Mixing art and science

Growing up, I was always making something, from lino printing to life drawing, wood carvings to paper sculptures. I think a lot of people expected me to go to art school. During my final year at school I wrote an essay about Leonardo Di Vinci, an artist, scientist, mathematician and inventor. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t do it all like him and had to choose between art and science. While I was passionate about art, I also loved science and decided to pursue a career in marine biology. I miss creating things all the time but have since learned that art and science have lots of overlaps and can definitely benefit from each other! I have recently been working with an artist called Dan Lewis who is expressing my findings in a much more exciting way than graphs and boxplots!

Dan and I haven’t actually met yet as he lives in Cornwall and I’m now up north for my PhD! He contacted me on Instagram after I liked one of his images just wanting to chat about my research and see if we could work together. Dan creates incredible pieces from microplastics he finds on his local beaches, to raise public awareness of plastic pollution further. It’s incredible what he finds and how he can create something beautiful out of our waste. I asked Dan a few questions about his work and why he decided to collaborate with scientists:

What is your background and what inspired you to start working with microplastics?

“I specialised in sculpture at university and taught myself to carve stone for my Art & Design GCSE in the late 1980s. I have always been interested in found objects and the possibility they present to reuse and invent new patterns, shapes and forms. I once used 800 Victorian terracotta flower pots to form large snaking garden sculpture for part of my A Level! I continued to carve stone in my twenties and became interested in microplastics on a family holiday to North Cornwall near Fowey about 8 years ago. There on a very popular Blue Flag beach, regarded as spotless, idyllic and clean, I found hundreds of bits of small coloured plastic that had been routinely pushed to the end of the cove, as if to hide their existence. I decided to do something directly about this plastic waste, to volunteer in any community I was in by picking it up and to make a small difference to the natural world I love”.

What motivates you to make a particular pattern or use a certain colour? 

“Each beach clean is different from the weather to what I find. Almost all of my flat lay artwork, shows the microplastics from one single beach clean -revealing the variety of waste right there on a particular day. The work develops naturally as I arrange the pieces; in life and in my experience in many parts of education as a whole, we as students and as practising professionals tend not to trust what we make and are encouraged to avoid risk. Getting back in touch with the playful, experimental way of making is vital to me and essential to the variety in my work. I am planning larger single coloured pieces of work this year with more complicated patterns. New learning often comes when making an artwork with any medium or material, similar to science experiments – we can hypothesise what may happen, but until we test our ideas, we won’t know”. 

What similarities do you think there are between art and science? 

“As above, both are testing our natural world, sometimes our place in it and sometimes the matter we find and use in our everyday lives. Both disciplines are broad, experimental, involving taking risk, failure (which is a good and healthy outcome!), collaboration, travel and reflection. They can also be lonely activities which is why I think cross-curricular collaboration is so important”. 

Why do you think scientists and artists should work together? 

“Because often we have the same interests, passions and hopes for the future. We both ask questions, reflect back outcomes and findings which are not always welcomed by wider society. Both disciplines capture the changes we as humans are making. Often change is confused with progress, but both art and science challenge norms which is truly how cultures, countries and individuals develop”.

How would working with artists help scientists communicate their findings better?

“As Howard Gardner proposed, the 8 types of intelligence help us understand ‘us’ as people – both personally and interpersonally. If we can connect, engage and enlighten others who see their understanding of the world and their skills within as ‘different’, we are firmly on the path to further any society in which this is happening. It is our difference that can bring us together for the greater good”.

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Myth or Truth ...

What made you want to begin working with scientists? 

“Because they are very different from me, in some ways. I have never been classed as academic by the institutions I have attended or by the people who know me, but I enjoy what scientists discover, share and capture in many areas of the globe. They are measuring things very specifically, with particular methods, routines and protocols but it is their passion to ‘know’ or know more which overlaps with my artwork and interest in making what hasn’t been made before. I see peoples intelligence not by the information they can hold in their heads, but by the questions they ask and where they look for answers”. 

Are there other environmental problems or areas of science you would like to work on?

“My focus currently is on the coast, and what turns up there because they are borderless frontiers, where we physically touch other nations and continents”. 

Do you know any other artists and scientists working together?

Mandy Barker is the most prominent for me I think however many schools and communities use art to extend learning with science and STEM. Also, throughout history, artists, designers and creatives have drawn influence from the work of science whether that be marvelling at what has been discovered or being enriched by walking and being within the natural world. “.

What do you think is stopping more artists and scientists working together? Do you think there are stereotypes stopping this from happening?

“Stereotypes definitely create a block to collaboration, also budgets. We think we know ‘what a scientist is like’ (academic, boring, not fun); we have the same judgements about artists (unorganised, messy, unprofessional). There is also an idea that artists don’t deserve to be paid as well as a doctor or architect for example, but millions of peoples’ lives are enriched and uplifted from artistic objects, designs or images each day. Artistic forms of expression have also been cut and undermined in many schools in the last 15 years, so art is not on the nations lips, minds or newspaper headlines – STEM is very prominent. Art and creative industries, aren’t seen as that valuable to the UK economy, but science often is. Essentially both groups may think they are too different to work together, but we always have something to learn from each other”! 

Since contacting me last August, I have shared with Dan some of my preliminary findings from my first field trip to Vietnam in 2018, and this is what he created from my data.

The first piece (above) represents the amount of microplastics found in the surface water of the Mekong River at 3 different locations in Vietnam. The highest amount of microplastic in the surface suspended sediment of was found at Can Tho represented by orange plastics (an urban city) followed by Bassac in pink and Hong Ngu in green (much more rural).

The piece above represents the difference the variation of annual microplastic flux in Hong Ngu and is one of the largest pieces Dan has created. 1883 white pieces compared to 63 pink ones.

The final one (below) demonstrates the difference in annual microplastic flux in 2 locations: Can Tho (313 blue and 26 yellow) and Bassac (150 green and 47 red).

It’s very refreshing to know that there are people out there from a completely different discipline interested in your work and even more that they want to work together. People often think you can only do one or the other but I have always felt art and science can benefit each other in so many ways. I feel very flattered that Dan wanted to work with me. Our collaboration has allowed my findings to reach a larger and more varied audience as well as engaging with many more people than I ever could have done on my own – I am extremely grateful for that. It also feels really nice to (sort of!) be back in the art world!

We are also working together for an event called Earth2050 that myself and colleague Jack Buckingham are organising. Earth2050 is calling on people to get creative and show us their vision of the planet in 30 years time, be it flooding, technological advances or solutions to climate change. Dan will also be showing an exhibition of his work as part of the event, so I will finally get to meet him!

I am so glad that there are these sort of collaborations going on and that Dan is making the effort to team up with scientists! I really hope we can continue to work together to raise public awareness and understanding of microplastic pollution. If you would like to see more of Dan’s incredible work, give him a follow on Instagram @danpaullewis

All images credited to Dan Lewis

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