Returning the artist to the field: Utilizing printmaking’s multiplicity, mediation and materiality for enhanced science communication.

Visual art as a parallel practice to science research offers opportunities for communicating the complexities of many ecological systems to non-experts. Immersive and interactive artworks provide a means to complexity, perceived distance, and opaqueness of language surrounding ecological systems. This paper describes the use of printmaking and print installations as analogues that engage audiences in complex soil systems. The three projects discussed here trace the journey of artist observer to field collaborator and examine printmaking’s capacity to facilitate the communication of both explicit and experiential knowledge of soil systems.

Keywords: field research, practices of arts and sciences, soil science, tacit knowledge, fine arts, printmaking


Although science is often regarded in purely explicit terms (e.g., the knowledge represented by published literature), tacit knowledge (e.g., things one knows but cannot express explicitly) informs the process of developing scientific work.[i] This paper positions printmaking and paper installations as parallel avenues for communicating both experiential (tacit) and explicit knowledge of complex systems, such as soil systems by positioning the artist as a participant in scientific field work.

One of the current challenges in communicating complex systems is the need for both expressing and experiencing the interactions between diverse factors, for example, the impact of grass root density on salt marsh soil health and porosity.[ii] Fine arts such as printmaking may provide an effective platform for communicating these relationships due to its inherent potential for mediation, its capacity for creating evocative environments, and its ability to prompt further creative or intuitive thinking.[iii]

These collaborations have value far beyond simply generating empathy or stimulating creative thought. Art-science collaborations such as those described in this paper, may have the capacity to “encode” tacit knowledge and through the artist’s work analogously convey experiential aspects of scientific knowledge that cannot be grasped through explicit knowledge alone. Prints and drawings made in collaboration with or proximity to scientists may act as shared inscriptions that allow the transmission of concepts.[iv] We propose that in this role the artist serves as both a science communicator and an experiential proxy for the audience. The artist asks questions and uncovers relationships, offering avenues for exploration in a world no one can physically inhabit.

Following a brief background in the literature, this paper follows the journey of one artist from observer of science and scientists to collaborator with scientists in the field. We explore the value of the shift in this relationship. Three field research projects conducted at various sites and with various degrees of artist-scientist interaction provide a framework for the description of parallel artist-scientist investigations and interactions. In all three sites (Lincoln Woods State Park, Lincoln, Rhode Island, USA; Surama Village, Guyana; and Jacob’s Point, Warren, Rhode Island, USA) printmaking processes are used to translate artistic and scientific information into multisensory viewer experiences. The projects mentioned here position artist and scientist in parallel, utilizing tools in the field that are often distinct, yet sometimes closely related. We demonstrate that these parallel field experiences enhance science communication and raise the question of how shared field experiences may also enhance science itself.

Theoretical Perspectives

The relationship between artist and scientist is not new or unique. Scientific research, especially field research, has long been accompanied by an “artistic” sidekick—the field notebook. Professional researchers and amateur naturalists alike have used field notebooks to document observations through both text and illustration. The field notebooks of Charles Darwin, Merriweather Lewis, and other early naturalists and field researchers are particularly notable early examples of contemporary field notebook practices.[v] These records are meticulously factual and methodical, at times establishing systems of documentation to be used by others, yet they are also imbued with personal and more expressive memories of the day.[vi] In some cases, scientific fact and personal experience are visually intertwined on the same page. Muriel Foster, a British angler from the early 1900s, illustrated her detailed fishing notes with seemingly tangential images that defy the printed ledger lines.[vii] Her illustrations, as inconsequential as they may appear at first glance, capture personal elements of the naturalist experience.

Certain printmaking processes also have their roots in scientific research and naturalist studies. Cyanotype, a photographic print process that results in brilliant blue images, was used as an early method of documenting plant specimens. Sir John Herschel discovered cyanotype in 1842, and within the decade Anna Atkins published Photographs of British Algae, a three-volume catalogue of specimens recorded entirely in cyanotype. Atkins collected algae and exposed the plants onto the light-sensitive cyanotype coating, creating a direct record of 398 specimens (Fig. 1).[viii] Photographs of British Algae is notable as both a comprehensive catalogue of algae, and as a technically masterful and artistically sophisticated representation of the natural world.

