Inspiring Conservation

Inspiring Conservation

A detail from a print Kate Aitchison MFA 16 PR made this fall in response to her summer expeditions in the Grand Canyon.

Working at the intersection of art and science is something of a lifelong project for grad student Kate Aitchison MFA 16 PR. The daughter of a naturalist and nature guide, she has been exploring the American Southwest since childhood and has long been fascinated with geological maps. “By taking scientific and artistic concepts… and translating them into tangible images,” she writes in her artist statement, “I create art with the goal of sparking new kinds of conversation about environmental science and conservation issues affecting our world today.”

Thanks to a 2015 Maharam STEAM Fellowship in Applied Art and Design, Aitchison was able to spend last summer working with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Grand Canyon Youth in Flagstaff, AZ. The fellowship provides winners a $5,000 stipend to work with nonprofit or government organizations to show how art and design can make a positive impact on their work. Through her Maharam internship, the printmaker showed how art helps communicate scientific knowledge to both USGS field experts and citizen scientists of all ages.

“Art is really scary and challenging for a lot of people,” Aitchison says, “but this fellowship allowed me to show a wide variety of people—scientists, artists and guides—how important it can be and how it allows connections to be made—to place, to other people and to science.” To help the USGS, she created a food web illustration that helps make the research taking place at the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research’s Aquatic Insect Lab accessible not only to fellow scientists but also to the many governmental, commercial and citizen constituents with a stake in the ecological welfare of the Grand Canyon and specifically the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon Dam.

In addition to interning at USGS, Aitchison led river expeditions on the San Juan and Colorado rivers, working with kids and fellow GC Youth educators in catching fish, setting up light traps to corral river bugs and using bat detectors to identify the canyon’s different bat species. When talking to the young explorers, she emphasized the importance of Thomas Moran’s paintings of the Grand Canyon in the 1930s and the woodcuts of Everett Ruess in motivating the US Congress to pass sweeping conservation laws. These artists, she says, advanced the cause of conservation in a way that only art makes possible—by translating scientific facts into beautiful images with emotional resonance.

With Aitchison’s guidance, children participating in the river expeditions made prints from block carvings of canyon imagery—as a means of making science more personal, a way of connecting what they learned to what they felt. She hopes that her work as a Maharam Fellow encouraged a new generation of environmental stewards and enabled students to understand that visual representation is an essential part of sharing knowledge of the natural world.

Since returning to RISD—and weathering the shock of reentering the world of smartphones after two weeks on the river—Aitchison has been making prints inspired by these river experiences. Letting go of a prior need to verbally articulate her intentions, she has embraced a more literal style that allows the art to speak for itself. Her most recent prints overlay system maps of the Colorado River with ethereal evocations of the summer’s expedition—“memory drawings from places throughout the Grand Canyon that are significant to me,” as she puts it.

Continuing down the path she discovered during those early childhood expeditions, Aitchison is newly inspired to pursue work with scientists and conservationists on projects that combine art and science for the good of the natural world. “I think that by mashing together different disciplines you can take things a lot farther than they can go on their own,” she says, firm in the belief that her future collaborations with scientists will help bridge the unnatural gap between science and art.

Robert Albanese

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