By Rod Bastanmehr & Carley Stavis
Each May brings hope for the new and excitement for the familiar. But aside from the countdown to summer and the surge in purchases of allergy medication, for art lovers, May marks the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s housing of an extensive collection of artwork that brings out the essence of the natural world. And from various mammals and microbes to asteroids and more, this year’s selection proves to be no different.
The annual “Illustrating Nature” exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History has proven to be a main draw for the community’s rabid base of art lovers. Ranging from exquisite watercolors to beautiful photography, the exhibit houses original works by the students of the UC Extension Science Illustration program.
“The science illustration graduate program started about 25 years ago and eventually became what it is now — a group of 15 post-graduate students, mostly from science backgrounds,” said Ann Caudle, coordinator of the science illustration program through UC Santa Cruz Extension. “In the beginning, the program was really offered to help scientists who wanted to have the skills to illustrate their own research.”
This year’s exhibit marks the 19th showing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Starting in 1989, the program took on a life of its own, leading it to become not only an intensive understanding of art and science, but also a renowned program drawing in students from countries including Portugal, Japan, Colombia, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada.
“This is an extremely intense two-year program,” Caudle said. “This program really is one of the best in the world, and so it pulls in students from all over the world, giving the art you’ll see so much life and influence from other places. That really speaks to the reputation of the program. And it provides this unique opportunity where students can come to Santa Cruz, go through the program, and return to their homes to give back something inspiring and useful that the university played a part in helping create.”
Jennifer Lienau-Thompson, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, agrees.
“I think this show provides a unique opportunity to see science illustration in a different setting than how we normally see this type of work,” Lienau-Thompson said. “There just aren’t that many places that display this type of art, and there aren’t that many programs that produce work of this type at this caliber.”
Another unique aspect of the show is its ability to bring two different communities together.
“It’s really great to see that science people and art people, who aren’t usually coming from the same place, can both find something beautiful and relevant in this show,” Caudle said. “That’s a wonderful, interesting thing about it.”
For Thompson, blending the two drastically different disciplines is a first priority, and one she said the show continues to do successfully.
“Every year the shows create a really nice merger of science and art, which is really what the museum and the program are both about,” Thompson said. “The museum is really about understanding the world around us, and the work that comes out of the science illustration is a great tool in helping that happen.”
Jon Wagner, a student in the science illustration program who is featured in the “Illustrating Nature” show, discussed the nature of an unusual artistic combination.
“Your average work of art is really, really personal,” Wagner said. “Our illustrations are personal in ways, but they’re ultimately about education and facilitating some process, whether it’s directly communicating that process or inspiring you to learn more about a world you wouldn’t have otherwise ventured into.”
Wagner, whose own pieces in the show range from a book describing the various eating habits of rats to little turtles on scratchboards, sees this as an opportunity to unite educational value and artistic integrity for one common goal: to change the viewer.
“Each piece shown at the museum is about presenting something beautiful in the manner of traditional art and telling a factual story in the name of science,” Wagner said. “You can enjoy learning about things in a visual way. It doesn’t always have to be some dry, painful thing that comes straight from a textbook.”
That lack of “textbook” learning is exactly what Thompson is counting on.
“It’s really interesting to watch people who come into the museum look at the science illustrations,” she said. “Without fail, there are always tons of people who look at the art in awe and say, ‘How did they do that? I can’t believe a person made that!’ But you can get up close and see the brushstrokes and the pen strokes, all of the tiny pencil lines, so you know it’s real, and you know there’s an actual person behind what you’re seeing.”
For Caudle, it’s those very people behind the art that may end up being the true stars of the show. She cited one student in particular who found more than just success in the prestigious program.
“One fabulous example of this was with one of our graduates from 2007, Pedro Salgado,” Caudle said. “He came to Santa Cruz from Portugal with a dream of reviving the dying culture of science and art in his country. He is back there now and has become one of — if not the — foremost science illustrators in the country and is well on his way to meeting the goal he held initially. It’s very gratifying to see things like that happen.”
So what are the viewers really enjoying the most: the art, or the people behind it? At the end of the day, maybe this is just yet another line that “Illustrating Nature” chooses to blur.
_“Illustrating Nature” is running at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History through June 3. For more information, visit santacruzmuseums.org._