Figure 1. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. (1849-11 – 1850-06). Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit. Retrieved from

In these and other early photographic images, the division between art and science is almost indistinguishable, but as technologies have developed so too has the perception of the distinction between art and scientific imagery.[ix] While contemporary field research practices retain aspects of these earlier forms of documentation, new technologies (e.g. camera, smart phone, tablet) have altered and expanded the formats of contemporary field notebooks and the tools with which observations are made.[x] More manual methods of documentation (e.g., cyanotype and detailed drawings) are often viewed as artistic representation distinct from the sciences; however, the arts have proved a valuable means of visualizing and embodying the abstract.

Science communication (especially the communication of complex systems such as climate change and soil systems) is challenging due to its abstractness and non-linear nature; its perceived distance (spatially or intellectually) from the public; and the opacity of language used to describe such systems.[xi] Soil systems in particular can be difficult to generate public interest in because their beauty is challenging to represent “without a refined knowledge of its inherent qualities”.[xii] Communication of these complexities is aided by visual imagery, which can literally or abstractly illustrate lab or field experience. In contrast to the written word, this more universal visual language allows for an experiential connection with scientific knowledge that may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of and/or emotional connection to the subject.[xiii] Collaborations between scientific fields have resulted in illustrations (both hand-drawn and computer generated), artifacts, photographs and animations that successfully visualize scientific data.[xiv]

The arts have long been used as an entry point into complexity, and have been shown to reach new audiences, create new relationships to knowledge, engage viewers on intellectual and emotional levels, and shift behaviors through environmental awareness.[xv] Artistic decisions regarding color, shape, and form can parallel scientific fact, drawing attention to particular findings or aspects of research.[xvi] These formal artistic choices synthesize even the most abstract scientific concepts into visual cues, symbolic colors, and arresting forms. Artwork meditates, abstracting familiar visuals and visualizing abstract concepts. In an effort to describe the movement of trees, for example, ecologist Nalini Nadkarni tied tiny brushes to the ends of tree branches and recorded the contact between branch-end and paper-surface in two minute “paintings”. The measured and numbered brush strokes act as both scientific record and abstract representation of tree movement (Fig. 2, Fig. 3).[xvii]

Figure 2. Detail of painting action by twiglet of Douglas fir tree. Nadkarni, N. M. Reproduced with permission from the artist.

Figure 3. Image resulting from tree “painting” from Douglas fir for two minutes. Nadkarni, N. M. Reproduced with permission from the artist.

For Nadkarni, emotional connection with the research object is as important as the research itself. In her own work, Nadkarni frequently incorporates “artistic” methods of research (such as the aforementioned tree “paintings”), and references poetry as a means of generating non-science emotional investment in trees and nature.[xviii] Biologist George Schaller, likewise, uses narrative writing as a complement to scientific papers. Schaller documents his field experiences in three separate notebooks: a field notebook for observational notes and sketches, a more legible and carefully composed research notebook for summarizing and interpreting field observations, and a personal journal for capturing deeper emotions. For Schaller, this third notebook is valuable as an outlet for relating “matters beyond what is pertinent in a scientific notebook.”[xix]  The arts provide an outlet and language for conveying passion, curiosity and respect that is necessarily absent from scholarly publications, yet ever-present in the lab and field.[xx]

AJ Friedman in his essay “Building science communication through art” describes a moment in Particle Fever (a documentary on the Higgs-Boson particle collider) that beautifully captures the emotions surrounding this monumental discovery. Video diaries from the lab capture the deflation, despair, fumbling, tension, and triumph (all words pulled directly from Friedman’s description) in the moments surrounding this crucial discovery in particle physics. In the moments following their success, physicist Monica Dunford beams as she holds up her laptop for her colleagues to observe: “Did you guys see our beautiful plot?” (Fig. 4).[xxi] As a consultant for the film, Friedman, a physicist, was expecting to factcheck scientific explanations, yet was faced with a film that was more artistic than pedagogical. Ultimately, Friedman found that “to appreciate the magnitude of the first-beam event, we need to see the emotion it releases in the faces, voices, and body language of the individuals” and understand “the interests, attitudes, and emotions people feel when they learn.”[xxii]

Figure 4. Physicist Monica Dunford posing for a photo with her laptop at activation of the Large Hadron Collider, in Particle Fever, Levinson, M. (Director), & Miller, A., Kaplan, D. E., Levinson, M., & Solomon, C. (Producers). (2013). Particle Fever [Video file]. Ro*Co Films, (29:20).

