Art and Science

In a recent Facebook posting, I incorporated a Charles E. Burchfield painting and posed a question. The Burchfield Penney Art Center asked I write a blog piece about that experience, which is duplicated below. Enjoy!


In the last couple of years, in large part due to the work of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, I have come to appreciate how art is used in studies of environmental science and ecology. Having a myriad of field guides continually used for reference and scholarship, the concept of this use of art was not new to me. However, after completing two graduate courses where much of the study took place at the Burchfield Penney, the importance of art in field ecology, botany and zoology truly manifested itself. Of course, the art in field guides, due to their exacting scientific nature, is also exacting, being either botanically or zoologically correct. But my lessons at the Burchfield Penney unlocked other ideas for using more abstract art in ecological studies and has inspired my graduate thesis.

Untitled Work (1915) - Charles E. Burchfield

Untitled Work (1915) – Charles E. Burchfield

In late October, the Burchfield Penney Art Center posted an image on Facebook of the Charles Burchfield 1915 untitled work pictured here. Immediately upon seeing this piece, it brought to mind a number of dendrology concepts (dendrology is the study of trees) and offered an opportunity to use it in my work as a naturalist. So I shared the painting on my educational Facebook page with the following comment and awaited the responses:

  • Study the focal tree in this Charles E. Burchfield untitled work (large tree in the center). What does the tree’s shape tell you about its growth history? There is one main answer but there may be others.

It did not take long for the most relevant answer to surface. The large tree in the center grew up without competition from other trees so its crown was able to spread wide and take full advantage of the available sunlight. The respondent  wisely noted that in the background we can see the difference in growth form when trees develop more closely together – their crowns are much narrower as the growth patterns are aligned to where direct sunlight falls. Lesser factors that also contribute to the tree growth are competition for water and soil nutrients but they play much smaller roles in shape and pattern.

This small experiment demonstrated that it is indeed possible to deviate from the exacting illustrations of the field guide and make use of other styles of art to create interest and develop creative thought processes while sharing scientific concepts. Look for more such “pop quizzes” and other uses of art in science by Oakmoss Education on Twitter and Facebook.

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