focused on the natural world and details (sometimes in microfocus) that reveal the beauty of form following function in animal morphology.

[biocreativity] What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KV] We are an interconnected system of organisms. Let’s work to save the natural world for our children’s children and let’s also get them out in it!!! Play outdoors! Watch birds, bike trails, look at ants, grow plants, read about nature, but even better, experience it.

[biocreativity] Well said! What is the most common question or comment you get about your art + science work?

[KV] About art: “YOU drew that???”

About my science (most currently): “BATS??? Why the heck do you study bats???”

[biocreativity] Well, I’ll play along here….why the heck do you study bats?

[KV] I originally was studying Neotropical animals, including primates and dung beetles, but my Chair here at Delaware State University asked that I find something local. I had done some bat work during my masters project, so decided that would be great. They are also one of the most mysterious of mammals and a challenge to study–but that makes them so much more interesting. Furthermore, bats face serious threats from disease, habitat destruction, and wind turbines and finding solutions to these threats is of utmost importance.

Palmetto Scrub Scarab illustration by Kevina Vulinec from the Florida Scrub coloring book.

[biocreativity] Kevina, what’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see your projects going, or what would you like to do next?

[KV] How about art/eco-tourism? Travel with a group to, say, Peru or Belize, and do life drawing or photography workshops in the field.

[biocreativity] That sounds like great fun! I see you were recently awarded a Fullbright Fellowship to go to Brazil. Congrats! Do you have a websiteor other resources that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about?

[KV] Yes, I have a website and here are links to a couple of Pulse Planet [a daily radio program exploring the world of sound in nature, culture and science] broadcasts about the importance of fruit-eating monkeys and dung beetles in the Amazon rainforest. [And, of course, let’s not forget the Florida Scrub scientific coloring book!]

Cartoon of tropical dung beetles (Oxysternon conspicillatum) building a nest. This picture shows the male guarding the nest and the female constructing a brood ball in which to lay her eggs. They are also inadvertently burying seeds from the monkey dung and thus, replanting the rainforest! Cartoon and caption text by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] Many thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kevina. Best of luck with your trips to Brazil and keep us posted on your art + science endeavors!

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com.

ECO Art + Science: Photography of Plant Ecologist Kurt Reinhart

This week’s featured artist-scientist in the ECO Art + Science series is Kurt Reinhart: plant ecologist for the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Miles City, Montana, photographer and videographer. Kurt is also the creator of the website www.iecology.net, an educational resource for plant ecology on the web. For those of you who are regular readers, you know how much I love time-lapse projects, so I was particularly excited to interview someone who loves time-lapse even more than I do (and who does a great job, too)!

Forests from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kurt! Why don’t you start by telling the biocreativity readers what type of work do you do.

[KR] I’m an incredibly lucky guy that gets paid to do what I enjoy—being a Plant Ecologist.  At work, I spend most of my time either conceiving, implementing, analyzing, or publishing research projects.  The work is filled with challenges, and I also enjoy the multiple ways that I get to be creative while doing my job.  I have other passions in my life including: my family, hiking, camping, hunting, and nature photography.  In many cases, these passions are intertwined.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[KR] I may be interpreting the term “biocreativity” differently but I aspire to being biocreative.  I see it directly related to making scientific breakthroughs, developing multidisciplinary projects, and elevating the importance of my science.  Creativity is an essential ingredient in scientific achievement.

Though I hated it in high school, my primary training is actually in biology. I’ve also been interested in nature photography for years.  For about five years, I’ve been attempting to merge my professional and recreational interests with the creation of some short educational movies and other types of content on my website www.iecology.net.

This panorama shows a series of plant communities in different stages of secondary succession occurring at Shades State Park, Indiana. Secondary succession involves recovering following a disturbance. In this case agricultural conversion and then abandonment restarts the successional clock. This specific type of succession is often referred to as "old field succession" following abandonment. The field to the left is the youngest. The slightly older field to the right has an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago sp.). This is a common species in old fields of the eastern United States. To the rear of this field (right side) is an early successional forest. The forest to the left is the oldest plant community in view. As succession progresses there are numerous changes in the plant community composition and structure. Photo & caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy the iecology site. It’s a great way to visualize ecology – especially plant biology! It’s also great that you’ve been able to use your creative abilities to help educate others about ecology. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KR] Whether art should be merged more formally with science is functionally a decision for faculty at Universities to decide.  This decision really depends on their composition, history and vision, which will dictate whether such a change is pursued or not.  What is obvious to me is that many scientists are also musicians, painters, photographers, etc.  Scientists are a diverse bunch—some are likely indifferent to art but others are deeply connected and inspired by it.  To me, science has many connections with art.

Art is a tangible product that expresses an artist’s ideas and vision.  It serves as a form of communication that when done well provokes interpretation and reflection.  Scientists are concerned with interpreting and generating ideas, building an awareness for what is known and unknown, collecting and interpreting data, and skillfully communicating the importance of their ideas and interpretations.  A lot of aspects of science and art are shared though the training, tools, and media often differ.  I recently had a lot of fun collaborating on a time-lapse project with painter Mika Holtzinger.

Looking Back from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What got you interested in plant biology? Also, what are some of the challenges of working with organisms and communities that are often very slow (at least, they are slow from the perspective of most humans) to change? 