Friedman goes on to describe his involvement in two other projects—a ballet and a musical—both of which bring issues of climate change out of the lab and into an entirely new context.[xxiii] Visual artworks and performing arts do more than simply communicate experiences; they create experiences. Often, it is through interaction with an object—handling, manipulating, and moving through it—that data is effectively received into a new body of knowledge.[xxiv] Artworks—particularly installations, sculptures, and artist books—provide physical touchpoints to discovery that may parallel the experiential aspects of scientific research, especially field research. The sounds, smells, textures, and temperatures of research—information so difficult to realize through simply written word—become transformational tools in the hands of artists, transporting viewers to a particular time and place.

These artistic representations of complex information necessitate the development of a new literacy—visual, audible, tactile and otherwise—that levels the playing field when communicating, processing, and responding to this scientific knowledge. Inherent to art is the abstracting and reinterpreting of information—potentially turning numbers into shapes, concepts into spaces, and projections in sculptures. As an outsider to the sciences, the artist can float between disciplines, synthesizing information from scientific, social and political spheres into a completely new form of visual information.[xxv] This visual output continues existing conversations in a new, broader context.

Amanda Thompson, a multi-modal artist whose research is supported by the Forestry Commission Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands, uses many mediums to translate experiences of place into new viewer experiences. The personal and site-specific nature of artists like Thompson link viewer experiences of artworks to specific, often local experiences of place, bridging the abstractness of environmental issues such as climate change.[xxvi] Thomson’s Dead Amongst the Living consists of prints, photographs, videos, sound works and an artist book developed through a series of walks among the Scots pines in Abernathy forest. These walks and subsequent findings were recorded through sketches, photos, GPS “walkDrawings”, and naturally etched metal plates.[xxvii] Fieldguide—an artist book that includes selections of all the recordings—unfolds in a variety of ways, at times revealing and then concealing information. The experience of reading Thomson’s book is closely parallel to her scientific research experience. On their own, each element—sketches, photos, GPS maps, and etchings—captures only one sensation from the walk; combined, the pieces recreate a journey that is informational, evocative, and even awe-inspiring.[xxviii]

As Thomson demonstrates in her work, printmaking and print installation may be particularly well-suited to creative inquiry into and expression of complex systems. Printmaking, an artistic practice based on layering visual information, is emotive, adaptable, and visual in nature, yet capable of being crafted into tactile, multi-sensory objects. Printmaking is malleable, able to extend into new domains, and materially inclusive.[xxix] These attributes of openness and experimentation make the medium well suited to integration with the sciences. Within the printmaking umbrella, each process (relief, etching, lithography, engraving, screen printing, etc.) affords different ways of expressing complex systems, patterns, and site-specific visuals and creating a new vocabulary for the research experience. Artistic observation through print extends beyond the visual, encompassing all senses and making note of everything from shape, color and form; to the movement of light through a space; to the sounds of nearby wildlife. Paired with scientific research, the print, by nature a liminal artform constantly teetering between art and craft, multiple and unique imprint, fine art and commercial publication, may be the ideal format for mediating information about soil systems and translating these complexities into a relatable and comprehensible experience.

Empirical Analysis

The following projects map the author’s journey from observer to field companion. Their sequence makes the case for print and print installation as experiential proxies for understanding complex systems. Soil science, like climate science, can be complex, distant, and abstract to anyone outside the sciences. Soil microbial communities are insensible, buried underground and invisible to the human eye. Appreciation of these systems by the general public, therefore, requires a breakdown of complexity and a reframing of how one engages with soil systems.[xxx]

Each artwork responds to the particular soil system of the site—the deciduous forests of Lincoln Woods State Park, Lincoln, Rhode Island, USA; the rainforests of Surama Village, Guyana; and the salt marshes of Warren, Rhode Island, USA—through different print techniques and installation formats. In each project, artistic tools and observations come into increasing conversation with scientific tools and methods, resulting in increasingly dynamic representations of the field research process, and bridging the gap between science and non-science audiences.

Small Changes We Make

Small Changes We Make is the author’s initial and solo foray into soil science. The prints and puzzle installation are a response to a close investigation of an eighteen inch by eighteen-inch plot of land in Lincoln Woods State Park, Lincoln, Rhode Island, USA. The artwork embraces the puzzle-like nature of printmaking as an avenue for communicating the puzzle-like nature of soil systems (Fig. 5, Fig. 6) and is informed by a self-driven investigation of place.

