Art and science, although often treated as mutually exclusive disciplines, are both rooted in the creative exploration and testing of ideas. In 2018, NCEAS founded an artist in residency program to help bring artists and environmental scientists closer together and encourage cross-disciplinary collaborations. After a pandemic hiatus, NCEAS is excited to once again welcome two artists to downtown Santa Barbara: muralist Leila Youssefi and textile artist Bonnie Peterson. They will engage with scientists during an initial 3-4 week residency at NCEAS, develop pieces in their own studios, and then return at the end of the summer for a final exhibition. Read below for a conversation about their artistic processes and inspirations, plus a hint at what they will create at NCEAS. For more information on art and science initiatives at NCEAS, visit our webpage.
How does science or the environment currently influence your artwork?
Leila: It’s important for me to include environmental concerns in my work because they are highly impactful to our local and global communities currently. I feel it’s necessary to use art as an avenue for conversation because there are ways that art can publicly communicate what words or scientific articles cannot. That’s the biggest part of it all – the special, innate communicative ability art has through emotional appeal. You don’t need to understand graphs and numbers to understand art, you just need to see it for it to have impact.
Bonnie: In the past year or so, I’ve been working on taking the consequences of climate change and making them more salient. For example, I like to use fahrenheit instead of celsius for communicating devastating consequences. I’m always looking for artist/scientist projects. I want to communicate idiosyncratic findings and inspire an urgency about the consequences as our climate is changing.
How does your choice of medium help you express these messages?
Bonnie: I like using silk dupioni because there are two different colors creating interesting shiny reflective qualities. Even though it's a pretty basic material, it’s really durable. I also have a series of works on paper made by annotating and marking on topographic maps.
Leila: I’m mostly interested in murals because of their social impact. Murals, at their core, are basically giant paintings where anyone can see their visual message. They can easily have a big audience and hopefully a bigger impact on the community. Murals are also a nod to ideas moving through local communities into broader global effects. Site specific murals that people can clearly see are about their own community can really get gears turning.
What is a piece that acts as a good introduction to who you are as an artist?
Leila: I recently worked on a 70 foot collaborative mural in Oceanside, California called “The Found City” that showcases the effects of harmful algal blooms (red tides) in a speculative future. The mural is set in a post-apocalyptic time when we have been dealing with red tides for longer, and takes a closer look at how marine animals would adapt. We used a mixture of research and fantasy, with a lot of time spent on animals endemic to Oceanside and how the red tides are affecting them now. Then we took it a step further by imagining how this landscape would look in the future. That’s where the fantasy comes in – there are biomorphed creatures and elements like fictitious animal care centers. This imagined future acts as a window into what’s happening in the present day.
Bonnie: Leila’s focus on the future, on research and on fantasy is inspiring! I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Ministry for the Future. The book highlights a devastating heat wave and a fantasy UN agency which is tasked with thinking about future generations. I’ve made five climate graphs coming out of oil cans. Pictured below are three graphs: carbon dioxide, sea level rise, and global temperature. They draw attention to some familiar and some less familiar climate graphs.
What are you most excited about for visiting NCEAS?
Bonnie: Just meeting the scientists and having so many opportunities to interact! I'm always looking at environment data and eager to learn its relevance.
Leila: I agree with Bonnie! The first word that came into my mind was community. Often as an artist it’s a solitary process. When you're working with something as vast as climate change, it’s easy to get lost in all the various informational sources online. To be able to have dialogue with people that are working on these issues daily is a huge opportunity.
Can you describe the work you are hoping to create during your residency?
Leila: I have some ideas, but it’s really dependent on working with NCEAS. I could continue to use the future to talk about the present, but in a way that is specific to Santa Barbara. I know that part of the coast is extremely biodiverse. Moreso, I want it to be a freeform process where speaking with the scientists can inform what I do. I’ll spend two weeks gathering ideas and initial sketches. Then during the home period I’ll finish off the mural idea before coming back to paint it in the NCEAS community. Ginger described the office as a “revolving door of scientists” – which is a very exciting and impactful place to have a mural.
Bonnie: I am eager to find out what data is at NCEAS, how it is organized and how a new set of data is used in a large website such as the Ocean Health Index. Maybe I can integrate environmental information into a concept map of climate consequences. I have several regional topo maps of the region which could potentially be a base for the concept maps. I was thinking of making a banner out of the maps for the show, so people can get really close and follow a portion of climate consequences until climate change fatigue sets in!
What advice would you give to scientists to encourage artistic collaborations?
Bonnie: We are out there and we want to work with you! Scientists can foster artist participation with letters of support, broader impact sections of a grant, and with artist/scientist projects. I would say just be persistent in your search because there is all sorts of energy and opportunities out there.
Leila: Persistence is a major theme of this. I would encourage scientists to look at art as another form of communication. They have conclusions that they have worked so hard to find, and we can be a partner in bringing those findings to a larger audience.
Written by NCEAS Science Communication and Policy Officer Alexandra A Phillips after a joint interview with the artists.