[KR] I became really interested in plants after realizing their importance in defining habitat for wildlife and ecosystem structure and function.  Their importance is greater than most realize.  Most people think plants are as boring as rocks…  Their interest in nature is often limited to topics that can be easily visualized like courtship, predation, migration, and other animal behaviors.  I love nature documentaries, but they typically illustrate a small fraction of nature.  Getting audiences excited about the rest of nature is a challenge.

At work, we provide annual school tours.  99.9% of forth graders will never forget the day they got to reach into a cannulated cow’s “stomach” (actually rumen).  A major challenge is making plants equally exciting.  Over the years, I’ve tried to take professional photographs of plants and plant communities (landscapes) to help make them appealing subjects to a broad audience.  I’ve been dabbling in videography and have been shooting time-lapse sequences of plants for nearly 10 years.  Time-lapse videos are my favorite medium for making plants charismatic!

Time-lapse video of American chestnut seedlings growing from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What inspired you to get started in photography and what inspires your current work?

[KR] For years, I’ve been a huge fan of the outdoors and nature, macro, wildlife, and landscape photography.  I read books and magazines on nature and landscape photography.  For several years, I’ve been a big fan of the www.timescapes.org  forum!  Probably my biggest source of inspiration for my website is Roger Handgarter’s website (http://plantsinmotion.bio.indiana.edu/).  I was fortunate to interact with Roger and documentary film maker Sam Orr while post-docing at Indiana University.  I’m also a huge fan of the incredible time-lapse content produced by BBC, especially Tim Shepherd‘s time-lapses.

[biocreativity] I am a huge fan of the BBC time-lapse crew, which I featured in a post about nature time-lapse back in July. Time-lapse just seems to be a really engaging and effective way to get others involved in biology. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KR]  I see patterns and processes in nature with biological meaning that many people don’t.  This view of nature has been honed by years of training and experience.  Publishing research is an essential part of my career but this content often impacts only a small fraction of the world and mostly other scientists.  Photography and videography is one way that I attempt to communicate ecological concepts to a broader world.

The above panorama near the peak of Mount Sentinel near Missoula, Montana experienced a wildfire killing the trees in the foreground. The north aspects of the mountains retain slightly more moisture (i.e. snow melts slower) permiting trees to persist (see upper left of picture with a north-west aspect). Photo and caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] Your ability to communicate ecology to others is really well illustrated by your Mount Sentinel panorama (above). I assume this often sparks interesting conversations with others about your work and about ecology. What are the most common questions or comments you get about your work?

[KR] A lot of people enjoy watching time-lapse content.  Shooting time-lapse sequences is considerably more challenging than photographing the same subject.  Most questions that I receive pertain to technical details of shooting a sequence.  I only have a few trade secrets and enjoy sharing most of what I’ve learned.  On my website, I provide various details on individual sequences.  I like hearing from people, and their positive feedback helps keep me motivated!

I do lots of different types of research.  So the questions are as varied as the topics and people asking the questions.

Damping-off – a story of plant disease from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy how you are able to present scientific information along with captivating images. Your short film on damping off disease in plants is a particularly good example of this. I also really enjoy your series of interactive panoramic photos on the iecology site that present information on plant community ecology. The diversity of habitats you’ve covered is impressive! Kurt, what’s next for you?

[KR] I’m enjoying being a full time ecologist in a region with some of the largest, most intact, and least studied grasslands in the world.  I wouldn’t want to be doing research anywhere else.

I’m gradually accumulating all sorts of time-lapse content that I hope to eventually develop into a 10-30 minute movie that I would like to enter in a regional film contest! That is a distant goal.  I’ve also got a new time-lapse set, like a mini studio, nearly complete that should enable me to make some incredible time-lapses of plants.  I love my www.iecology.net website but a lot of content on the internet is tough to sustain due to the persistent costs of maintaining a website.  Either way, I’ll still be working away at shooting and making content.

Time-lapse blue grama grass anthesis from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Well, I can’t wait to see what comes next! Speaking of science and film – you and the biocreativity readers may be interested in Scientific American’s PsiVid blog. They discuss all kinds of opportunities and methods for making science films. I notice that your Favorites page on the iecology site features a lot of ecology, photography and filmmaking links that could be very useful to the biocreativity readers. Just to summarize, can you tell the biocreativity readers all the places on the web where they can learn more about your work?

[KR] To see my time-lapse content, check out my website (www.iecology.net) or  my Vimeo page. The Vimeo account may be the best place to keep track of my content in the future because I’m contemplating closing my website due to annual hosting fees. If you’re interested in learning more about my science then you can jump over to http://usda.academia.edu/KurtReinhart. I also have an iecology Twitter account, but post infrequently.

[biocreativity] Kurt, thank you so much for sharing your work with us on the biocreativity blog. I noticed you have a ‘donate’ button at the bottom of the the iecology website. I think it’s really important for there to be diverse ways for the public to learn more about the science of ecology. I hope that folks who like your website might be inspired to give what they can to support it. Now, I’m off to go and watch some more of your videos!

Panoramic photo of a bog in Adirondack State Park in NY. See the interactive panorama and learn more about bog succession at http://www.iecology.net/pano_bog.html

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com.