When science meets art

NMU working with The Great Lakes Cycle exhibit

This is "Cascade," created by Alexis Rockman. The painting is part of Northern Michigan University educational modules with "The Great Lakes Cycle" exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of NMU)

MARQUETTE — Science and art don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Northern Michigan University is launching educational modules in conjunction with the recent opening of Alexis Rockman’s The Great Lakes Cycle exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Before you get turned off by the term “modules,” consider you get to study, for example, a painting entitled “Cascade” that includes caribou, a mallard, a lake sturgeon and a host of other animals in one setting, with above- and below-water views.

The GRAM commissioned Rockman to create The Great Lakes Cycle, which celebrates the natural majesty and global importance of the Great Lakes while exploring how they are threatened by factors such as climate change, globalization, invasive species, industrial agriculture and urban sprawl.

The materials expand upon the themes illustrated in Rockman’s paintings by exploring scientific and artistic elements.

“These materials are all about self-learning,” said NMU biology professor Jill Leonard in an email, who noted a for-credit class in which the materials are used is being considered for NMU, but that is not yet finalized. “The materials are focused on delving more deeply into the paintings and are appropriate for anyone. They are written at an adult level, but you do not need to be a scientist or art critic to find them accessible.”

The online educational package includes identification keys and a “virtual magnifying lens” to peer within each of the paintings. Other interactive features include dialogue, images and videos featuring professionals in related fields from around the Great Lakes region. Users can explore topics such as natural resources, human influence, conservation and artistic examinations of the paintings.

Web technology allows users to zoom in on details in each of the paintings and then explore background materials at their own pace. There also will be over 30 short videos in the materials, including interviews with Great Lakes specialists and an interview with Rockman.

Leonard said there are seven modules, five of which are specifically linked to one of Rockman’s big paintings. In each of the painting modules, there are units based on natural science, physical science, social science and art. In these units are illustrated essays that address a particular aspect of the painting.

For example, Leonard said an essay on hunting and trapping in the Great Lakes provides a history of these activities, but the examples — and some of the illustrations — come from the “Cascade” painting. The essays often refer to the paintings and consider what the artist is trying to have people think about, such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.

Leonard also said a digital designer came up with a way for the user to “digitally wander around” the painting and zoom in on items.

“You can freely move around between and within all the modules at your own pace,” Leonard said. “They can be used on computers, smart phones or tablets.”

The centerpiece of The Great Lakes Cycle is a suite of five mural-sized paintings depicting separate themes that emerged during Rockman’s research tour of the region. Accompanying these are several large-scale watercolors as well as monochromatic field drawings of plants and animals made from site-sourced organic material like mud and leaves.

“I knew the Great Lakes were important at a very young age,” Rockman said in a news release. “I didn’t know a lot, but I was familiar with zebra mussels, lamprey and the collapse of the fishing industry. As I learned more, it became clearer how interesting and diverse they are. The Great Lakes system is economically and ecologically significant. But it has been transformed in the past 500 years — much more than I realized by humans. I was just amazed that it’s so huge, yet can be changed so profoundly.”

Rockman is known for his paintings of future landscapes depicting the impact of climate change, species extinction and evolution influenced by genetic engineering. He collaborated with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee on concepts for the film “Life of Pi,” and his work has also been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Camden Art Center in London and other galleries and museums around the world.

Leonard and NMU biology professor Mac Strand met with Rockman in 2014 when he passed through Marquette on his research tour, discussing her studies related to fish biology and general information about the Great Lakes. Last spring, Leonard began preparing online educational materials to back up the paintings in preparation for an October visit to NMU by Rockman, which she coordinated with art and design professor Taimur Cleary.

Leonard acknowledged she was familiar with basic science concepts, but it was more challenging to learn about the history and social science that shows up in the paintings. So, she reached out to local experts and read different literature to delve into new areas.

“I am thrilled to embrace any approach that will help make science accessible,” Leonard said in a news release. “Art does this exceptionally well since it is visually arresting and allows the viewer to see things that may be challenging to see in the real world. What I love about the Rockman paintings is that they are just realistic enough to draw us into the natural world we recognize, yet stylistic enough to bring important concepts to the forefront.”

While visitors to the exhibit will be able to scroll through the educational module for the painting “Cascade,” those looking to spend more time with the background materials have several options. The Cascade module will be available through NMU’s Educational Access Network.

Leonard said the GRAM set up iPads that contain all the materials, and upcoming museum hosts have expressed interest in a similar setup.

The entire package, including modules based on all five major paintings and additional information on science and art, is available by subscription through NMU’s Continuing Education program. For more information, visit www.nmu.edu/greatlakescycle.

A $50 subscription to the course provides access for 12 months. Access can be renewed for subsequent years for $25 per year.

The Great Lakes Cycle will be showcased at the GRAM through April 29 and will then move on to other cities throughout the Great Lakes region. For more information on exhibit dates and places, visit www.artmuseumgr.org /2017/04/03/alexis-rockman-the-great-lakes-cycle/.

Five large-format posters of the The Great Lakes Cycle murals, with keys to the artwork, are available for classroom use on a first-come, first-served basis. Each poster is 2 feet by 3 feet and includes a full-color print of a painting with a line drawing to the image. Contact biology@nmu.edu for more details.

For more information on the NMU educational modules, contact Leonard at 906-227-1619 or email at jileonar@nmu.edu.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.