Arts and science together: Research plays vital role in Idaho’s cultural world

A painting created by ANA, an autonomous computer program created by Don Winiecki, a professor in Boise State’s College of Engineering, in order to enhance his own understanding of art through computer algorithms.
A painting created by ANA, an autonomous computer program created by Don Winiecki, a professor in Boise State’s College of Engineering, in order to enhance his own understanding of art through computer algorithms. Boise State University

Many people don’t naturally pair the words “arts” and “research” together, yet research is as foundational to the arts as it is to any other discipline. The arts enrich college campuses and the towns and cities in which they thrive – educating, entertaining, enlightening and inspiring students, faculty and the community. However, a vibrant arts scene cannot flourish without a strong base in research, a base that helps artists, artists-in-training and the general public understand the cultural and historical implications of their craft, and more deeply appreciate how that craft reflects the human condition.

Research is vital to the artistic and educational process. At Boise State University and at colleges across Idaho, arts faculty encourage our students to understand the context in which their art is made, to tease out the ethical implications of an aesthetic decision, and to appreciate the technologies that might help them create differently, reach a diverse audience or market, or preserve what they’ve made for future reflection and examination.

Consider the work of Boise State assistant professor of theater, film and creative writing Rulon Wood, who recently took a group of students to South Africa to work with the Desmond Tutu Foundation. Working with local youth, Wood and his students created video public service announcements to address HIV stigma and change societal attitudes about the disease. Wood also has collaborated with organizations Cotopaxi, Goldman Sachs and Adobe to teach refugees both computer coding skills and filmmaking. Wood then analyzed different types of volunteers to better create linkages between the participating organizations and nonprofits that hoped to partner with them.

Research executed in the name of the arts also gives us opportunities to form new connections across communities. Casita Nepantla, a Latino Space at Boise State, recently received a federal matching grant to document the art and cultural expression of Latinos in rural and urban communities throughout Idaho. Although the Latino population in Idaho is growing, there remains a dearth of scholarly research that explores the important contributions they make to Idaho’s contemporary cultural scene. Associate professor Alicia Garza, director of Casita Nepantla, intends to change that.

At a thriving research university, the arts and the sciences can and should complement each other. Artists need to study the sciences, and scientists need to study the arts. Many faculty members in Idaho recognize the importance of this exchange and encourage their students to embrace both. Nikki Gorrell, an assistant professor of anthropology at the College of Western Idaho, led students on an incredible five-year project to locate and record petroglyphs – works of art carved onto rocks by indigenous people, which are at vulnerable to weathering and vandalism – near Melba. Their field work included documenting the glyphs’ coordinates and measurements, taking photographs and sketching them, as well as making their findings available on the internet for art historians, anthropologists and others to access. They have forever preserved an ancient art form by putting it online. In addition, the students’ work inspired a student-produced documentary about the petroglyphs.

This blending of fields is not an outlier. Consider for a moment how artistic work can involve facets of light, sound, physical bodies in motion and at rest, chemical processes and technology. Artists filter scientific principles and strategies through their aesthetic lenses as a matter of course.

Boise State art professor Caroline Earley combines 3-D modeling and printing technologies with mold-making and hand processes to push her audiences to rethink the meaning of traditional craftwork in our increasingly technology-based society. In fact, Earley is working with another Boise State art professor, Anika Smulovitz, to create a Digital Craft Initiative stocked with three-dimensional clay printers and detailed wax printers, that can be used to scan objects that have been fabricated in the studio to create/3-D-print multiples, or manipulate digitally and create variations and then print.

By teaching students the history of handmade and tech-driven art techniques, these professors are encouraging the next generation of art students to make objects that bear the traces of both the digital and handmade without fully being either.

Likewise, scientists increasingly appreciate the power of the arts in their own work, whether they’re approaching a complex problem using design thinking – a creative strategy used by designers – or creatively helping the public comprehend and appreciate the relevance of their work through visual or tactile means.

For the past several years Don Winiecki, a professor in Boise State’s College of Engineering, has been teaching a computer to draw and paint autonomously. Fascinatingly, his goal is not to produce an artificially intelligent program, but to learn more about his own understanding of painting and its components through computer algorithms.

Art is not made in a vacuum. Setting up a false antagonism between the arts and sciences limits the progress of both fields; an advance in one area offers the potential for an advance in the other. This is one reason Boise State announced the formation of a new School of the Arts last fall. The new school will bolster arts education and research, thus better preparing students who aspire to be professional artists by allowing them to take transdisciplinary classes to fit their major’s core requirements. It also will act as a dedicated entity to support, facilitate, publicize and provide diverse arts opportunities for students and the greater Treasure Valley.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices.