UA Master of Fine Art student Kejun Li relied on Chinese brush painting methods to produce his works for "Marking Time to a Changing Climate," a new collaborative exhibition on display at the UA's Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
UA Master of Fine Art student Kejun Li relied on Chinese brush painting methods to produce his works for "Marking Time to a Changing Climate," a new collaborative exhibition on display at the UA's Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)

The Art and Science of the Environment

UA School of Art professor Ellen McMahon and David Breshears, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, organized an exhibition to encourage imagination, questioning and discovery around scientific matters.
April 9, 2015
Extra Info: 

"Marking Time to a Changing Climate" is on display, with works installed at various locations within the UA's Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building. 

 

Several works are visible in the lobby and may be viewed during business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Other works may be offered on tours of the building, or by special arrangement. For more information, contact Ellen McMahon, a UA School of Art professor, at emcmahon@email.arizona.edu.

"Present Time" during installation. "I feel that everyone brings themselves to a work of art in such a way that everyone's experience becomes personal and different from others. Hopefully my art gives the public a moment of respite, or contemplation," siad Thomas Saffle, a Master of Fine Arts student whose work is on display in the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
"Present Time" during installation. "I feel that everyone brings themselves to a work of art in such a way that everyone's experience becomes personal and different from others. Hopefully my art gives the public a moment of respite, or contemplation," siad Thomas Saffle, a Master of Fine Arts student whose work is on display in the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
"Clear of the Storm" by Thomas Saffle. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
"Clear of the Storm" by Thomas Saffle. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
"Change Over Time" features 275 archival prints. "I wanted my project to bring attention to the devastating effects of climate change on the forests of the Southwest. I also wanted my students to engage with environmental issues through art-making processes," said UA School of Art professor Ellen McMahon, who collaborated with David Breshears, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
"Change Over Time" features 275 archival prints. "I wanted my project to bring attention to the devastating effects of climate change on the forests of the Southwest. I also wanted my students to engage with environmental issues through art-making processes," said UA School of Art professor Ellen McMahon, who collaborated with David Breshears, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McMahon)
Ellen McMahon said her larger project, as an educator and project facilitator, is to "foster a culture of artist, designers and climate-change scientists who appreciate each other's work and mutually benefit from their affiliations." (Photo: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
Ellen McMahon said her larger project, as an educator and project facilitator, is to "foster a culture of artist, designers and climate-change scientists who appreciate each other's work and mutually benefit from their affiliations." (Photo: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)

Kejun Li asks a question: What does a credit card have in common with tree rings?

The answer is in Li's art — spiraling, archival digital-art prints he created by smearing an expired credit card in the style of Chinese brush paintings. The prints directly mimic the cross section of a tree and its rings in a way that is so striking and precise that people have asked Li, a graduating University of Arizona Master of Fine Art student, whether his works are actually X-rays.

The pieces in the "Plastic|Wood" series, which are part of a new timely — and, in some ways, timeless — exhibition organized by UA artists and scientists, also highlight the similarities and contrasts between a manufactured and natural world.

Indeed, that is the focus of "Marking Time to a Changing Climate," now on display at the UA's Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building, home of the Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research.

The exhibition was coordinated by UA School of Art professor Ellen McMahon in collaboration with David Breshears, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, to encourage imagination, questioning and discovery around scientific matters. The project was funded by the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, the School of Art and the College of Fine Arts.

"Breshears (and) many others studying the effects of climate change are deeply concerned about what they're finding," McMahon said, noting the work of Breshears and his collaborators.

The team found that 40 to 80 percent of the piñon pine trees in the Four Corners area died off between 2002 and 2003. In 2014, Breshears was among the researchers who contributed to a climate change assessment released by the White House and the U.S. Global Change Research Program detailing how changes in the climate pose current problems.

"Scientists need to keep their objectivity to keep their credibility. Artists don’t have those constraints and are free to work with the data," McMahon said. "This is mutually beneficial, as artists can reach people in ways scientists can't."

Thus, the project propels a conversation about two important contemporary themes: the need to make evident the changes — even subtle ones — that are occurring in the environment, and the promise of an ongoing interdisciplinary movement that is drawing stronger connections between the arts and science.

"Bringing artwork to a place where so many visitors come to learn about science is a great opportunity to bring up questions about how art and science effect us in different ways," said McMahon, who is also a member of the Art and Environment Network initiated by the Institute of the Environment, a network of UA faculty members exploring issues related to the many intersections between art and the environment.

"My hope is that projects like these will help people understand through firsthand experience the importance of both art and science in determining what they think, how they feel and finally how they choose to act," she said.

McMahon's 8-foot piece includes 275 hemispheric images of healthy ponderosa pine trees and also dead piñon pine and juniper forests. The images were captured over the last several years by Breshears and his team of researchers and used by the team in its forest mortality research.

The images were not captured for artistic purposes, but McMahon reimagined them as works of art and organized them into a sequential narrative to help raise awareness of recent accelerated forest die-off due to drought, insect damage and warming temperatures in the Southwest.

In addition to Li and McMahon, School of Art graduate students Thomas Saffle and Jesse Chehak also contributed works, some of them new, to be installed in the building. The photographs, prints and paintings are located in the main lobby and in various locations throughout the building, and are scheduled to be in place for about a year.

Saffle produced a 14-foot behemoth tree painting and monotype oil paints that bring to mind monsoons and other extreme weather conditions.

"These artworks are paired especially well with the department, which is focused on extreme climate and weather research," said Saffle, a Master of Fine Arts student graduating in May.

"Getting to show your art in a setting as nice and interesting as the lab is great," he said. "Having work with natural phenomena and then hanging in a center that focuses on the study trees and extreme weather feels like a perfect fit for me as an artist and hopefully for those working there as well."

Li took a UA dendochronology course last year in preparation for the project.

"A credit card is like a recorder of our lives, and a tree ring is a recorder of nature. Each tree ring contains a large quantity of information and so does a credit card," Li, a graduate student in visual communications, said about his prints.

"I'm interested in making connections between these two different kinds of information, the natural and the artificial," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, with a single sweep, tree rings could be imitated so accurately including early wood, fire scars, false rings, fungus and so on.” 

McMahon is teaching an art design and environmental science course in the fall and intends to engage her students in projects that address issues such as those embedded in the exhibition.

"My collaboration with Dave Breshears and his team has deepened my investment in forest die-off as I internalized and engaged it through my cultural and individual identity as an artist and designer," McMahon said. "I think the interaction is beneficial and enriching for the artists and the scientists, and I am very motivated to bring the two disciplines together."