As I rode my bike up to the Biological Sciences Building (UMBS’s home on campus) this morning, I was greeted by a sea of 350 colorful microbes looming large on the museum windows. The art exhibit, Unseen Worlds by artist Jim Cogswell, is stunning, and every time I see it I ponder the complexity, beauty, and diversity of the little things that regulate so many of the processes we care about – from human health to water quality. This artful interpretation of microbial life brings into focus things that most people never see or likely even think about. As thousands of students and community members walk past the Biological Sciences Building each day, Cogswell’s art not only inspires wonder and curiosity, but also encourages us to think more deeply about the tiny, elegant worlds curled neatly within our own.
I want to highlight another ongoing and powerful art installation on campus, currently on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). Artist Andrea Carlson’s Future Cache commemorates the Cheboiganing (Burt Lake) Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians who were unjustly burned from their northern Michigan home – adjacent to old growth forest now managed by the Biological Station for teaching and research – on October 15, 1900. Carlson’s exhibit features a 40-foot memorial wall, paintings of imagined decolonized landscapes, and a symbolic cache of provisions. The UMMA website describes it best: “Future Cache implicitly asks those who have benefited from the legacies of colonization to consider where they stand and where to go from here and seeks to foster a sense of belonging for displaced Indigenous peoples fighting for restitution.” I strongly encourage everyone who can to visit Future Cache (or view it online) and hold space for these important questions and calls to action.
Art inspires reverence, makes us think, challenges our assumptions, and can convey complex social and scientific concepts in accessible ways. Of course, the fusion of art and science is not new to UMBS. We host a late summer “Florilegium: Creating a Plant Compedium” course in which undergraduates create art based on collected botanical samples and the landscapes of northern Michigan. We also have a thriving summer artist-in-residence program in which a working artist comes to live alongside our research community and consider our systems and study organisms in a new light. This summer, we were lucky to have woodblock printmaker Sarah Koff as part of our Station community. You can read more about her work in the article below – but she encouraged students, researchers, staff, and even “camp kids” to work both individually and together to create a representative community art project. The result, a series of woodblock designs printed on colorful flags, represents the diversity of community interests, from birds, to bikes, to the faithful monitoring buoy. We are so grateful for Sarah’s vision and leadership, and for inspiring us to turn an artful eye toward our science-oriented summer world.
A second group of artists came to UMBS this fall: Eric Zeigler, a professor of art at the University of Toledo, and Aaron Ellison, a retired research fellow at Harvard University. They took a series of photographs that challenge our assumption of what is seen and not seen, and by whom/what. We had a fun coffee discussing all the possible light spectra and which colors plants might “see”. My immediate thought was – naturally – green, but green is actually the color that plants reflect back, so it’s not absorbed or “seen” by them. It gave me pause thinking about how visual media, and even my own eyes, tell certain stories but not others – even in the natural world.
Clearly, artists help us interpret the natural word and challenge our scientific and cultural assumptions about the land, water, and life that surrounds us. I am looking forward to continuing to engage with artists as we create new spaces at UMBS – ensuring that art is part of the everyday fabric of the Station experience.
Dr. Aimée Classen