Art Works Blog

Symbiotic Art & Science, Part 2

Washington, DC

Dr. Bevil Conway with his artwork Globe. Photo by Joanne Rathe

In our second guest post on the NEA/National Science Foundation conference, Symbiotic Art and Science, Dr. Bevil Conway writes about the creative processes for artists and scientists. As a neuroscientist, Conway specializes in visual perception, especially as it relates to color. As an artist, his work has been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions, is reproduced in a number of books, and is held in private and public collections.

I was asked by the NEA to put down a few thoughts to “address the question of how the creative process is the same or different in the arts and in the sciences.” The request was prompted by the fact that I am both an artist and a scientist. My artistic endeavors have included printmaking (etching, woodcut, drypoint), painting (watercolor, oil), and sculpture (glass and silk), while my primary scientific interests have centered on mechanisms of visual perception, primarily color. I have never considered my engagement in "science" as distinct from my activity as an artist. Although art and science differ in their modes of production, their expert communities, and often their quantifiable utility, both avenues of investigation have provided me with a mechanism to appreciate (and hopefully uncover!) the mysteries of perception. Both are fun.

In his closing remarks at the meeting, [author] Peter Turchi summarized the challenge posed by this assignment---Peter said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that the diversity of creative processes amongst artists is perhaps as great as the number of artists themselves, and that an attempt to characterize stereotypes of artistic process will likely fail. (He was considering writers, but the same can be said of visual artists, and scientists for that matter.) So my perspective is surely an anecdote, an “N = 1” as scientists like to say (and dismiss). From what I’ve witnessed amongst those of my colleagues who also make art and practice original scientific research, it seems to me that the spark that motivates both pursuits is essentially the same: a desire to make, and satisfaction in having made, something original, whether a piece of art or an experiment. As [neurophysiologist] David Hubel pointed out to me when I summarized the conference to him: the sciences and the arts are more closely aligned with each other than either is to the humanities. The arts and sciences have as their goal the creation of something entirely original. The humanities, on the other hand, are essentially engaged in criticism, although the best criticism is also original.

How do I approach a scientific experiment or an art project? In both cases, the “process” appears to me to be similar. I struggle to quiet the internal mental critic. I play. I make accidents and observations. I work every day, obsessively, and often have a difficult time sleeping. I worry about craft, and enjoy getting a feel for the materials and how they react under different conditions. And sometimes while working in my studio or laboratory, something happens that strikes me as worth following up. In this sense, the process is much like that of evolution itself, which first requires a diversity of phenotypes from which natural selection picks winners. My PhD advisor, Margaret Livingstone, encouraged me to remember Pasteur's famous words, "Chance favors the prepared mind." So the central question morphs into: “When making art or doing science, on what basis is selection made? What constitutes an experimental result worth chasing, or an artistic intervention worth repeating?” These questions seem inaccessible to me, perhaps idiosyncratic, and maybe the domain of the critic and not the artist. As Mark Morris says when considering his process, "I'll know it when I see it."

In case you missed it, here's our opening post in this series by dancer/choreographer Liz Lerman.

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