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Art show partners creation with science

January 24, 2011

ASU Sustainability contest inspires paintings, sculpture and multimedia

Fertilizer is rarely an inspiration for an art show, but on Feb. 5, at the Desert Botanical Garden, sustainability, fertilizer and phosphorus scarcity will provide fertile fuel for creative vision.

The art show, a juried exhibition with more than 20 works by artists from Phoenix, Chicago, Portland and Houston, was created in partnership with scientists engaged in the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit, to take place Feb. 3-5, at ASU. The exhibition will include paintings, photography, sculpture, multimedia and innovative approaches to portraying sustainability through dance and music.

Free and open to the public, the art show starts at noon, with the top prizes awarded at 6:30 p.m. An RSVP is required to attend:

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for life – without it, we cannot grow our food or build our bones – and scientists are concerned about an emerging threat of phosphorus scarcity, as well as the impacts of phosphorus run-off on lakes and oceans. Local artist Patricia Sahertian developed a series of eight collages that examine phosphorus – from mining, to use in agriculture, to its eventual elimination (or recycling) in the water and waste streams – through conversations with three graduate students from ASU, including summit organizer Elizabeth Cook, a doctoral student in the School of Life Sciences.

“The idea of collaborating with scientists intrigued me because, after art, I am drawn to life sciences, learning about how things work, the body, nature, organisms,” Sahertian says. “What I feel is dynamic about this work is how they lay out the budget of phosphorus in the city of Phoenix in a visual and simplistic manner that everyone can relate to. The pieces also create a sense of nostalgia because of the types of ephemera that were used, hopefully encouraging a reconnection to a simpler time. Somehow I think that is what sustainability says to me.”

Scientist David Iwaniec, an urban ecology fellow with the Global Institute of Sustainability, believes that the most compelling part of the art show is that it will communicate much more than just the basics of the phosphorus sustainability issue.

“Introducing and communicating the issue is an important initial step, but the art pieces go beyond the simple problem of phosphorus scarcity and embrace the complexity at play,” he says.

Artists and scientists, often viewed as immutably different from one another, gain much from the opportunity to work together creatively. Todd Grossman, a local painter and piano teacher, observes: “I wanted to produce a piece of art that was not only relevant to the subject and the scientist, but to myself as an artist. I think any experience that allows people to see a correlation between art and what is typically deemed “important” or necessary is beneficial.”

Collaborations also led to the incorporation of biological materials into the works themselves, including corn, sand, soybeans, switch grass and snails. For example, in her work “Our Floating Days” multimedia artist Angela Cazel Jahn learned to grow the crustacean Daphnia and algae from James Elser, Regents’ Professor and one of the three ASU scientists who founded ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative.

Jahn says their work is a “whimsical metaphor of how we entertain uncertainty and vague premonitions of disruption or change. Crazy-big problems like peak oil, climate change, and phosphorus scarcity loom ahead, but still most of us live our everyday lives immersed in the routine and circumstance of our time and place.”

“What happens next in the story of phosphorus sustainability is going to depend on how it is told and who is telling it to what audience,” Jahn adds. “Participants in this ASU summit will influence that story, so the words they will choose are important. Their remarks and perspectives may eventually define the messages that will change policy, advance industrial practices, and be broadcast to the public.” 

Jahn’s artistic partners also include Cory Dunnington of Leaning Tree Glass Studios and Frances McMahon-Ward, a digital arts instructor with Xavier College Prep Academy.

The works will be judged by Dennita Sewell, a curator with the Phoenix Art Museum; Mark Edwards, a professor with the W. P. Carey School of Business and partner in ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative; Barry Sparkman, a local artist and arts and humanities liaison with the Global Institute of Sustainability; and a scientist from ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In addition to the artists, judges and their collaborators, ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Summit will bring together international experts, including local farmers and specialists in mining, fertilizer, business development and science-based inquiry, to discuss emerging global shortages of phosphorus, food security and development of sustainable solutions.

The art show is the result of a contest developed by organizers of the summit, ASU graduate students in the School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability.

Elser's hope is that people attending the art show, “by coming into contact with surprising or striking or humorous or shocking works of art,” will remember phosphorus and be mindful about how it’s used.

You might even find yourself cracking open your biology or geology textbooks more often just to view sustainability and our world through these artists’ eyes. 

The Sustainable Phosphorus Art Show is scheduled to take place from noon to 7 p.m., Feb. 5, at the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix. Cash bar and reception will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

If you miss the exhibit Feb. 5, the art show will move to ASU’s Step Gallery, in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, in Tempe, from Feb. 14-18.

Additional information on the scientific program of the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit can be found here. For more information on phosphorus sustainability, visit