Figure 5. Small Changes We Make: Installation views. Image: Authors.

Figure 6. Small Changes We Make: Installation views. Image: Authors.

In this project, the author operated as an outsider to the sciences, making observations using tools and techniques familiar to the artist. Pantone color swatches were used to sample color and track changes in light. Rubbings captured natural textures, and copper weathered in-situ created an abstract, visual representation of hydrology. Direct screen print and cyanotype exposures of soil particles and leaf litter recorded size and shape of natural materials. Other on-site observations were sketched in a field notebook. In addition to these artistic records of place, a context for site history and geology was provided through microscope captures of soil samples, as well as various articles and publications.

Paired with a prior knowledge of basic soil science, these observations afforded the artist a visual vocabulary with which to explore the soil system of the site. Each of the seven prints in Small Changes We Make employs a different printmaking technique or process and represents an aspect of both the soil science and on-site experience. The visual variety between prints is directly related to the variety of on-site activity (Fig. 7, Fig. 8). The resulting prints are an index of the colors, shapes, and textures of the site and represent the various components, both organic and inorganic, that contribute to a soil system.

Figure 7. Plein air sketching onto hard ground copper plate for etching. Image: Authors.

Figure 8. Color swatches from point-sourcing colors. Image: Authors.

The accompanying puzzle further translates field experience by inviting the viewer into activities that parallel on-site artist-researcher actions: close looking, engagement with the ground plane, and physical movement of information on the floor surface. The puzzle facilitates constant problem-solving and engagement with a complex system that has multiple “solutions”. Mirroring the artist’s on-site experience, the viewer is invited to question connections and create new inferences about the visual landscape. The longer one spends with the piece the more one may uncover patterns within and connections between these seemingly disparate images. The viewer is given the opportunity to explore soil systems in a participatory and abstract way that requires no prior knowledge of soil science, but simply a willingness to engage in complex systems thinking.


Digging, a collection of prints, collages and creative writings made in conjunction with a research experience in the Guyanese rainforest, takes a step closer toward an artist-scientist research parallel (Fig. 9). The prints and portfolio were made in conjunction with field research conducted in Surama Village, Guyana. This research project was again self-directed, and its design and implementation were advised by a board-certified wildlife veterinarian and field specialists in Iwokrama International Research Center, Kurupukari Crossing, Guyana and Surama Village, Guyana.

Figure 9. Digging: Installation view with portfolio and four cyanotypes. Image: Authors.

In partnering with these researchers, the artist had access to both expert knowledge of the field, additional tools (e.g. soil pH testing kit), and more formalized research methods. Observations and data were collected regarding soil pH surrounding Mora excelsa root systems, and the diversity of ground cover immediately surrounding Mora excelsa base in an effort to determine a correlation between Mora excelsa, soil pH, and ground-cover diversity. Although this artist had the benefit of working with researchers on-site, the extent and formality of research was limited by geographic scope, timeframe, available resources, and inexperience with proper methods. While the data from this research excursion may not be precise enough to warrant scientific reporting, the artwork created during the experience serves as a window into this artist’s particular field experience, and by extension, a window into the sensory and emotional aspects of research.

Concurrent with this more formal data collection, the artist continued an artistic documentation of experience through cyanotypes, field notebook sketches, sound recordings, and a written narrative. This “data”—collected while sifting through soil and leaf litter at the base of trees—is compiled into a visual and written narrative that expresses this particular research experience in informal and, at times, humorous terms. Double-sided cyanotype, collograph, and screen print assemblages based on visual memories of the Guyanese site are interleaved with translucent mulberry paper on which is printed the written narrative (Fig. 10). The varied papers alter the reader’s pace as one moves through the book. The thin sheets can be lifted quickly but are difficult to control and constantly stick to the double-thick print assemblages. The reader experience is similar to the artist’s experience studying soil and leaf litter in Guyana. The materials are frustratingly fragile, and each leaf (or page) is minutely dissimilar, prompting and complicating further exploration.

Figure 10. Digging: Set of opposing pages. Image: Authors

The screen-printed text (derived from a hand-written original), is particularly important as it pairs the acquisition of scientific knowledge with the emotional realities of foraying into a new knowledge base. The personal narrative relays both the joy and frustration of asking questions of unfamiliar fields and digging (both literally and metaphorically) into new research. The fragile, variable and readable experience invites the audience into places and bodies of knowledge that would otherwise remain obscure, technical and opaque.

