Myth: We Experience Nature Outside, Art Inside

Nature vs. Art?

Dirt trails or marble floors. Wildflowers or gilded frames. Open sky or vaulted ceilings. Too often, we think of nature and art as unrelated experiences. One is outside, the other is inside. Appreciating one means getting dirty, the other means getting cleaned up (at least cleaner than this guy).

But Myth-busted-art-naturethe way humans experience nature and art has been powerfully linked (cue the Croods) since we set our homo sapien selves to work painting caves way back when. From the walls of the Louvre to a coveted display on the family fridge, nature has inspired more great works of art than we can possibly count. And when that art speaks to us, it in turn deepens our connection with the world around us (even if your preferred form of depth comes courtesy of SNL).

Whether we’re inside a museum feeling the grandeur of the great outdoors in a dreamily painted landscape, or traipsing through woods, noticing the way the light shifts on the water lilies, art gives us a portal to understanding nature—and vice versa.

Experts Agree: Nature and Art Go Together For the Win

To score some modern-day examples of this art/nature mojo, we rang up two experts in the art of celebrating nature: Sophie Twichell, executive director of the Brushwood Center, whose organizational mission is to explore the intersection of art and nature; and Alaka Wali, PhD, anthropology curator at the Field Museum, an iconic institution known for its artful presentation of natural science.

Julia Kemerer's passenger-pigeon-inspired piece debuted at a Brushwood Center symposium exploring extinction and survival. (Helen Maurene Cooper)
Julia Kemerer’s passenger-pigeon-inspired piece debuted at a Brushwood Center symposium exploring extinction and survival. (Helen Maurene Cooper)

“It is definitely true that engaging with art, whether viewing or making it yourself, gives you a visceral experience,” says Wali. “This aesthetic, emotional experience [can be a] great way to engage with nature. Ever since we as the human species began to make art, nature has been the dominant theme…the palette through which artists reflect on the human experience.” That’s true, she continues, whether we’re talking painting or poetry, song or dance, fashion or sculpture (or both, as pictured left).

Twichell believes that art is integral to making sense of the natural world—and accordingly is largely inspired by it. Take birds, for instance: Birdsong has inspired great composers to their best work, Audubon’s world-famous bird paintings are now featured on the walls of many galleries and homes, and, more recently, 14 artists’ portraits of passenger pigeons demonstrate the dramatic extinction of these once-plentiful birds.

Beyond directly inspiring artistic expression, here are a few ways in which art and nature complement one another, according to Wali and Twichell.

→ Scientifically grounded art brings natural science to life

For the many people who find science, well, not completely fascinating, art can offer a more user-friendly translation. Take the dioramas at the Field, for example, that depict the way animals interact with their natural habitat through artistic renderings of the landscape. Because science informs this art, you can get some of the hard data without having to actually break out a textbook or lab coat.

Audubon drew his famed flamingo, er, phoenicopterus ruber, for his book ''The Birds of America." (PD-Art)
Audubon drew his famed flamingo, er, phoenicopterus ruber, for his book ”The Birds of America.” (PD-Art)

Same goes for our old pal Audubon, who took great pains to depict his subject in life-like detail, according to Twichell. Though he’s recognized as one of the first names in scientific illustration, Audubon’s paintings are beautiful enough to grace the homes of folks that Twichell says are far more interested in art than science or even nature.

Scientifically accurate representations of birds may be easy for art aficionados to find wall-worthy, but even less, ahem, glamorous sciences are also often skillfully illuminated through art. At the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, notes Twichell, visitors gain a richer understanding of our environment thanks to a series of outdoor art installations such as multi-colored pillar “prisms,” which represent all the colors of soils you might find in a ravine and surrounding lake waters, or sculptural bronze plaques of soil microorganisms brought up close and personal.

Extinction science is another not-so-crowd-pleasing topic, but the Brushwood team tackled this head on by naming 2014 as its year of extinction and survival. “Art has been an interesting, non-confrontational or non-intimidating way to share the story of extinction, and provides a way for different people to develop their own responses to it,” explains Twichell.

Sometimes scientists need a little art to get to their eureka moment, too. DaVinci, Galileo, and even Michelangelo were all visionaries whose art informed science. And think back to European settlers first arriving in the New World—their detailed documentation of flora and fauna in their new environment still serves as a historic record of what native landscapes looked like.

