Deliver Benefits to the Public

Art bridges the gap between nature and people


Cottonwood, 2017, soil from Espanola and acrylic polymer on paper, 18 x 24in. Image courtesy of SITE Santa Fe and Sperone Westwater, New York.

NEW MEXICO — Dr. 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 she was unaware that many non-native trees, like salt cedar and Russian olive, were invading these bountiful and biologically diverse sites, replacing native cottonwoods and willows, and increasing fire risk and the incidence of fires. That changed when she began research, as she discovered not only were they invasive but they were spreading, reducing biological diversity, and contributing to habitat loss of native species.

Finch is the program manager for the Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Grassland, Shrubland, and Desert Ecosystems Science Program. Earlier this year, SITE Santa Fe, an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contacted Finch asking if she could meet with New York artist Alexis Rockman, who was commissioned to create a number of artworks focusing on problems facing the ecosystems, plants, and animals from Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Curious, she agreed to the meeting.

Rockman described to Finch his unique creative process of collecting soils (to produce pigment) and organic materials from the natural world to generate his artwork. Finch, intrigued by Rockman’s process, saw this as a means to bridge the gap between the natural world and the public through art. She told Rockman about the scientists’ research at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through this research the lab’s scientists, professional technicians and support staff develop and deliver scientific knowledge, technology and tools that will enable people to sustain and restore aridland riparian habitats as well as grasslands, shrublands and desert ecosystems. Thus began the collaboration between science and art.

When Finch met with her staff and scientists, they saw this as a great opportunity to get children involved by taking them outdoors for an educational and fun experience and moved forward with the project. They worked with children through their conservation education program to collect the soils and natural materials from rivers, deserts and mountains while discussing the plants and animals and the challenges they face from fire, invasive species and climate change. The contents were labelled with information about each site including the species that lived there now or in the past along with issues generated naturally or through human activities that may have affected them.  These materials were sent on to SITE Santa Fe for Rockman to transform them into works of art.

The fruition of this collaboration is now part of The Future Shock exhibit at SITE Santa Fe featuring Alexis Rockman’s drawings, along with work by many other artists from October 7, 2017 – May 1, 2018.