Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Faculty, Students Mix Art and Science in New Interdisciplinary Course

Amanda Castro-Crist

June 18, 2018

This spring, the School of Art and the Department of Natural Resources Management came together in a collaborative effort to engage the community and begin the restoration of a local park.

In academia, an invisible line often separates the artists from the scientists. This spring, two Texas Tech University professors got rid of that divide, bringing together graduate students from the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts and the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources in a collaborative course focusing on the art and science of ecological restoration.

David Lindsay, an associate professor of studio art, and Robert Cox, an associate professor of habitat restoration ecology, led the class of three students from the School of Art and two students from the Department of Natural Resources Management.

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"As a scientist, I've thought for some time that science is really a creative endeavor in many ways," Cox said. "In restoration ecology, you're taking a damaged piece of land and trying to restore it to a former status. This is a creative act: you're designing in regard to which species you want to occur there, how the land will form and ecological functions. It's not often described as an artistic or creative endeavor, but it is, and if you think of it that way, it broadens the horizons of what you can do from the scientific standpoint."

Throughout the semester, the students participated in interdisciplinary discussions and critiques, using science and art to draft a restoration plan for Lubbock's Mae Simmons Park, located at East 24th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Their efforts earned them a spot in Leonardo's Kitchen, the Museum of Texas Tech's rotating gallery that displays projects that bring together art, research and scholarship. The exhibit, "The Art and Science of Restoration Ecology," will be on display until Sept. 25 and includes artistic interpretation and reactions to the site and scientific data gathered and interpreted by the students.

Though the course has only been around for one semester, both professors said this first group of students laid the groundwork for what eventually could be an ongoing project between Texas Tech and the local community.

"I think all of our students like to get their hands dirty and see progress," Lindsay said. "With the class this spring, we were working on the intellectual foundation of the project and even if these students weren't able to get their hands dirty, there is a strong intellectual and rhetorical foundation that needed to be created so communities can be involved and it can be a sustainable project. I think that our students understand that."

Learning the lay of the land

Lindsay and Cox began envisioning the collaborative course in January 2017. Informal conversations grew into brainstorming sessions and, by September, work was under way with a plan to offer the first section in spring 2018.

"It was through these conversations that we were able to identify common concerns in both fields," Lindsay said. "Robert mentioned 'shrub sculpting' to allow for the flow of water and wildlife. I thought that idea of sculpting the landscape was really wonderful, and as we developed the course, we found other common points between the two different fields."

One of those commonalities included the involvement of communities near Mae Simmons Park. The park serves as a location for many activities, including cross-country meets and community and Lubbock Independent School District events.

"We spent a considerable amount of time with the students discussing what it means when you involve local communities on the art side and the ecological restoration side," Cox said. "The students began researching communities local to that park, what support they might get and what concerns they might have."

Lindsay said some of the communities they identified were obvious, like the City of Lubbock Parks Department and the nearby community center, while others became apparent after evaluating the park.

"There is a disc golf course that has a lot of freestanding sculpture," he said. "It has some needs for restoration in terms of ecology and already has some art in the space. So we talked with a couple of disc golf clubs. They seemed really excited to come in."

In preparation for class discussions, the students were assigned readings in ecology and art comparing and contrasting issues in both fields. Visits to the park followed the discussions, allowing the students not only to observe how the area changed over the course of the semester, but to also incorporate aspects of the site into their own research as they began working on their restoration plan.

"My colleagues and I really took our time to see what the need was for this site-specific location," said Monica Prado, a graduate student studying printmaking. "We took turns observing and working in the environment to acquire samples and visual representations of Mae Simmons Park. Since I am not a local, I had to backtrack on the history and significance of the site itself. My favorite part of the course was learning the history of Mae Simmons, specifically who she was and what she meant to her community."

The visits also allowed students to collaboratively evaluate the areas that needed the most attention, like restoring the native indigenous species to beautify and diversify the area's ecology.

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"We each got to see our own fields of study from another point of view," said Matthew Jackson, a natural resources management graduate student. "My research at Texas Tech involves looking at the Panhandle landscape, but mostly on a smaller scale while looking at specific plants and their interactions with the changing environment. Through my eyes as an ecologist, I see the landscape as a mixture of plants and wildlife habitat. Artists see the landscape more as a collection of patterns and anomalies that stand out from the rest. Both work toward a common goal in a sense. They want to discover what the world is and share what they find."

The class meetings after a site visit were reserved for critiques in which students received feedback on individual projects from their peers and professors. One natural resource management student created maps that analyzed vegetation at the site and how it has changed over time, while another characterized the social network structure for course members and their individual projects, and visualized how each connected back to Mae Simmons Park and each other.

An art student focused on the idea of beauty, creating a photo essay that reflected the changes of the site throughout the semester, while another created ceramic pieces inspired by the site. Cocoons created and placed at the park by the third art student allowed the group to see how an object can change a site and then be overtaken by the environment.

"While for the majority of the semester we focused on our specific projects, there were moments of collaboration within those projects as well," said Stephanie Berrie, a graduate student who studies printmaking and painting. "I'd have to say that my favorite part of this class was being able to work with these amazing people outside of my department. Their different insights and the way they approached things has not only served as inspiration for the pieces I produced in this class, but also for my overall body of work."

