Eric Magrane is a poet with an interest in natural history, so it just made sense to him to go ahead and get a doctorate in geography to add to his master’s degree in creative writing.
Gregg Garfin is an ecologist and climatologist who left a university creative writing program to play in a rock band before coming back for more serious scientific study.
Now they are both involved in merging the creative energy of art and science at the University of Arizona and in the community at large.
It’s an old notion that is seeing a resurgence in academia these days — for reasons that range from practical to profound.
The practical? At the UA Museum of Art, Nathan Saxton is using his continuing study of optical sciences to see if he can create, with help from the College of Optical Sciences, customized lighting for the museum’s collection.
He has illuminated Mark Rothko’s “Green on Blue (Earth-Green and White)” with LED spotlights that change color temperature along a spectrum within the guidelines for museum preservation.
The painting changes definition and warmth as the spotlights cycle. Saxton said he wants to see “if it’s feasible to design lighting systems customized to a particular piece of art.”
Or, perhaps, the museum of the future will allow patrons to set lighting to their preference, he said.
More profound societal concerns are on display in the nearby exhibition rooms, where an installation called “Fires of Change” is a response by various artists to the mega-fires of the contemporary West.
The museum is pairing the exhibit with presentations by the artists and UA scientists about fire science and the changing climate. “Art is a great way to start conversations about fire, about science,” said Gina Compitello-Moore, the museum’s development director. “It enables people to see it and understand it on many different levels.
“So while it may seem strange and different for an art museum and science to collaborate, it has been normal for us.”
Museums are great partners for collaboration with the sciences, said former rocker Garfin, who, in addition to his teaching and research in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment, is director of the Arts and Environment Network of the UA Institute of the Environment.
“This is an idea whose time has come. Now there is maybe more latitude in academia and more interest in society and maybe more opportunity for communication or self-expression.
“You’re not limited to a gallery or a museum. There is also social media and that amplifies the message and gets it out to a lot more people.”
It comes at a good time, said Garfin.
“The kinds of problems we’re engaged in are complex and require input from all these disciplines,” he said.
A recent Arts and the Environment seminar developed by Magrane featured street art, modern dance, poetry and photography — all addressing issues of climate change and environment.
“Any number of environmental issues we’re facing right now require more and more collaboration across universities and researchers and academic institutions,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot through disciplinary thinking, but the questions we’re approaching now that are really important to humanity need broad thinking.”
Magrane is a poet-in-residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He has also worked on art-science collaborations at Biosphere 2 and Tumamoc Hill.
“I think a lot about how we need the physical sciences to understand how the world works, the social sciences to understand how we relate to each other and the arts to imagine new ways of moving forward and deciding what future we want in 50 or 100 or 100,000 years.”
Christopher Cokinos, who is director of the Creative Writing program at UA, has always written about the natural world and the science of it.
He has written books about extinct songbirds and meteorites and is working on a book about heretical technologies that could save the planet.
He also mentors the Carson Scholars of the Institute of the Environment, who are awarded grants to study how best to communicate their science to the public. The grant is named for Rachel Carson, whose book, “Silent Spring,” about the ecological cost of pesticides, helped create the modern environmental movement.
Cokinos said art has the ability to clarify scientific truth in an age of distracting and disorienting claims and counter-claims. “A good story, a good metaphor will cut through all that.”
He and Magrane recently edited an upcoming book, “The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide,” which uses poetry, prose and artist Paul Mirocha’s sketches to introduce readers to local flora and fauna.
It grew from a poetic response to the National Park Service’s 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, in which volunteers conducted a 24-hour species inventory. Poets and artists went along to record their inventory as well.
At the Arts and Environment seminar, Cokinos read his included poem about the turkey vulture — which wasn’t exactly about the turkey vulture, but more about evolution and the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Artists who write on scientific themes do not surrender their artistic licenses.
The field notes in the book, for example, are grounded in science but stray into whimsy.
Hence, we are told to look for white-winged doves in Stevie Nicks songs and we learn that the greater short-horned lizard is called the “horny toad” because of its spikes and not its sexual appetite.