Science and Art Intersect


Two PNCA students tackle a complex environmental problem with an animation for NOAA.

A few weeks ago, almost forty people from a wide swath of disciplines and specialties gathered in the MFA in Collaborative Design studios. It was more than your usual mixture of artists, though a healthy number of animators, illustrators, ceramists, painters, etc. were in the audience. Also present were four representatives from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a healthy sprinkling of public policy makers, scientists, fisheries experts, and biologists. What brought them together was a shared interest in creative problem solving. Specifically, the challenges in communicating science (or other complex “wicked” problems) to a lay public and the role that artists can play in helping to distill and convey that information.

As one of the guests, William Stelle, Regional Director for NOAA Fisheries Northwest Region, put it, “This is exactly the pivot point where art and science evolve and turn into change. When you “normal” people, with your talents, take your understanding of the things we’re [NOAA specifically, or scientists more generally] wrestling with – how the landscape works, how streams and rivers and watersheds are interconnected, for example… You can take that stuff, this scientific, geeky stuff, and tell it a lot better. You can tell it in a way that really gets the point across, and immediately, in like two to five seconds. That’s not our strong point. It’s really hard for us. That’s where the opportunity for advocacy through art, for teaching or learning through art, occurs.”

Bird’s eye view of nearshore, shallow water habitat. A screenshot from the animated video for NOAA by Beryl Alee ’16 and John Summerson ’15. Image courtesy of John Summerson.

Stelle’s comments above were taken from a presentation he delivered at PNCA titled, “Communicating Science and the Role Artists can Play,” which explored ways in which artistic practices can support science and inform the public of pressing ecological concerns. The presentation and following discussion (including presentation of student work by PNCA students and alums Cameron Hawkey ’12, August Lipp ’12, Liliya Drubetskaya ’13, Ona Pitschka ’13, and Chelsea Stephen, MFA CD ’13) was largely inspired by a recent collaboration between NOAA and PNCA’s Animated Arts program.

Young salmon in natal environment. A screenshot from the animated video for NOAA by Beryl Alee ’16 and John Summerson ’15. Image courtesy of John Summerson.

“Because NOAA’s a scientific agency,” said Katherine Cheney, head of the agency’s regional communications team in Portland, in a recent press release from NOAA, “we tend towards technical language that turns people off. We need to communicate our science to a non-technical audience.”

And so NOAA turned to PNCA and to the College’s Animated Arts program for help. On the advice of Rose Bond, chair of the Animated Arts program at PNCA, NOAA sponsored a contest with a $1000 prize for the students with the strongest proposal. Where communicating news and other important information used to mean issuing a boring press release, today the possibilities are far broader. It’s a much richer challenge, one that can involve audio visual complexity.

Rose Bond works with Animated Arts students in the program’s lab space at PNCA. Photo by Matthew Miller ’11.

Peter Schoonmaker [Chair of the MFA in Collaborative Design program] and I received an email out of the blue,” Bond explained. “Katherine Cheney, from NOAA’s Communications Office in Portland, wanted our students’ help in communicating the importance of shoreline restoration and shoreline health for salmon populations.”

As homeowners develop and clean up their shorelines, these kinds of habitats disappear. The messy waterfronts salmon like are replaced by nice lawns, bulkheads, and evenly raked gravel shores. But these makeovers are problematic. As NOAA explains in a recent press release, “young salmon facing a formidable two or three years in the ocean need vegetated, shallow water habitats with woody debris and rocks to stay cool, eat and grow, and escape predators as they transition to life in the ocean.”

The challenge, as NOAA put it, is finding a way to send this message to shoreline property owners in the Puget Sound and other places without getting so technical or preachy that landowners simply ignore the message.

Stelle said, “With us, you tend to get really technical, really careful, really bureaucratic language. It’s legally enforceable, but unintelligible to the normal person.”

Juvenile salmon exploring an altered landscape. A screenshot from the animated video for NOAA by Beryl Alee ’16 and John Summerson ’15. Image courtesy of John Summerson.

This past fall, NOAA and PNCA’s Animated Arts program invited students to submit storyboards and design sketches for the chance to produce a 45 second to 1:30 minute animated piece for the Federal agency communicating the importance of shoreline habitats to salmon populations. The contest was judged jointly by Animated Arts faculty and NOAA scientists.

The winner was Foundation student Beryl Alee ’16, who soon enlisted John Summerson ’15 to help with the animation and sound design. Alee will head up the art direction and background illustrations. Alee and Summerson will receive $1000 when the project is finished at the end of May.

NOAA presents an award check to Beryl Alee ’16 and John Summerson ’16 for their work on an animated video promoting shore rehabilitation and salmon preservation.

“It’s incredible,” said Bond. “Beryl’s a Foundation [first-year] student. She’d only ever taken beginning Time Arts. But she’s a crack animator and a smart girl. We were all really impressed by her work.”

“One of the most interesting things was seeing the initial sketches,” said Cheney. “I noticed that these fish were really anthropomorphic. What a great way to draw people in, to get people engaged. These fish look sad! The emotional hook gets you connected. That’s fantastic.”

“The world is proliferated by screens,” said Bond. “We’re training people not for Pixar or Disney, but to respond to those screens and to think about where it may go, what’s possible. Science, fine art, or whatever, animation allows you to go wherever you want. It’s limited only by your imagination.”

John Summerson, one of the student involved on the project agreed. “Animation can pack an emotional wallop. You can make anything happen. So it’s totally true: you can make salmon look sad. For example, Beryl drew this evil small mouth bass. Because it’s animated, you can make him look like the most evil small mouth bass ever. Some things are possible with animation that aren’t possible in video because you can coordinate all of it, choreograph all of it.”

Michael Tehan, another of the visiting NOAA scientists said, “Walking around your campus, looking at the art on the walls, in the rooms… You look and you know instantly what the message is. That’s why we’re so excited about these potential partnerships and collaborations.”

Bond agreed. “We try to offer options to students that are real life. Collaborations, like this one with NOAA, that are real life. This is our first little foray in.”

Beryl Alee ’16 and John Sommerson ’15. Photo by Rose Bond, via NOAA.gov.

— Posted on 05/24 at 03:10 AM

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