Together, the material qualities of the portfolio and the readable narrative guide the reader through a distinct experience, exposing emotional aspects of this research journey more explicitly than a formal paper may be able to. The imagery and the conversational language of the narrative (written concurrently with the field study) draw the audience into the artist’s experience. The final artwork captures both the joy and frustration of diving into a foreign field (foreign in so many ways) attempting to bridge the gap between science and non-science fields.

Marsh Senses

In Marsh Senses, a more integrated arts-science partnership, the artist interacts with and works alongside a multi-disciplinary science team conducting salt marsh restoration efforts at Jacob’s Point, Warren, Rhode Island, USA and Quonochontaug Pond, Rhode Island, USA. Over the course of four months the artist learned from and worked alongside ecologists, soil scientists, ornithologists and restoration specialists during site visits, lab visits and through the sharing of publications.

In order to better understand salt marsh soil ecosystems, the artist joined scientists in a variety of field excursions. At Jacob’s Point, Warren, Rhode Island, USA, the artist carried equipment and observed the process of soil coring with soil scientists; and recorded band numbers, weight, age and sex for Salt Marsh Sparrows with researchers from the Salt Marsh Sparrow Research Initiative. The artist practiced vegetation density observation with a restoration ecologist at Quonochontaug Pond, Rhode Island, USA, and assisted with planting Spartina Patens and Spartina Alterniflora seedlings at Ninigret Pond restoration site in Charlestown, Rhode Island, USA. Lab visits, publications, and presentations provided the artist with further insight into the scientists’ current research at these salt marsh locations.

While participating in these restoration and research efforts, the artist continued her regular practice of color sampling with Pantone swatches and Munsell charts, field notebook sketching, texture rubbing, and audio recording. This artistic record captures the extraneous “data” of field research—the colors brought out by the sunlight on a particular day, the sound of an osprey followed by an airplane passing overhead, or the physical sensation of stepping from degrading marsh soil onto new depositions of dredged materials.

Figure 11. Marsh Senses: installation of quilted cushions and sculptural books. Image: Authors.

Figure 12. Textiles designs and quilting samples based on research from Jacob’s Point, Warren, Rhode Island, USA. Image: Authors.

These salt marsh research experiences are compiled into an installation of large quilted cushions and sculptural books (Fig. 11). As in Small Changes We Make, visual representations of each body of knowledge are parsed out into unique textile designs (Fig. 12). Distinct references to coastal blue carbon storage capacity, geological textures, Salt Marsh Sparrow and mussel populations, root density and native grasses are made with a variety of different printmaking techniques. Each patterned fabric carries a different visual pattern and subtly different tactile qualities that when quilted back together become abstract visual representations of a healthy salt marsh soil system.  The cushions—stuffed with recycled memory foam and paper—create a multisensory experience for the viewer that parallels the experience of walking through a salt marsh. The installation crunches and gives way underfoot, mimicking the unexpected audible and tactile sensation of walking over degrading, over-saturated soil, mussel shells and grasses crunching with every step. Similarly, the light and motion-activated sound bites positioned within the books play periodically as the viewer thumbs through this literal record of grasses. The audible intrusions startle the viewer in much the same way a researcher and Salt Marsh Sparrow might mutually startle one another.

Marsh Senses compiles a variety of research experiences—soil coring, bird banding, attending lectures, visiting labs, etc.—into an artwork that highlights the complexity of salt marshes and heightens viewer perception of their own movement. The installation captures all the sights, sounds, smells and other sensory elements of the research experience. These multisensory observations are of course noted and experienced by scientific researchers in the field, but rarely have a place in published data. In the field, the artist’s role is fluid. She is not tied to a specific discipline within science, and can therefore accompany soil scientist, ornithologist, or restoration ecologist into the field, assisting in practical tasks and compiling a narrative of field research that extends beyond the collected data. Once in the gallery, the artist acts as a mid-point between science and non-science audience, presenting a three-dimensional representation of research experience that both audiences can relate to and experience, albeit in different ways.

The material versatility and mobility of printmaking is perfectly suited to creating a variety of viewer experiences—both on-site and in gallery—that bring the conversation surrounding salt marsh soils and restoration efforts into a broader context. The artwork becomes a visual touchpoint for an audience that may not otherwise have access to or knowledge of salt marsh ecosystems and encapsulates the variety of ways in which researchers may experience the field. Each iteration reaches a different audience and creates a specific conversation between the artwork and the natural world. The art experience creates a platform for conveying the sense of discovery, awe, respect and excitement within scientific research that is otherwise difficult to fully express.


