Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Art meets science

Exhibitions explore interdisciplinary connections

Artist Nathalie Miebach (right) talks with a student in front of her sculpture “To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper.”

Artist Nathalie Miebach (right) talks with a student in front of her sculpture “To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper.”

Michele L’Heureux ’88 is a constant observer. As a professional visual artist and gallery director of Wheaton’s Beard and Weil Galleries, she approaches art with the eye of a lifelong learner. So when the college’s Mars Center for Science and Technology opened, inspiration for a fruitful curatorial opportunity took hold.

“I’ve had a long-standing interest in the intersection of art and science,” said L’Heureux. “It’s really fascinating territory, and the presupposition of many people is that artists and scientists are different ‘animals’ that don’t engage in the same kinds of practices and questions.”

In 2012, she invited faculty across all disciplines to bring their students to the galleries and got a great response.

Computer science professors Mark LeBlanc and Tom Armstrong coordinated with L’Heureux to have artist Chris Abrams lead an interactive lecture for students (particularly those interested in computer science and engineering) as part of the galleries’ “New England Animation All-Stars” exhibition. Professor of Chemistry Elita Pastra-Landis took her “Advanced Organic Chemistry” students to “Sitelines,” a nature- and landscape-themed group exhibition that included a drawing by Kysa Johnson utilizing pollutants’ molecular structures.

“Some of Pastra-Landis’s students were fired up and questioning whether an artist could use ‘their’ language and tools, while others were really excited about being able to recognize some of the molecular structures in the work,” said L’Heureux.

“Computing is so ingrained in much of what we do in science and art that traditional academic boundaries make less and less sense, especially after college,” noted LeBlanc. “Wheaton students get this. It’s a function of the Connections courses and the type of student and faculty who choose to create, study and live in our community.”

It was at this point that L’Heureux decided to take a leap.

“I was confident I could sustain a year-long inquiry into the connections between science and art with four exhibitions,” she recalled. The result was an expansive series in the galleries that was on view from September 2013 through April 2014.

The multimedia series showcased myriad technological and intimate works, such as Elizabeth Keithline’s woven-wire sculptures examining technological advancement and natural decay, and Andi Sutton’s site-specific, interactive installation in which visitors engage in conversations about our environment’s future, which are then recorded on dog tags displayed in the gallery. One of Rob MacInnis’s three video works featured more than 20 speakers strapped onto a tree and playing audio that scientist John Cramer invented to emulate the Big Bang’s sound, while a 100-hour projection by Marina Zurkow, another video artist, illustrated the seasonal change and the relationship between oil production and the environment.

Several professors took students to see the series, including Professor of Sociology Hyun Sook Kim. She taught the First-Year Seminar “Restoration,” which examines how humanity and nature are similarly destroyed in modernity, and looks at contemporary photos, film, essays and art as texts. Its focus intersects with many of the exhibitions’ themes.

Professors LeBlanc and Armstrong co-taught “Future Interactions,” a course in which students designed and implemented software for cutting-edge devices like Google Glass, a “wearable” computer, and Leap Motion, a gadget that allows a user to control a computer without touching it.

“Computing is so ingrained in much of what we do in science and art that traditional academic boundaries make less and less sense, especially after college,” noted LeBlanc. “Wheaton students get this. It’s a function of the Connections courses and the type of student and faculty who choose to create, study and live in our community.”

Professor of Geology Geoffrey Collins collaborated with L’Heureux on the January exhibition, “Inner and Outer Space,” by inviting artists Monica and Tyler Aiello to present February workshops at Wheaton in conjunction with their planetary geology works on view in the galleries. Students also created collages in connection to their presentations.

“Art can ask questions that can’t be addressed by science. It can approach a topic sideways, unbound by the strictures of logic and evidence,” Collins said. “Science is a powerful tool for understanding the universe, but it also needs a creative outlet to generate the best new ideas. The liberal arts are about producing well-rounded citizens of the world who can think in many different modes in order to solve the problems confronting us.”