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     Carel Brest van Kempen's Commentary

Connecting the Contradictory with Science Art and the Aid of a Caption

I wrote this short piece with Darryl Wheye for The STEAM Journal's upcoming inaugural issue.
Carel P. Brest van Kempen
Science Art-Nature

[STEAM is a transdisciplinary, online, open-access, peer reviewed, academic publication
that emphasizes the bridge between Science, Technology, Engineering Mathematics (STEM)
and the Arts. In this context, the journal acts as a forum for open dialogue of STEM
and topics relating to STEM with a flexible definition of the Arts.]


Conventional wisdom often still views science and art as separate and opposing entities executed by people of polar dispositions: the “left-brained” and the “right-brained.” The mad scientist and the tortured artist live on in popular mythology as stand-ins for the real thing, even though the scientist and artist under discussion might be the same individual, like Leonardo who is still regarded as one of the greatest scientists as well as one of the greatest artists of his age. Interestingly, Leonardo’s massive artistic output was aimed primarily at helping him visualize his own experimentation in the fields of physiology, engineering, geology and biology. Luckily for us, his drawings help grant entry into notebooks recording his efforts to understand truths about nature.

Granting entry is key, especially when it does so by demanding our attention through an image. When, seemingly involuntarily, we’re drawn in, our naturally divided attention coalescing as we peer freely at a revealed truth about nature. Extracting the same truth through the words of a technical journal feels different. Typically, those words require concentration--a willful silencing of distractions. The difference between viewing and digesting jargon, between being freely transported into a scene and reigning in our attention in order to concentrate on the implications of technical terminology illustrates why STEAM matters (why the presentation is relevant).

Often, however, captions are needed to usher us into a scene. When the disciplines of science and art intertwine to reveal a truth, words and images are suited to telling different parts, and reveal the whole story most effectively when working in tandem. Decoding the underlying science within a work of art through a caption does not diminish its value as art, but when we fail to decode the science, we miss entry into a narrative. Works of Science Art ensure that an explanatory caption is present. For example, how far can you enter this work of Science Art without its caption? Is it obvious that the painting is about phytotelmata-breeding anurans? Is it obvious that this phytotelmata-breeding Strawberry Poison Frog is climbing to a water source? Without the caption, would you have skipped the story about phytotelmata-breeding anurans and missed the narrative? STEAM works both ways.

Ascension--Strawberry Poison Frog & Tadpole

The dart frogs are a well-known group of beautiful and tiny diurnal amphibians found throughout the American tropics. In addition to producing complex alkaloid skin sec- retions, this group is remarkable in ex- hibiting astonishing parental care within its ranks. The Central American species Oophaga pumilio deposits several eggs on a leaf on the forest floor, which are guarded by the male. Upon hatching, the tadpoles wriggle onto the female’s back, and are taxied up the trunk of a tree to a pre- selected bromeliad, where they are deposited into one of the water vessels formed within the axils of these arboreal epiphytes. Every few days, the female lays an unfertilized egg for each of her offspring to feed upon.

Incidental species in this painting include an Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata), a Spec- tacled Antpitta (Hylopezus perspicallitus), a Racerunner (Ameiva festiva), a Lantern- bug (Fulgora laternaria), a Leaf-Footed Bug (Anisosceles sp.), a leaf- hopper (Umbonia sp.), a Consul Butterfly (Consul fabius), and numerous ants of the species Pheidole bicornis, which are dependent on the leaves of Piper trees, like the one immediately behind the frog.

Carel P. Brest van Kempen
2004, acrylic 46” x 20”


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