Field notebooks (in the historical sense of written and drawn observations bound in a book) are not as automatic a part of the scientist’s tool kit as they once were.[xxxi] With advancements in technology, modes of documentation for both artists and scientists are expanding. Whether due to specialization and the nature of expertise or our deeper journey into abstract worlds that are imperceptible to the human eye and thus difficult to visually record, the role of artist and scientist are now, at least in vernacular terms, understood to be separate. This divide between contemporary field research and artistic practice need not be as wide as it is perceived. As illustrated by these three artist-scientist projects, the tools of printmaking in particular in conversation with the scientific field research experience can create entry points into complex sciences such as soil science, allowing us to peer into hidden worlds that are unobservable with the naked eye.

Printmaking—in its inherent mediation, multiplicity, and varied material qualities—is an adept art form for translating field experiences into art experiences. These artistic experiences embed both explicit and tacit bodies of knowledge, things that can be explained in plain terms, and things that can be understood but not explicitly expressed. Printmaking, through its tangible qualities, engages new audiences with the emotional and sensory aspects of scientific research, creating new entry points into complex systems. What is remarkable about the ability of printmaking to function this way is not its novelty, but the persistence of the artistic endeavour. Printmaking techniques such as cyanotype have historically been equally instrumental in both the arts and the sciences as a means of both documenting and creatively expressing natural forms. This work can thus be understood as art resuming a mediating role.

The projects delineated here are the result of short-term collaborations that have provoked the artist to explore possibilities of sustained parallel work. As with the examples outlined in the analytical and theoretical perspectives section, the projects documented here are episodic. Many contemporary arts-science interactions are similarly limited, with the artist and artistic component sometimes acting as interpretation at the end of scientific processes.

The potential of parallel work, however, is illuminated by Nalini Nadkarni’s integration of artistic tools and mark-making into her research practice and Amanda Thomson’s work with the Forestry Commission Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands. They establish groundwork for future, more sustained collaborations. These long-term integrations of art and science allow both the artwork and the scientific research to develop simultaneously, resulting in works that document scientific processes while simultaneously generating new approaches to the research for both science and non-science viewers.

This simultaneous artistic and scientific research need not necessarily be a completely new innovation of practices. Pre-existing parallels between artistic and scientific practice provide a valuable platform for the exchange and synthesis of information. For instance, in a conversation between painter Ulrike Arnold and soil scientist Thomas Scholten, the two discovered striking similarities between seemingly disparate practices.[xxxii] For both, physically handling soils is crucial, but the information they hope to gather from the soil impacts the way they approach the ground. Arnold, an artist who paints with soil pigments, digs her bare hands into the soil. She needs to experience their texture and pigmented residue in order to gauge how the soils may appear on the canvas. While Scholten has recently taken to wearing gloves when collecting samples to avoid contaminating valuable chemical information, the “finger test” (rubbing a pinch of soil between two fingers) is one of the most effective ways to quickly determine soil particle size.[xxxiii] During the course of conversation Scholten introduces Arnold to a practice of “listening” to soils, and Arnold introduces Scholten to the practice of painting with soils. One can imagine how this brief sharing of experiences may impact the ways in which these two soil experts process field observations in the future.

The author’s own experience in salt marshes reveals similar parallels in practice. Carrying Pantone color swatches was already a regular part of the artists field tool kit; after visiting the field with a soil scientist, Munsell color charts were introduced to the artist as an additional sampling tool. Continued collaboration necessitates an exploration of the benefits of shared, yet distinct observational skills and tools. At a time when available modes of documentation are diversifying, it may be valuable to broaden the professional perspectives in the field. As can be seen with George Schaller’s notebooks, multiple modes of observing afford multiple modes of communicating.[xxxiv] The materiality of the field experience is inherently important to both the scientist and the artist, yet not often explicitly discussed. Increasing intentional conversation between skilled observers in the arts and sciences, foregrounds conversations about the physicality of field research and may yield new and productive discourses within both fields.[xxxv]

