Spark & Curiosity: Art & Science

Part I. Adelaide Tyrol: Art, Science,
and Painting the Ineffable

On a raw, grey, late autumn day, as I drove along the dirt road, I could see a string of smoke curling up from Adelaide’s studio. When I arrived she had just started the woodstove, so there was still a chill in the studio, which looks out over a pond and rolling fields hemmed in by the dark, green forest.

About a year or so ago, RavenMark asked Adelaide if she would consider working on a project for the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in Maine. Her work as a botanical and natural history illustrator and her work as a fine art painter made her a perfect fit for working on the infographics we needed to be scientifically accurate but also bring to life the hard data and objective information being presented. Putting loons in a beautiful mountain lake landscape when presenting what biologists know about the relationship between the water level in a lake and the loon’s requirement for nesting supports the message rather than distracts from it.  

As we watched the grey mist pass across the pond and forest, Adelaide and I explored the relationship between art and nature, between art and science. The topic prompted her to remember a quote from George Ennis, a 1900 century luminance painter, “I seek not to render nature itself but the love I have for it.” As the room began to warm up, we delved deeper into how art can inform science, in the sense that while science is the objective view of nature, art attempts to get at the ineffable beauty, mystery of nature. The bryologist, Robin Wall Kimmerer, has written that “science polishes the gift of seeing” but as she goes on to say this only gets us to the physical elements of nature, not its spirit, not its total value. 

Adelaide picks up her inspiration from nature almost randomly. “Things,” she says, “just grab me. It could be the texture of bark or it could be just a color or it could be something reflected in the water.” Like a writer picking up a snippet of a conversation or incident that could turn into a story, Adelaide makes a note of it in a field journal or tucks it into her mind for later. When a painting comes together she says it has to have what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” She uses the painting above the couch where I’m sitting as an example. 

The painting is of her son Chet swimming underwater with their dog paddling above him and a spiny soft shell turtle veering toward him. When she was painting it, she didn’t think about what the exact color was at the top of the pond. “If I took a photograph of Chet under water that wouldn’t be the color. It was my feeling of what it looks like. It is what I want to impart, my feeling of fear to be down there. He’s comfortable down there. I’m spooked by it.” The outsized head of the turtle is also part of the feeling she is evoking, the spookiness. “The turtle doesn’t have be the right size, but I want it to look exactly like that particular, specific species. I don’t want to be limited by accuracy, but I want it to be true.” 

So what is true in this painting? From a scientific point of view, the accuracy of the turtle’s, the boy’s, and the dog’s anatomy are “true.” But the truth goes further and cannot be expressed in the objective language of measurement and testing. Every one will have a different take on it, but for me the painting evokes a feeling of being enveloped in another species’ world, of the quietude you can feel when swimming underwater, of sharing nature with other creatures both familiar and foreign.  

If we are to truly understand nature, perhaps we need to have the “two eyed seeing” that Kimmerer suggests. Science gives us the intense, objective gift of seeing through its microscopes, telescopes, laboratories, measurements, and field observation. Art can reveal a deeper meaning of what science sees and give us a visceral experience of nature that can't necessarily be put into words.