Photograph of Mae SImmons Park, Lubbock, TX
photo credit, Monica Prado

I had the opportunity to teach a combined course of graduate studio art and graduate restoration ecology at Texas Tech University. This is not a typical pairing in academia, although it is not unheard of. This course came out of many conversations that I had with Professor Robert Cox, Associate Professor of Habit Restoration Ecology at Texas Tech University. This experience was one of the highlights of my teaching career. Not only because I was surrounded by a group of very smart students, but because (surprisingly) the academic materials we discussed; art and restoration ecology, fit together so well.

I have asked Robert to write a little bit about restoration ecology as a creative act, and I am including some images that came from the students in the class we taught together. There are so many ways in which art and ecology are intersecting today, and restoration ecology has been a part of many of these projects. I hope that this trend continues. Here is what Robert had to say about the subject:

Map of Mae Simmons Park, created by Matthew R Jackson

As a Restoration Ecologist, I am a scientist that studies damaged ecosystems and how they can be “restored”. This requires using the scientific method to understand environments, species, populations, and other biological and environmental processes. As I’ve continued to develop as a scientist, I have come to realize that great Science, like great Art, is a creative process. Most people, when thinking about “Art” as a topic, accept that creativity is required; that new ideas, methods, and objects will be created. It is clear to me that science is no different; in fact, the degree to which creativity is required in “Science” is high enough that it is possible to argue that “Science” and “Art” are essentially the same activity. 

Doubtful? Try this experiment: search the web for “quotes about creativity”, and click on any list of famous quotes. Then, any time you encounter the words “art”, “artist”, or create, simply replace them with the words “science”, “scientist”, or “discover”. You’ll find that Art and Science can both be described using the same language! 

For example:

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up”. Replace a few words and this becomes “Every child is a scientist, the problem is staying a scientist when you grow up”. The latter is as true as the former.

Vincent Van Gogh said, “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”. Replace one word 2 times, and it becomes “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot discover,’ then by all means discover, and that voice will be silenced.” As true about science as it was about art.

Salvador Dali’s admonition to “have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it” doesn’t need to change at all in relation to science- it applies as much to science as to art.

We could continue this list for a long time; but some quotes don’t even need to change. Leo Burnett’s “curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people” and Jack London’s “you can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club” apply just as well, unchanged, to science as to art.

Photo by Monica Prado

My specific field of science (Restoration Ecology) requires a lot of creativity. To “restore” an ecosystem, one must first diagnose how it differs now from what it “originally” was, and then create a plan to move it back to its original state. Essentially, the Ecological Restorationist must create a vision of what that ecosystem could or should be, and then work to realize that vision.

Image by Garret Langois

In science, we teach, often beginning in elementary school, that science has a method- which we call “THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD”. The very fact that we scientists have a “method” might obscure the important role of creativity in that method. In reality, however, creativity is at the center of the method. 

A common depiction of the “scientific method” is this:

  1. Observe a pattern or phenomenon
  2. Hypothesize a reason or cause for the observed pattern
  3. Test that hypothesis with an experiment or further observation
  4. Refine that hypothesis based on new information
  5. (re)Start at step one and continue observing, hypothesizing, testing, and refining.

As scientists, we can sometimes be pretty proud of our “method” for understanding the world, and rightfully so- although there may be other methods for understanding the world, much of what we consider to be “modern” about our society can be traced directly back to this “scientific method”. Furthermore, if you take time to think about what the “method” requires to be successful, it’s clear that creativity is necessary at nearly every stage along the way. Creativity is required to observe and recognize unique patterns, to develop new hypotheses about those patterns, and to design tests of those patterns. As scientists, we attempt to regulate the creativity by organizing it into a “method”, but the entire process is really about creativity.

Of course, great scientists have almost always recognized the importance of creativity in their endeavors. Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.” Among non-scientists, this fact may be less-well known. But once the importance of creativity is recognized, I think there’s a lot of common ground for artists, scientists, and others to work creatively to find solutions for restoring ecosystems, and many other issues in the world today.

Dr. Robert D. Cox

I am grateful that one of my colleagues back at the Texas Tech University School of Art, Aaron Heggert, has taken up the course of Ecological Restoration and Art. He and Robert will continue to offer this course to students of the arts and sciences at Texas Tech University.

Many artists have worked to bridge the percieved cultural or psychological gap between art and the sciences. These collaborations are fruitful in so many ways, my hope is that these kinds of collaborations will be recognized at an institutional level; by public art programs, universities, and municipalities.

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