Where art and science converge

In an unexpected confluence of art and science, the continuing education division of the Rhode Island School of Design quietly turns out between seven and 10 science illustrators each year.

They are a nearly invisible group, behind-the-scenes artists responsible for the wildflowers and skeletons that fill science books and medical texts. They adorn the walls of natural history museums with marshes, create exhibit labels to help aquarium visitors distinguish between a seal and a sea lion - and even design the occasional decorative postage stamp.

Many students enter the natural science illustration program here captivated by nature, but with a background in art. They'll leave with a foot each in the worlds of art and science - or else firmly situated in the place where the two converge.

It's not such an unlikely pairing. Both art and science are about "close observation," says Ann Caudle, director of the science illustration program at the University of California, Santa Cruz - considered, along with RISD's, one of the nation's best. The students who come through Santa Cruz, she says, are as concerned with the way that light glints off fur as they are with identifying the mammal covered by that fur.

Across the country, more than 20 such programs, geared toward both undergraduates and graduate students, offer training in the art of science illustration.

Many are small, obscured within the universities and medical schools that house them. A few offer very specialized courses - like the entomology department at the University of Minnesota, where students learn to draw only insects, but are kept busy with millions of species to chose from.

The classroom where the majority of RISD's science illustration courses are taught is in a sprawling brick building, directly beneath the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab.

More utilitarian than aesthetic, every inch of the Nature Lab is covered with specimens. Displays of bugs, birds, starfish, and pine cones compete for space with a stuffed bobcat and a pair of live doves.

It's here, says the Nature Lab's director, that students really learn to see. That skill - coupled with an ability to interpret and illuminate natural forms - is the cornerstone of the science illustrator's craft.

The best way to explain what an illustrator does, says Karen Ackoff, president of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, is to think of a microscope that can focus only on a fixed point.

It won't magnify what is above or below that plane, she says, "but an illustration could show everything." An illustration can also simplify an image by highlighting certain details, leaving others out.

Stacey Vigallon arrived at UC Santa Cruz with both bachelor's and master's degrees in wildlife biology, and a minor in art. Santa Cruz prefers to fill its 15 yearly openings with applicants who have strong science backgrounds.

RISD is less selective, accepting students from all disciplines and, like the field as a whole, is more evenly split between people with science degrees and those trained in the arts. Both programs were started in the mid '80s.

After completing her certificate last year, Ms. Vigallon traveled to south-western Sri Lanka. There she worked on a field guide to the Sinharaja rain forest. She calls it a "solve-the-mystery" project, because, in addition to writing and illustrating the guide, she's had to identify creatures not before formally described.

The guide is meant for people visiting Sri Lanka, predicted to join Costa Rica as a top destination for ecotourists, Vigallon says. That was before a tsunami tore through the region two weeks ago. Vigallon left in early December. Though the area she documented was untouched and her work is nearly complete, she wonders when her guide will be published.

There's long been a desire to capture and preserve the natural world in all its ephemeral beauty. Science illustrators point to prehistoric cave drawings as the genesis of their craft.

And while the birds painted by John James Audubon, who is the subject of two recent biographies, may be the best known examples of science illustration, just about any rendering of the natural world can fall under that larger rubric - from the glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass., which date back to the 19th century and were created to help train botanists, to digital media.

In 2001, Montana State University in Bozeman opened the country's first film school devoted to science filmmaking.

Some of the most innovative works that flirt with the line between art and science are by a man who digitally scans moths and prints the images onto oversize pieces of decorative oriental paper.

Joseph Scheer, who teaches printmaking at Alfred University in New York, stumbled into the realm of science while experimenting with a new high-resolution scanner.

When first approached to display his art in a natural history museum, Mr. Scheer balked, fearing his fine-art career would be ruined if he were "labeled a nature person." Most recently, his moths have hung in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

Caudle of Santa Cruz identifies observation as the trait that links artists and scientists. But Scheer thinks it's something else: "I like scientists because they can be just as obsessive as artists," he said at a recent RISD symposium on the art of the natural history book. A scientist friend - a man after his own heart - has devoted his entire career to studying just one type of insect: the slug moth.

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