Changing the environment – and their perspective

Jackson said in all his years of undergraduate and graduate school, he couldn't recall another course that pulled together students from different backgrounds and majors to work toward a common goal while still remaining in their own fields of study.

"Art and science are two sides of the same coin and are always present in each other's field," he said. "Scientists understand the processes that occur in nature using testing and statistics to show their results. Artists understand how to share stories through strong visuals and can use drawings and sculptures to show their results. When those two diverse methods of showing results are combined, it can make both scientists and artists more effective in their professions."

Cox said understanding and appreciating the artists' creative process is important to being a good scientist.

"The insight they are getting from the art students, there is really no other way they can get that insight, especially at the graduate level," he said. "It's not often they have a chance to sit down and think about something other than science. To connect science experience with art and broaden horizons like that has been really rewarding."

The interdisciplinary aspect of the course was a favorite of Garret D. Langlois, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Natural Resources Management and one of the course instructors for the department's most widely enrolled course, Introduction to Natural Resources Management.

"Otherwise, I never would had an opportunity to benefit from and collaborate with the art students and their insight," Langlois said. "I spend nearly all my professional time among scientists, who certainly have a useful and rigorous world view. However, it's both humbling and reinvigorating to be reminded that science isn't the only approach humanity takes to perceive and experience existence. Collaborating outside of science was like a breath of fresh air and truly unlike any other academic experience in my life."

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Lindsay said the same was true for the art students.

"Our graduate students are so focused on their own artistic production," Lindsay said. "Taking them out of that for just a little while, helping them see art production within the context of a bigger environment and allowing them to use their skills as artists to serve the community, has been really exciting for them. A lot of art students are interested in humans' relationship with environment, but the way most art programs are structured doesn't allow for much investigation into what that means beyond your own experience. Our art students came specifically wanting to understand that element of our relationship to the environment, and I think that's really enriched them individually as artists."

Prado said a course like this also is essential because it gives students a chance to interact with the local community while conducting field research.

"My time as an undergraduate was spent integrating agriculture and visual art together," Prado said. "Since much of my studio practice involves alternative practices that don't harm the environment, as well as repurposing supplies for visual art, I was really interested in how I could apply that in the environment. Before, I would take and repurpose something from nature; now I am trying to work in an outdoor area over a period of time to make an ecological difference."

The students weren't the only ones who gained new perspectives from the course.

"It certainly, in many ways, was what I hoped for: really stimulating in-depth discussions about connections and differences between ecological restoration and artistic endeavors," Lindsay said. "I really hoped for a group of students who would engage with each other, who would relate to each other and not be afraid to challenge their own ideas and the ideas of their neighbors, and I think we've done that pretty well so far. After every single class I'd go home thinking, 'Wow, that was great.'"

Looking forward

One of the challenges of offering a course like this at the graduate level is that students may finish their degree fairly quickly, but a restoration project like the one planned for Mae Simmons Park typically takes years to be fully realized from planning to implementation to completion. Now that the first semester is over, Lindsay and Cox said they hope to not only continue the project this group of students began, but also keep them involved, to some extent.

"Big art projects and big restoration projects require support from the community that transcends any one individual and that's kind of the challenge that we've given to the students to figure out," Lindsay said. "You're not going to be here forever, so how do you build support for a project like this? In the end, they will have created a plan and a document that can be acted upon by us, community members or organizations that see the quality of that plan and will be able to move forward with it."

Langlois said he thinks they succeeded in that endeavor.

"We worked hard to leave a strong and detailed starting place upon which a legacy of restoration involving both art and ecology may be built," he said. "By leaving a legacy that may be built upon, future classes may benefit from our triumphs and tragedies, and in doing so hopefully achieve more original work on this collective vision."

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Cox said while the implementation of that plan depends on approval and funding from entities like the city parks department, he hopes each student grew in their respective field because of the course. He and Lindsay plan to work on future sections of the course and are searching for funding opportunities based on the project. They eventually would like to invite students from other majors to participate as well.

"Texas Tech University excels in many ways and one of them is supporting ideas like this that seem off the wall at first, but could develop into something really engaging, stimulating and fun," Cox said. "This is perhaps the first of its kind, a program discussing art and ecological restoration. If we're successful in building the program out and continuing to grow, it will become something unique to Texas Tech and an area where Texas Tech can show excellence in a really interesting and distinct field."

Lindsay said there are other courses that focus on art and ecology, but this course is different because it focuses on art and restoration ecology which has the specific aim of going in and making the environment better.

"It's important because it brings together a couple of really interesting, knowledgeable fields of thought from the university to collaborate in a really meaningful way to get some good work done that benefits the university and the community," he said. "Sometimes in academia, we get caught up in the academic portion of what we do and don't see the tangible, human side of it, so for us to really think about how we make an impact, for me, that's the greatest thing."

The students and faculty said they hope that as the project develops, the Lubbock community gains not just an ecologically restored park, complete with art, but also a closer feeling of involvement within the different community groups that use the park.

"Community engagement is crucial for an emerging restoration project," Berrie said. "In regard to the arts, without the community's involvement, places such as the Charles Adams Studio Project and events like First Friday Art Trail wouldn't exist. I think if we can get people excited about creating an overall better environment, it improves the general community. Lubbock has already begun this, and if we can further enrich the existing arts scene while bringing in the importance of restoration ecology, then we can make Lubbock a better place to live."