This frontier, the notion that parallel work and parallels between art and science not only reveal science to the world but may resonate with and inform scientific practice returns us to where we began: the field notebook. The field notebook is a synthesis of recording both what is explicitly observed and what is tacitly understood through the process of observation. Whether these effects on the sciences are tangible can only be determined in conversation with scientists, after further sustained work. The work presented here—written from the artist’s perspective—prompts the need for exploring the perceptions of scientists engaged in sustained parallel collaborations. Questions include whether the presence of arts interpretation alters the working activities of scientists in beneficial ways, for instance by providing new ways of looking at familiar structures, and whether these collaborations may lead to new innovations in either field.[xxxvi]

Culturally, we promote the arts as a stimulus of creative thinking, but is there evidence that it can inform scientific processes beyond simple stimulation or communication? To the extent that the arts, and especially drawing were once essential aspects of field research, exploring the potential of contemporary art practices in shaping scientific understanding seems essential. It further raises the question as to whether parallel work is perceived differently by collaborating scientists and audiences than post-facto work. Do scientists perceive the communicative capacity of artwork made by a printmaker who worked in parallel differently than work made by an un-engaged artist? Similarly, how does direct engagement of the artist with scientists alter audience perceptions of the legitimacy of shared experiences? Understanding these relationships may support the argument for a more highly integrated approach to art-science collaboration in substantive terms.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the Warren Land Conservation Trust for allowing the use of Jacobs Point, Warren, Rhode Island, USA as a research site. Many thanks also to Amber Hardy, Cathleen Wigand, Deirdre Robinson, Lucy Spelman, Jim Turek, Jim Turrene, Kenneth Butler and the many other researchers who generously answered questions and shared their field research processes in Rhode Island and Guyana. This research was funded in part by a Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Graduate Commons Grant and a RISD Global Travel Scholarship.

[i] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, pp. 21-22. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966).

[ii] Earl Davey et al., “Use of Computed Tomography Imaging for Quantifying Coarse Roots, Rhizomes, Peat, and Particle Densities in Marsh Soils,” Ecological Applications 21, no. 6 (2011): 2156–71,; Joost M. Vervoort et al., “A Sense of Change: Media Designers and Artists Communicating about Complexity in Social-Ecological Systems,” Ecology and Society 19, no. 3 (2014),

[iii] Lissy Goralnik et al., “Arts and Humanities Efforts in the US Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network: Understanding Perceived Values and Challenges,” in Earth Stewardship, ed. Ricardo Rozzi et al., vol. 2 (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015), 249–68,; Amy E. Lesen, Ama Rogan, and Michael J. Blum, “Science Communication Through Art: Objectives, Challenges, and Outcomes,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 31, no. 9 (September 2016): 657–60,

[iv] Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Harvard University Press, 1987).

[v] Michael Canfield, ed., Field Notes on Science & Nature, pp. 2-13 (Cambridge, Massachuesetts: Harvard University Press, 2011); Erick Greene, “12. Why Keep a Field Notebook,” in Field Notes on Science & Nature, ed. Michael Canfield, pp. 251-252 (Cambridge, Massachuesetts: Harvard University Press, 2011), 251–74.

[vi] Canfield, Field Notes on Science & Nature.

[vii] Muriel Foster, Muriel Foster’s Fishing Diary (New York, N.Y.: Viking Press, 1980).

[viii] Hope Saska, “Anna Atkins: Photographs of British Algae,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 84, no. 1–4 (March 1, 2010): 8–15,

[ix] Vincent Mosco, “Entanglements: Between Two Cultures and Beyond Science Wars,” Science as Culture 21, no. 1 (March 2012): 101–15,; Kelley E. Wilder, Photography and Science, Exposures, pp. 7-9 (London: Reaktion, 2009).

[x] Canfield, Field Notes on Science & Nature, pp. 15-16.

[xi] Carolina Aragón, Jane Buxton, and Elisabeth Hamin Infield, “The Role of Landscape Installations in Climate Change Communication,” Landscape and Urban Planning 189 (September 2019): 11–14,; Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, “‘Fear Won’t Do It’: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations,” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (March 2009): 355–79,; Jean Trumbo, “Essay: Seeing Science: Research Opportunities in the Visual Communication of Science,” Science Communication 21 (June 1, 2000): 379–91,; Vervoort et al., “A Sense of Change.”

[xii] Alexandra Toland, Jay S. Noller, and Gerd Wessolek, eds., Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, p. 277 (Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019).

[xiii] Lissy Goralnik et al., “Arts and Humanities Inquiry in the Long-Term Ecological Research Network: Empathy, Relationships, and Interdisciplinary Collaborations,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 7, no. 2 (June 2017): 361–73,; Trumbo, “Essay: Seeing Science: Research Opportunities in the Visual Communication of Science.”