The Crochet Coral Reef Project has inspired satellite reefs around the world, like this Latvian reef by Dagnija Griezne (via the Institute for Figuring)
The Crochet Coral Reef Project has inspired satellite reefs around the world, like this Latvian reef by Dagnija Griezne. (The Institute for Figuring)

Skipping ahead to oh, now, Wali cites the Crochet Coral Reef project—which raises awareness about coral reef destruction using an intricate crochet technique—as an interesting example of using art to demonstrate the nature of nature. First invented by a mathematician with mad crocheting skills, the technique models a geometric structure that many mathematicians had spent centuries proving was impossible to achieve (get the full scoop in this TED Talk).

→ Nature-themed art opens doors to other worlds – including the one outside

Remember how cool it was to watch Jurassic Park for the first time? Whether it’s a blockbuster flick or Charles Knight’s vivid dino paintings, art gives us an opportunity to be transported into scenarios in nature that would otherwise be out of our reach.

Wanna see the world from a bug’s perspective, for example? You can do it in the Field Museum’s Underground Adventure exhibit. Or get a better understanding of the world of an 18th century farmer? Wali refers us to the beautiful art hanging from the ceiling of the museum’s Plants of the World Hall, which is chock-full of scenes depicting how we used plants in different eras. You can also explore the Amazon without having to front the airfare in the Field’s Restoring Earth exhibit (or just watch these videos) to get a vivid sense of what it’s like to be there.

The water lilies in his Giverny gardens inspired Claude Monet to focus the better part of 30 years on some 250 paintings of them. (PD-Art)
Claude Monet was a big-time water lily fan — he painted them about 250 times over the course of 30 years. (PD-Art)

These doors aren’t always theoretical, by the way. Taking in a nice piece of art has likely inspired many a trip out of doors. Wali points out that Monet’s paintings of water lilies allowed people to experience these flowers in a completely new way—an experience that in turn could have inspired some to grab a sketchbook and head outside to find their own perspective on water lilies.

→ Nature-inspired art inspires us to make a difference

It’s no joke that a picture can be worth a thousand words. Environmental topics can be overwhelmingly complicated, and sometimes a single image is all it takes to cut through the—yeah, we’ll say it—crap and make a person feel something. This feeling could be happy or sad, amused or annoyed…but we’re gonna stick to one of the better feelings: positively inspired.

Consider the case of the organization Rare, an international nonprofit that successfully deploys art to make positive change. According to Twichell, the organization’s first big campaign was to save an endangered parrot native to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia—one that for whatever reason had failed to win the hearts of the public. The group worked with kids in schools to come up with artwork focused on the parrot, and even turned it into a national stamp, generating incredible community support for active protection of the bird. “The success of this artwork built so much awareness and appreciation for this endangered bird that it has now become a symbol of the island,” says Twichell.

There are more incredible photos where this came from -- check 'em out -- and learn how you can help at Photo Ark. (Joel Sartore)
There are more incredible photos where this came from — check ’em out — and learn how you can help at Photo Ark. (Joel Sartore)

Another source of inspiration (and great fodder for your desktop background pic) is National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark, which artfully documents species that we have a strong chance of losing. Instead of wallowing in the gloom of possible extinction, the Ark is already celebrating success: The Carolina Grasshopper sparrow has a real chance for comeback from decline since it became a part of Sartore’s photo-documenting mission.

Stories like these abound: An artful interpretation of nature can, and has, inspired some of our noblest actions. And, whether we come to these moments of understanding and virtue by way of art or nature first, it’s in connecting these experiences that we can get the conviction to bring it all home.

Okay, pep talk over. For now!

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth busted

Is getting outdoors the only way to experience nature? Nope! Is going to the museum the only way to experience art? Not a chance. Art can provide a meaningful portal into understanding and connecting with nature—and vice versa.OneGreenThing-NatureAndArt-EcoMyths

One Green Thing: Let the great outdoors inspire your own art

Whether it’s snapping an artful shot with your phone, writing a haiku about the fanciful shapes of the clouds, or balancing river rocks, getting creative in the great outdoors is a powerful way to commune with nature.

Other things you can do:

  • Visit a natural science museum like the Field Museum
  • Visit a nature-centric gallery like the Brushwood Center
  • Participate in nature-oriented art workshops, reading groups, or film festivals like the Film Festival in the Woods or the Wild and Scenic Film Festival