Feb. 19, 2021
Artists and scientists join forces to create dazzling window displays in downtown Calgary
Science, contrary to popular belief, is not immune to the thrill of romance, the pull of magical thinking — in other words, to that of art. And nowhere is that currently more evident than at Chinook Blast — Calgary’s three-week winter experience, running until Feb. 28.
Take an amble through downtown Calgary and you’ll spot the evidence: 18 windowpanes, designed by artists and alumni from the Alberta University of the Arts (AUArts), whose works reflect research conducted by the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Science. The goal was to give both artists and scientists a collaborative platform — a visual, public lab if you will — that is meant to “bring science to the streets,” explains Dr. Christine Sharp, PhD’14, one of the project’s masterminds and strategic partnership specialist within the faculty.
- Images above: From left: Bees, Biodiversity, Ecology, a painting by AUArts alum Mike Hooves; an image from the Panaudicon exhibit designed by Arpun Dhillon, Faraz Shapourzadeh, Vikram Johal, Yasmin Tajik, Zachary Ward, and Zainab Saif Ahmad from the Master of Architecture program at SAPL; and Light, Astrophysics, Spectroscopy, Universe, a design by artist Sarah Osmani, a AUArts alum.
“The concept of the Art of Science project has been in the back of my mind for a few years now, after seeing Stampede window paintings all throughout Calgary’s downtown every year,” says Sharp.
“The Art of Science captures that spirit and excitement and uses it to showcase the incredible research taking place right here in our city, and then shares it with the whole community.”
Besides the dazzling window art, two other installations from alumni of UCalgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) — The Nook and Panaudicon — are part of the university’s contribution to Chinook Blast. SAPL’s installations “explore ways to intertwine architecture with light to create a sense of beauty and wonder outdoors during the coldest month of the year,” says the school’s marketing strategist, Nicola Johnson.
Between physical distancing due to COVID-19 and early February’s gulag-type temperatures, the Art of Science has had its share of bumps while becoming a reality, mostly due to a tough deadline, says Sharp, who remains in awe of the drive and motivation that it’s taken to mount this project.
But how, exactly, were the scientists matched with artists?
In the end, it came down to three little words — precisely what the scientists had to provide in describing their research. For Dr. Mindi Summers, PhD, those words were “bees, biodiversity and ecology.” It turns out that AUArts alum Mike Hooves is passionate about insects, so a match was instantly made.
“Mike particularly impressed me by taking on the challenge of communicating the complexity of native-bee natural history,” says Summers. “They created a winter and summer scene that accurately portrays how specific species survive the winter and which flowers they pollinate in summer.”
Meanwhile, Hooves says they had to deal with cans of frozen paint (they had loaded the car with supplies the night before) “that looked like dyed cottage cheese.” This meant that when they went to paint the window, “the coverage was never smooth or consistent; that led to a lot of unintended colour mixes which caused me to scrape the paint off the affected areas and start again.”
In the end, Hooves surrendered to the process, “which, let’s just say, created some interesting textures that happened organically.”
As for how artists can visualize information in an accessible medium like painting a windowpane, they first need to understand scientific culture. Hooves laughs when explaining that “Mindi would use scientific names for the bees and flowers in such a casual manner that I think she may have forgotten that most folk do not know what a bombus or anything of that sort actually is.” (Bombus is the scientific name for bumblebee.)
Equally impressive was Summers’ skill with spreadsheets, adds Hooves. “Without Mindi’s assistance, I would have been lost in walls of text about bees, without a clue where to go.”
The words that Dr. Marina Gavrilova, PhD’99, a computer science professor, used to describe her biometric research were “human body, social media and digital identity.”
Once Gavrilova was matched with artist Vivian Smith, they toiled through the weekend, mashing up ideas until they agreed on an image that depicts a biometric data explosion. “The viewer is in the centre, surrounded by radiating rays of information,” says Gavrilova.
“Vivian was very patient with my suggestions of the keywords to incorporate in the project. As in everything I do, I included my family in it ... well, indirectly. There are five words that start with the letters corresponding to their names.”
What Gavrilova hopes the audience gleans from her window, Data Bursts, is a new understanding about human identity. “In this new world, human physical appearance, behaviour, social interactions, virtual avatars and even emotions are highly entwined between physical and digital worlds,” she says.
“This is what Vivian and I want to convey to the audience.”
Also represented on one of the windows is an offering from Jennifer Howse, BA’02, education specialist adviser at UCalgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. She still can’t believe how quickly artist Sarah Osmani was able to articulate their main concepts about light pollution through a palette of bold colours that illustrate our “amazing stars, planets and galaxies.”
“We hope viewers will delight in this colourful display, but also have an opportunity to think about how we can live sustainably in the world and how that will help us to find our place in the universe,” says Howse.
Sharp says the hope for the Art of Science is to inspire “new thoughts, curiosity, new partnerships — the fields of art and science need not be oppositional but collaborative. Projects like the Art of Science strive to bridge the divide between the two fields by showcasing science in a different light. I’d like to think these works can facilitate conversations about the world around us.”
Each one of the murals on these windowpanes includes a QR code so Calgarians can learn more about the artists and the research behind the mural. Talks are in the works about where this project may live after Chinook Blast ends but until then, visit them in their “natural” habitat in downtown Calgary.