[xiv] Trumbo, “Essay: Seeing Science: Research Opportunities in the Visual Communication of Science.”

[xv] Miriam Burke, David Ockwell, and Lorraine Whitmarsh, “Participatory Arts and Affective Engagement with Climate Change: The Missing Link in Achieving Climate Compatible Behaviour Change?,” Global Environmental Change 49 (March 2018): 95–105,; David J. Curtis, Nick Reid, and Guy Ballard, “Communicating Ecology Through Art: What Scientists Think,” Ecology and Society 17, no. 2 (2012),; Aaron M. Ellison et al., “Art/Science Collaborations: New Explorations of Ecological Systems, Values, and Their Feedbacks,” The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 99, no. 2 (April 2018): 180–91,; Alan J. Friedman, “Reflections on Communicating Science through Art,” Curator: The Museum Journal 56, no. 1 (January 2013): 3–9,; Goralnik et al., “Arts and Humanities Inquiry in the Long-Term Ecological Research Network”; Goralnik et al., “Arts and Humanities Efforts in the US Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network”; Frederick J. Swanson, “Confluence of Arts, Humanities, and Science at Sites of Long-Term Ecological Inquiry,” Ecosphere 6, no. 8 (August 2015): art132,

[xvi] Trumbo, “Essay: Seeing Science: Research Opportunities in the Visual Communication of Science.”

[xvii] Nalini M Nadkarni, “Portrait as a Young Sapling: Trees as Artists and Mobile Entities,” Terry* (blog), November 2, 2006,

[xviii] Nalini M Nadkarni, “Green I Love You Green,” Poetry 196, no. 4 (August 2010): 343–45.

[xix] George B. Schaller, “1. The Pleasure of Observing in the Field,” in Field Notes on Science & Nature, ed. Michael Canfield , p. 22 (Cambridge, Massachuesetts: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[xx] Nadkarni, “Green I Love You Green”; Ruth Wallen, “Ecological Art: A Call for Visionary Intervention in a Time of Crisis,” Leonardo 45, no. 3 (June 2012): 234–42,

[xxi] Mark Levinson, Particle Fever, Video File, Documentary, 29:19 (Ro*Co Films, 2013).

[xxii] Friedman, “Reflections on Communicating Science through Art”, p. 6.

[xxiii] Friedman.

[xxiv] Trumbo, “Essay: Seeing Science: Research Opportunities in the Visual Communication of Science.”

[xxv] Jennifer Gabrys and Kathryn Yusoff, “Arts, Sciences and Climate Change: Practices and Politics at the Threshold,” Science as Culture 21, no. 1 (March 2012): 1–24,; Wallen, “Ecological Art.”

[xxvi] Burke, Ockwell, and Whitmarsh, “Participatory Arts and Affective Engagement with Climate Change”; Amanda Thomson, “Making a Place: Art, Writing, and More-than-Textual Approach,” Geographical Review 103, no. 2 (April 2013): 244–55,; Wallen, “Ecological Art”; Ruth Wallen, “Of Story and Place: Communicating Ecological Principles through Art,” Leonardo 36, no. 3 (June 2003): 179–85,

[xxvii] Amanda Thomson, “Making a Place: Art and a Multi-Modal, Multi-Disciplinary Approach,” in Perspectives on Contemporary Printmaking: Critical Writing Since 1986, ed. Ruth Pelzer-Montada, pp. 322-24 (Altrincham Street, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).

[xxviii] Thomson; Thomson, “Making a Place”, p. 324.

[xxix] Sarah Suzuki, “Print People: A Brief Taxonomy of Contemporary Printmaking,” Art Journal 70, no. 4 (December 2011): 6–25,

[xxx] Vervoort et al., “A Sense of Change.”

[xxxi] Greene, “12. Why Keep a Field Notebook”, p. 27.

[xxxii] Toland, Noller, and Wessolek, Field to Palette, pp. 141-47.

[xxxiii] Toland, Noller, and Wessolek, pp 141-142.

[xxxiv] Schaller, “1. The Pleasure of Observing in the Field”, p. 22.

[xxxv] Toland, Noller, and Wessolek, Field to Palette, p. 205.

[xxxvi] Toland, Noller, and Wessolek, p. 205; Wilder, Photography and Science, p. 102.



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