Ellen McMahon grew up in a home where art and science often collided – with a psychiatrist father and artist mother who did not always see eye-to-eye. And so she found herself, from a young age, serving in the role of peacemaker, bent on finding common ground between two seemingly different worlds.
"I'm still trying to get the artist and the scientist to understand each other," she says.
A trained artist and biologist, McMahon teaches a "Critical Issues in Design" course, in which she encourages her design students to develop an awareness of environmental issues and to thoughtfully consider those issues in their work.
"You could say we've designed a world that separates us from the consequences of our actions," McMahon says. "We don't see where our garbage goes, we don't think about where our energy comes from, we hide the ecological connections between things.
"As a design educator, I feel like my job is to explain these connections, help people understand them so they can act accordingly so they can help other people understand the bigger picture."
Art and design can be used to interpret and communicate scientific fact in any number of ways, McMahon notes – from an infographic that illustrates statistics related to global climate change to a mural that draws attention to pressing environmental issues.
At the same time, design also can aid in creating real solutions to environmental and other societal challenges. For example, a designer might create an innovative product or mobile app that supports or encourages natural resource conservation.
"Design identifies problems and creates solutions. So I focus on and teach my students to do a critical analysis of what's wrong and what can be done to make a difference," McMahon says.
"It's really important for designers to have a real environmental consciousness because they are making apps, they are changing the way we see the world and they're designing all the ways we interpret things."
Engaging students in the natural world
About a decade ago, McMahon began taking her design students to Mexico to work at the field station of the Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, also known as CEDO, which focuses on the natural resources and cultures of the Sonoran Desert and Sea of Cortez.
She wanted them to connect with the natural world while learning about the impact their work could have.
"There's a lot of science coming out about the benefits of direct experience with the natural world,” she says.
In the field, her students learned about the various environmental challenges in the coastal community and worked on art and design projects for CEDO.
UA alumna Margi Kimball, who earned master's degrees in visual communication and creative writing from the UA in 2011, was one of those students. She made illustrations of endangered animals, which were featured on banners, T-shirts, calendars and other CEDO materials.
She says McMahon pushed her to think about art and design in new ways.
"Rather than just creating 'stuff,' she taught us about creating experiences and solutions to lifelong problems, which hadn't occurred to me before," says Kimball, who now teaches illustration at Lesley University in Massachusetts.
Another of McMahon's former students, Mike Buffington, also has fond memories of working in Mexico, where he contributed to an educational mural featuring endangered animal species in the area.
He says the message of McMahon's class is critical.
"Humans have removed themselves from nature and … see the Earth as an unlimited resource," says Buffington, who earned an undergraduate degree in visual communications in 2005 and now works at a metal fabrication studio in New York. "Design can help re-bridge that connection."
Although McMahon's class trips to Mexico have become less frequent in the last few years, she continues to engage her students in work on environmental issues in the classroom and out in the field.
In 2010, she received a grant from the UA's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry for a collaborative project exploring Tucson's dry riverbeds, particularly the Rillito River.
The resulting book, "Ground Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River," published last year, features photographs, graphic design, architectural drawings, essays and poems by faculty and student contributors in art, architecture, English and the sciences.
Cross-disciplinary collaborations such as "Groundwater" are important to McMahon, who is part of a larger movement at the UA to get campus researchers and artists working more closely together.
Partnering across disciplines
McMahon is one of several UA faculty members involved in the Art and Environment networking initiative, started in 2012 by faculty in the UA's Institute of the Environment.
UA climate scientist Gregg Garfin, who helped get the initiative off the ground, said the goal is to facilitate collaborations between artists and researchers on campus and in the greater Tucson community.
"The arts can get to a more visceral, immediate understanding that's easier for people to grasp than dry technical writing," says Garfin, an associate professor in the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Garfin, who contributed an essay to the "Groundwater" book, applauds McMahon's ability to "think outside the box" as an educator.
"It's important to expand the perspectives of students who are the generation of leaders and contributors to solving our problems," he says.
Eric Magrane, a Ph.D. student in geography and research assistant with the Institute of the Environment, facilitates the networking initiative and writes a blog called Proximities, which chronicles the work of McMahon and others who are collaborating on similar cross-disciplinary projects.
"The UA and Tucson are vibrant places for arts and environmental projects," he says. "Ellen's an inspiration for people here working at the nexus of art and the environment. She reaches across disciplines and brings students into the field to engage in real environmental issues in a way that's really inspiring."
