Art exhibit explores the connection between art and science

“The more you study science, the more you’re given explanations based on facts,” Mark Harmon says. “Sooner or later, you stop learning about the humanities and practicing art and writing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less tolerant of crushing the humanity out of science.”

Harmon himself was inspired by poetry and prose from the Spring Creek Project’s writers in residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest.

The Spring Creek Project’s focus is bringing together the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis and the creative, expressive power of the written word to find new ways to understand our relation to the natural world.

“The writers in residence who visit the forest are required to go to different sites and write about their observations,” Harmon explains. “Some of them were sent to my log decomposition sites, and people kept sending me the writing that came out of it.”

Harmon says some of the writing is funny, and some is profound.

“One piece in particular makes me almost cry each time I read it,” he says, “And I’m not a touchy-feely guy.”

Harmon, an expert on tree decomposition, says the biggest challenge of his work is explaining that dead trees actually exist.

“Even some scientists do not understand this issue,” Harmon says. “There wasn’t a lot of research being done on dead trees until about ten years ago.”

He decided to combat this problem by using art and the humanities to help make his point. In 2014 he teamed up with the Corvallis Arts Center to produce a show called “Rot: The Afterlife of Trees.”

Twenty-four Oregon artists were represented in the exhibition. The works included paintings, photography, sculptures and performance art as well as contemporary music. They dealt with the idea of life after death: that rotting trees often bring new life to forests.

Elementary school classes visited the exhibition and created their own murals in response. The murals were filled with hand-drawn images of foxes, birds, insects and other wildlife, and those were added to the show as well.

The exhibition ran from January to February at the Corvallis Arts Center and was moved to the World Forestry Center in Portland in the spring. Harmon says both shows were a success.

“If I write a paper that gets cited a few times, that’s a success,” he says. “But we had more than 2,000 people come to the art show in Corvallis alone. A lot of education these days is very indirect. Through art, you can pique someone’s interest about a topic, and when they go and research it themselves, they’re much more likely to retain the information than if they just had it dumped on them.”

“We’ve set up this world in which art and science are viewed as alternative and opposing forces,” he says. “But art is often assisted by technology and inspired by scientific breakthroughs. And scientists aren’t just cold, calculating machines. We’re often inspired by art and by intuition.