How to Speak Art and Science to an Audience

How to Speak Art and Science to an Audience

Yesterday I hand fed a blue jay, helped rehabilitate a pigeon that had lead poisoning, and felt the tiny feet of a curious cardinal named Ben walk across my back. These are just a few of the fulfilling experiences I had while volunteering at the Wild Bird Fund Center, New York City’s first wildlife rehabilitation center. The center’s services—which include providing full examinations, x-rays, surgeries, splinting, diagnostic tests and medicine when required—are dependent on donations and the help of volunteers. I became a volunteer at the center for four reasons:

  1. I love drawing animals, especially birds.
  2. I love science, especially animal biology.
  3. My dream is to use my art to help fund wildlife conservation efforts.
  4. I wanted real world experience of helping wildlife.

How do I use my skills as an artist and my training in science to help this nonprofit reach its goals? The answer is by inspiring people. FYI, this is not a solicitation; I’m using this as a personal example for addressing a larger business issue. How do you inspire people from seemingly disparate groups to invest their resources in you or your business? In my case, I examined my love for the arts and sciences and found a pattern of thinking.

Here’s my story of how I discovered a fundamental relationship between the arts and sciences…

As a child I dreamt of becoming an artist or a fashion designer, but I was also drawn to biology. One of my favorite activities was resting my ear on my mother’s stomach and listening to the gurgles below. I imagined passionate debates were being held about her latest meals. When I was ten years old, my mother bought me a video of a PBS Nature documentary about rain forests. It ended up being my favorite escape when the brutal realities of childhood bullying became overwhelming. One summer, around the age of 15, I watched another PBS documentary about fractal patterns found in nature (see Nova’s latest feature here). I discovered that seemingly disparate patterns found in clouds, rivers, trees, mountains, blood vessels etc., shared a common mathematical language. I was never proficient in math, but I was immediately grateful for its existence. On that day it bridged the gap between biology and art for me. After that documentary, I never perceived the world the same way again.

Since then, my fascination with the relationship between art and science has influenced the way I approach problem solving. During my sophomore year at Miami Dade College, I used to be a writing tutor for many science students. Many of these students railed against the “frivolousness” of their art and humanities classes. I would remind them that many of the people (e.g. politicians) who made the decisions about funding science were trained in the arts and humanities. And most of the people who elected those politicians did not have science degrees.

Art is a powerful tool for communicating abstract ideas on an emotional level. The humanities provide historical insights for how to effectively craft those messages. The following year, when I transferred to Smith College to study neuroscience, I encountered some humanities students who smirked about the “rigidity and coldness” of science. I explained to them that the arts and humanities owed a great deal to the sciences: look at role of anatomy in figure drawing; physics in color theory and photography; chemistry in art history; or mathematics in linear perspective, and so on.

The truth is that the art student and science student, at their core, are not that different in how they perceive the world. An organic chemistry student visualizing a 3D molecule to better understand its chemical bonds is doing the same abstract thinking as an art student mentally breaking down a nude figure into basic shapes. By the way, I’m not insinuating any of this is easy. I never quite figured out how to rotate those molecules. Fortunately, there was always a huge grading curve in organic chemistry. And breaking down the human figure into basic shapes is one of the toughest skills to master, which is why figure drawing is a difficult course in art school. Yet, it’s worth the struggle because it’s this type of abstract thinking that has given us cell theory and the Mona Lisa.

Some may argue that cell theory (i.e. science) has done more for humanity than the Mona Lisa did (i.e. art). First of all, you’d be surprised how many scientists were influenced by the arts. Second of all, tomorrow on your way to work imagine how your surroundings would look without artists. The designs of the cars, the buildings, the subway tunnels below your feet, the smart phone in your pocket, the clothes on your body are all physical manifestations of abstract artistic thought. Likewise, none of the things I mentioned would be possible without the role of abstract scientific thought. This exercise wouldn’t work if your job consists of walking naked in the woods. Perhaps these are all a mute points because the art and science worlds are now talking to each other more than ever. But for me, it’s helpful to remember this interdependent relationship when I think about how I would like to approach these two audiences with my art.

With that being said, here is the heart of the matter: art and science makes life worth living for me. Art helps me recognize beauty in imperfection. I can become intoxicated by the delicate contour lines meandering down a voluptuous body in a figure drawing or the storied textures on a wrinkled face. Science helps me appreciate the magical nature of existence. I gush with pride and gratitude when I imagine how my white blood cells battle viruses or how some of my cells will undergo apoptosis (programed cell death) to prevent an infection from spreading to neighboring healthy cells. And don’t ask me about why I love the shape of healthy red blood cells. Most importantly, the insights I learn from art and science help me recognize and understand my connection with other living organisms.

Understanding people’s core motivations has become big business in the marketing world. These types of insights can be used for good and evil. If you don’t have a huge marketing budget or any interest in becoming a cynical marketer, then take some time out of your schedule and examine what fundamentally drives you. You may be surprised that you know more about your audience than you realize.

Image by Arlene Ellis