In addition to her work with students, McMahon also is partnering with UA researchers.
She is currently collaborating with UA ecologist David Breshears, a professor in the School of Natural Resources in the Environment, who is working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to understand why forests around the world are dying.
After spending time in the field with Breshears and his team in New Mexico, McMahon is producing a series of drawings and collages and working on a photo and sound installation in collaboration with Beth Weinstein, an associate professor in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, and Jesse Chehak, a graduate student in the School of Art. McMahon received funding from the School of Art and Confluencenter for the project, titled "Tree Mortality Through the Lens of Art and Science."
She will display the work in the University's Bryant Bannister Tree Ring Building, home to the UA's renowned Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research. McMahon curates art for the building, including pieces by UA students, alumni and employees.
"People come to the tree-ring lab to learn about the science, but they also can learn about how art and design interpret the science," she says. "So it's a matter not of decorating places, but having visitors really think about these different ways of knowing – the scientific way of knowing, the artistic way of knowing and the designer’s way of knowing."
McMahon says she would like to coordinate similar exhibits in other University buildings to demonstrate the role of the visual arts in shaping our understanding of the world. She also has plans to collaborate on projects with Kathy Jacobs, director of the University's recently launched Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.
"Most scientists don't have the resources and access to good visual communicators, but they understand the value of it," McMahon says. "That's why I really want to get design students into these science centers around campus to get them involved in critical visual problem solving."
From biology to brushstrokes
McMahon's path to the art and design world was somewhat unconventional and has helped shape the unique perspective she brings to the field today.
As an undergraduate, she majored in biology and was awarded two NSF grants for her research on bats and herons. After earning her undergraduate degree in biology from Southern Oregon University, she went to work for the forest service, netting bats for forest management studies. But in the field, she realized she enjoyed drawing the bats more than the biology fieldwork.
That led her to the UA, where in 1980 she began taking courses in scientific illustration – part of the general biology department at that time. After completing her master's degree in biology, she was hired to work as a designer on campus and eventually transitioned into teaching, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree through the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
"The reason I didn't continue in science is because I wanted to function more like a naturalist, and ecology had become highly statistical," McMahon says. "I knew I wouldn't excel at that, so scientific illustration was perfect because I was really interested in how things looked, and in exploring the natural world through close observation and representation."
This past summer, McMahon returned to Oregon to visit the field stations where she worked in her early career. She wanted to revisit the place where she first began making the connections between art and the environment that have remained so important to her.
Contributing to a national dialogue
McMahon is now tapping into her unique background, experience and passion to contribute to a national conversation about arts and the environment.
Next month, she will participate on an "Envisioning Ecology" panel at the national conference of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, held at Iowa State University.
She also was one of 18 Tucson-area fellows chosen to participate in the OpEd Project's inaugural Arizona Public Voices Fellowship Program for 2013-14.
McMahon penned an editorial for the Pacific Standard over the summer about her efforts to boost her students' environmental awareness. In it, she wrote:
"If we are to tackle climate change, a good place to start would be in convincing designers to be prepared to bring their strengths as creative thinkers – and makers – across the aisle to work with natural and social scientists. An immediate challenge for academic institutions is to provide opportunities for students to use their design thinking skills as members of interdisciplinary teams working on real environmental and social problems. We need to shift how we educate designers so they don’t think of themselves as artists for hire but as informed and empowered creative forces working for the greater good."
In her second editorial, published in The Huffington Post earlier this month, McMahon discussed the importance of designers – and all of us – spending more time in the natural world:
"The science is accumulating to suggest that we are suffering from what David Louv calls 'nature deficit disorder,' sacrificing mental and physical health as we replace nature time with screen time. We need to get out more – outside, that is. And the folks who really need to get more are the 'experience designers' who are adding layers of augmentation to our every moment. Like my university design students, mostly 20 to 30-somethings, the people who are designing our smart devices and the ways we interact with them grew up in a digitally saturated world but have too little experience with the non-human living world."
McMahon hopes her efforts – in the classroom, in labs and in the public sphere – will help shed new light on environmental challenges, such as global climate change.
And she hopes her students will leave her class with a new perspective on how art and design can make a real difference.
"Designers are our interpreters," she says, "and it's the values of design and designers that are really going to affect the future of the species."