Across the Cultural Divide

OSU art student portrays the tools of science

For an artist, science can be confusing, full of numbers, variables and technical terms. Whereas for a scientist, art can seem like a fantasy, a distraction from the real world.

Austin's Agitation Table in the Ecological Engineering Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

Austin’s Agitation Table in the Ecological Engineering Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

Such differences lie behind the classic chasm between art and science, which British scientist and author C. P. Snow immortalized in his famous 1959 speech, The Two Cultures. Snow derided the mutual lack of understanding between these two camps. Former Oregon State art student Alice Marshall thinks this separation results from feelings of intimidation, and she used her creative skills to overcome them.

With support from art professor Julie Green and the OSU Research Office, Marshall created a series of paintings that bring the two cultures together. She collaborated with scientists to explore the function and relevance of their most important laboratory instruments. Her project, “Tools of the Trade,” shows the hard edge of science with soft colors and brush strokes.

“I think people in the sciences and the arts are wrongly intimidated by each other,” says, Marshall, who graduated last spring. “If that intimidation factor was lessened, Oregon State University would be a lot more unified.”

Marshall is no stranger to either view of the world. At West Albany High School, she filled her senior year with science courses, and in her first year at OSU, she intended to pursue aquatic entomology. But it wasn’t long before she was exploring the arts and decided to change her focus.

“I was enjoying the objectiveness of the science classes, but I wanted the creativity of the art classes,” she says. In the art department, Marshall still embraced the insights and curiosity of science, but she began doing so with pen and paper rather than with lab equipment.

“I see myself as a draftsman above all,” she explains. “Drawing is the fundamental core of visually interpreting and describing ideas and subjects. I soon found out that art was where I wanted to be, and once I switched to the art department, everything kind of clicked. I realized I could be an art major and research any topic I was interested in.”

Cody's Feed Funnel at the Fish Research Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

Cody’s Feed Funnel at the Fish Research Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

Artists and scientists, she says, go through the same basic processes of developing a hypothesis, conducting research, making observations and drawing conclusions, although the results take different forms. So Marshall worked with art professor Green to develop a proposal for the OSU Research Office. The goal was to present science through art. The Research Office supported Marshall’s efforts through the Undergraduate Research Innovation, Scholarship and Creativity award, or URISC, a program that is open to all OSU students.

Marshall interviewed science students who had also received URISC grants and asked them to identify the piece of lab equipment they couldn’t live without. She aimed to bring a personal view to what might be perceived as a mechanical, imposing environment. In addition, she wanted to offer scientists a chance to connect their most useful tools to research outcomes.

Talking Points

While meandering through the nooks and crannies of science labs, Marshall had to overcome a problem with language. Each branch of science creates its own vernacular. Students in chemistry, for example, use a different language than those in fish biology.

“That was one of the most creatively challenging parts about this project,” she adds, “trying to learn how to talk to different scientists depending on what they study. I purposely scheduled lab tours at least a week in advance so I could get familiar with what they were doing.”

Inside the labs, she took reference photos of equipment. She sifted through her images and made series of sketches. For her final paintings, she chose to focus on six instruments and explored them in drawings from different perspectives.

In the fall of 2013, she displayed her paintings in the Oregon State art gallery in Fairbanks Hall. Each work of art was accompanied by a description of the function and relevance of the instrument shown.

Andrea's Centrifuge at the Oncology Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

Andrea’s Centrifuge at the Oncology Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

“Each painting makes a personal statement that draws the viewer in,” says Green, who emphasizes that any OSU student can take an art course. “The handmade quality gives them a human touch. This is not what we would see in photograph. It makes us question what we’re looking at and want to know more. I think her project is highly successful and a credit to her persistence and creativity.”

Marshall’s paintings were displayed in the Beth Ray Center at OSU for the 2014 academic school year. And in a show with other artists, the Albany Public Library also presented Marshall’s work that winter, following another exhibit with a family connection. Her father — a landscape architect, sculptor and lifelong painter — had shown a series of landscapes in acrylics. Alice credits her dad with inspiring her love of art. She remembers him rolling out giant sheets of white paper on the floor so they could draw for hours.

The project left Marshall with a desire to continue to bring the arts and sciences together. She continues to use drawing as a way to explore relationships and meaning. This summer, she is exploring the interaction of honeybees with humans and the environment. “I believe that the arts and sciences provide a wealth of inspiration for each other, and a healthy symbiotic relationship between them is crucial for their success,” says Marshall.

Her work also gave the Research Office a chance to bridge the gap between the fine arts and natural sciences. “We can chip away at the oft perceived gulf between the arts and the sciences,” says Rich Holdren, associate vice president for research. “And we’d like to help foster more collaborations among artists and scientists. Creativity is at the heart of both.”

Cody's Zebrafish Incubator Tank at the Fish Research Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

Cody’s Zebrafish Incubator Tank at the Fish Research Lab, oil on panel, 2014 (Alice Marshall)

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Editor’s Note:

Listen to a podcast with Alice Marshall.

Julie Green works with students to combine training in the visual arts with other disciplines, from engineering to the sciences and humanities. “Art is about life,” she says. “We learn through both ways of seeing the world.”

Green’s own project, The Last Supper, shows the meals ordered by death-row prisoners before execution. Each meal is presented in blue paint on a ceramic plate. The CUE Art Foundation, 137 West 25th St., New York, has included 12 of her plates in a show this summer, “To Shoot a Kite,” curated by Yaelle Amir, July 5 to August 2.

Green is also showing narrative plates and tempera paintings in a four-person show at the Laura Russo Gallery, 805 NW 21st St. in Portland, Oregon, from August 7 to 30.

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