Making change 

Science, beauty and umwelten in the art of Gerard Sapes and Pamela Caughey

Umwelt sounds a lot like a black metal band, but it's actually an ecology theory stating that the mind and the world are inseparable. For example, a bee sees flowers in different colors than humans do, and yet neither reality is more correct. Further, humans each perceive the world through the different lenses of their own passions and experiences. And if you are Gerard Sapes, a Spanish photographer and science student with an interest in the umwelt concept, you are attuned to the intersection of art and biology.

Sapes is working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Montana about the effects of climate drought and, specifically, mountain bark beetle activity in ponderosa pine. The beetle outbreaks are well known in the Northwest but the reasons for them remain unclear. Sapes is looking into how beetles rely on odor and if drought triggers a change in the way pines smell. He's always been curious about these kinds of questions. Growing up in the Pyrenees helped cultivate his love of the natural world. The details he looks for to answer his science research also feed his artistic eye. His upcoming First Friday show at Frame of Mind showcases 14 photographs popping with texture and color: Amber sap clings to shiny bark and lichen, and bright green pine needles fan from a spiny orange center. But a scientist like Sapes sees something else in the photographs.

"Some of the photographs showing color patterns are the result of colonies of bacteria working hard for centuries," he says. "And what amazes me the most is that they can make such beautiful structures and patterns without even being able to see how it looks, since the scale in which we see them and the one at which the bacteria work are so far from each other."

The photos are not explicitly about climate change, but Sapes sees them as an entryway to talking about the issue. Some of the flowers he shot bloomed earlier than usual and he knows that means trouble. It means nature is shifting to an imbalance.

"Even though this could not sound important, it has huge consequences," he says. "An early flourishing creates a gap between the time in which flowers and insects appear ... there are less pollinators when flowers bloom and less flowers for insects when they arrive."

Pamela Caughey is another First Friday artist whose work is based in science and who is looking for a way to educate people through art. Her exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum, Ubiquitous: Migration of Pathogens, uses etched glass and a map to show how pathogens like MRSA, herpes, salmonella and streptococcus travel the world. For such a horrifying subject matter, the drawings of microorganisms are gracefully designed with an airiness that evokes dreamlike bubbles, not death and disease. But the map of how easily these pathogens can spread is alarming—ebola is one of the most recent to hit the news.

click to enlarge Gerard Sapes’ photograph of pine needles, top, and Pamela Caughey’s etching of the herpes pathogen are part of two separate First Friday shows that intersect art with science.
  • Gerard Sapes’ photograph of pine needles, top, and Pamela Caughey’s etching of the herpes pathogen are part of two separate First Friday shows that intersect art with science.

"They are fascinating," Caughey says. "It's like a whole new world, one that most of us will never see, but of course we hear about them all the time."

Caughey didn't embrace her science background as readily as Sapes. She got her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in biochemistry because, she admits, it's what her family expected. But her unhappiness led her to pursue art at UM and eventually science began to creep in. "It just suddenly became this thing I could rely on," she says. "It became this great reservoir of information. I keep dipping back into it to, I think, bring meaning to my work."

The first time Caughey really investigated pathogens for her art was in 2012 when she and other artists collaborated with the Rocky Mountain Lab for a show at the Ravalli County Museum titled Science and Wonderland. Since then, Caughey has devoured books on pathogens. She enjoys science now as a means to her art, and she uses art as a warning.

"Pathogens couldn't possibly do what they've done over the course of history without man," Caughey says. "Like us, they want to survive and they will do what they have to do to survive—and they have new opportunities to infect new hosts via a train or a plane or automobiles. It's becoming so easy due to technology. I hope that the viewer will ponder these ideas and think about that interaction between both forms of life."

Using art to bring real world, science-based issues to the forefront is one thing, effecting change is another. Caughey laments the anti-vaccination movement, for instance. Sapes laments that people rarely take action until disaster strikes.

"We are a reactive species, which means that, generally speaking, we learn from our mistakes—sometimes—not from analyzing a potential threat and avoiding it," Sapes says. "Consequently, one of the most effective ways of impacting people's conscious about climate change is through before and after pictures, like the ones capturing the shrinking of the glaciers.

"Reality is different for each one of us because each one of us sees different layers of it," Sapes adds. "This is what photography gives to me: the capacity to capture the layers that I see and show them to other people, thus, enhancing their umwelt."

Pamela Caughey's Ubiquitous: Migration of Pathogens opens at MAM Fri., Aug. 1, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM and an artist talk at 7. Gerard Sapes' photography exhibit opens Fri., Aug. 1, at Frame of Mind, 1706 Brooks St., with a reception from 5:30 to 9 PM and music from Bobby Coates. Free.

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