ART & SCIENCE

The Hayground School studio art and garden program has become a laboratory for projects nourished by the fertile ground where art and science converge.. Four years ago we began searching for ways to make art about the world of creatures that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. We were curious about the microscopic organisms that nourish plants and aquatic life, restore the soil, and are the foundation of the food chain. Where would life in the oceans be without phytoplankton? We knew we were encountering them daily in our work in the gardens and compost piles. We knew they were present in a handful of earth, by the millions. We had read of their exploits  extending over a period of several billion years, converting the sterile clay of our barren planet into a world of unimaginable diversity. Our fascination with these single cell organisms, eukaryotes, prokaryotes, fungi, algae led us to build two 14 foot totems , homage to bacterial life, as an installation in the Parrish Art Museum student exhibition. Through these totems we told the stories of thirteen micro- organisms, portrayed in heroic scale. How could a single cell like Choanoflagellate, the common ancestor of the first terrestrial life forms to branch off from the sea, still be ubiquitous today on every landmass on earth, 850 million years later?

As we struggled to portray these characters, our conception of scale became inextricably entwined with the way these bacteria transcend their actual size and reach epic proportions through their accomplishments. We were free to build as storytellers rather than scientific historians. We searched for materials that would serve our needs as builders and we found a guide, the biologist E O Wilson, who granted us permission to imagine other ways of seeing, ” A cell is like a miniature rain forest in which to conduct expeditions to find and describe organic structure, variety and formation.” We searched for colors that suited these beings, sewing fabrics, entwining wire strung with seed beads, floating artichoke seeds, pipe insulation, transformed into rings and arcs. We told the story of volvox globator, morphing from a single organism to a grand spherical colony of 100,000 members, using inflated latex to make the orbs.  And to quote E.O. again, “since so much of good science, and perhaps all of great science, has its roots in fantasy, I suggest that you engage in a bit right now.”

Our last 3 installations at the Parrish have followed this format, finding inspiration in the world of science: the honey bee as queen of the food chain, the coral reef as the land of exquisite invertebrates, and seeds as the legacy of the past and the future. We are inspired not solely to make art, but also to conserve our environment. Our partnership with Stacy Meyers and the Cornell Marine Extension has led us to avenues of action and service that connect us deeply to this place we love and hope to protect. This love is based on a deep knowledge of nature. We study the coastal ecosystems. We grow dune grass and spartina alterniflora to restore eroded marine habitats. We walk the coastline through the salt marshes at Tiana Bay, collecting specimens and drawing the small colonies of newly hatched horseshoe crabs around Ponquogue Bridge. We maintain salt water aquariums, managing the food chain without commercial additives, and raising local sea horses and coral. We hike the green belt trails, studying trees, making photographs and drawings. We admire the invertebrate specimens we find and make art with seaweed in herbarium presses. We celebrate the liberation afforded by our expansive outdoor classroom, while clearing debris from Crooked Pond and helping to keep motorized vehicles off the trails. We study water sources , their quality and management at Shinnecock Canal, Trout Pond, Northwest Creek. Our eyes are open to the fact that “ the original level of biodiversity is not likely to be regained in any period of time that has meaning for the human mind.” Yet perhaps through changing our behavior and values we can challenge the historical and scientific exceptionalism that threatens this place.

Academically, we look to the E.O. Wilson curriculum, the levels of organisms and ecosystems, using his 5 principles:

  • Teach and learn from the top down, first address larger questions already interesting to students and relative to their lives. Then dissect the whole down to the foundations.
  • Focus on problem solving
  • Commit yourself. Trust your instincts
  • Reach outside your field of inquiry, into the kaleidoscopic sub disciplines that are the emerging hybrids of the known world.Biology has expanded to the borders of social science and the humanities, and they to it. There is a wide domain of unexplored phenomena open to cooperative approaches from both sides of the divide.
  • Cut deep and travel far.

Through all of these grand concepts and far reaching speculative thoughts there runs a river where the tributaries of art and science converge. That river is play. That stream runs through the Hayground sand boxes, ever changing, its banks and courses altered daily, hourly, by children from 3 to 14 years of age, absorbed in these engineering feat, nature and child united in an endeavor, to keep it flowing.