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Art bridges the gap between nature and people

Cass Cairns
Rocky Mountain Research Station
December 19, 2017 at 10:00am

Area children collect samples and learn about the natural world within the Rio Grande Bosque.
Area children collect samples and learn about the natural world within the Rio Grande Bosque. (Photo by Yancey Ranspot of the U.S. Forest Service.)
Deborah Finch has always been drawn to streams and rivers, and particularly to the riparian woods full of songbirds, woodpeckers, salamanders, and other native plants and animals found alongside these watercourses.

In her youth, Finch who is now scientist with the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, was unaware that many non-native trees were invading these bountiful and biologically diverse sites. That changed when, as a researcher, she discovered that not only were salt cedar and Russian olive non-native, but they were spreading, reducing biological diversity, and contributing to the habitat loss of native species. They replaced native cottonwoods and willows, increasing the risk and incidence of fires.

Earlier this year, an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico invited her to meet with New York artist Alexis Rockman, who had been commissioned to create a number of drawings focusing on problems facing the ecosystems, plants, and animals from Santa Fe and the surrounding area.

Rockman described his creative process of collecting soils and organic materials to produce pigment from the natural world to generate his artwork. Intrigued, Finch saw his work and methodology as a means to connect the public to the natural world through art. She told him about the scientists’ research at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the Lab’s staff develop and deliver scientific knowledge, technology, and tools to sustain and restore aridland riparian habitats, grasslands, shrublands, and desert ecosystems.

Finch and her staff saw this as an opportunity to get children involved by taking them outdoors for two educational and fun experiences. They worked with the Albuquerque elementary and middle schools, as well as the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy, often collaborating with staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other Forest Service divisions.

This is one of several drawings that New York artist Alexis Rockman created of the ecosystems, plants, and animals from Santa Fe and the surrounding area.
This is one of several drawings that New York artist Alexis Rockman created of the ecosystems, plants, and animals from Santa Fe and the surrounding area. (Photo courtesy of SITE Santa Fe and Sperone Westwater, New York.)
As children collected soils and natural materials from rivers, deserts, and mountains, they discussed not only the plants and animals, but also the challenges they faced from fire, invasive species, and climate change. They labelled their finds with information about each collection site, the species that lived there now or in the past, and issues – both natural and man-made – that may have affected them. These materials were sent to Rockman, who transformed them into a series of 75 new drawings.

The scientists, children, and artist who participated in this collaborative project can now see the fruition of their efforts at The Future Shock art exhibit, which opened at the SITE Santa Fe art gallery on October 7 and will continue through May 1, 2018.

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