Organization Spotlight | Visual Arts

Art, Science and the Land: Rio Mesa Center encourages artists, including Christine Baczek

Rio Mesa Center


Science and the humanities are often viewed as completely separate disciplines. Our culture sees them as being at opposite ends of a spectrum, but the world’s greatest minds understand the two fields are actually intertwined and inseparable. Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Study the science of art and the art of science.” This piece of wisdom may be on the verge of a renaissance. The evidence of a rebirth can be found in several different places, like our own science and technology arts museum, The Leonardo, and in emerging academic ventures like the University of Utah’s Rio Mesa Center.

The center, started in 2006, is located near Moab, along the Dolores River.|0-1| The Rio Mesa Center has been designed to serve as “a modern, multi-disciplinary, outdoor laboratory where science, architecture, engineering and art come together to question our notion of what it means to live on the Colorado Plateau.” Manager of the center and Associate Instructor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah, Zach Lundeen elaborates on the center’s unique goals, “To maximize the audience within the University, they chose to try and make it a broader, multi-disciplinary research center.” An example of their efforts is a course held at the center that combined landscape ecology and painting. Kim Martinez, an Associate Professor in the Art and Art History Department collaborated with Sylvia Torti, a biology professor who now heads the Honors Program at the University of Utah, to create an educational experience that explored science and art. For half the day, students received instruction on landscape painting, and the other half of the day consisted of lessons on landscape ecology. “They would try and look at how artists and scientists maybe go about things differently,” says Lundeen, “but also how they approach things with similar kinds of questions.”

Courses and student projects at the Rio Mesa Center range from entomology to creative writing, but the opportunity to use the center is not limited to the University of Utah community. Writers and artists can apply to use the space for a residency. “We’re facilitating inspiration and solitude,” says Lundeen. “This area is totally removed. If you go out there it’s amazing. You look at the night sky and there is no light pollution and no traffic. To just go hang out there, you’ve got an amazing, diverse landscape. It presents a nice environment where a lot of different activities that can be done. It’s set aside for academic pursuits, whatever they may be.”

Christine Baczek, Collections Photographer, Archivist, and Digital Media Producer for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), was inspired to take advantage of the pristine landscape at the Rio Mesa Center, where she is currently an artist-in-residence. “I have applied for a lot of residencies, so I’ve read a lot about many of them,” the artist says. “What strikes me as unique about this residency is the location. There is nothing like this in Southern Utah. And it’s also unique because it has this interdisciplinary approach. I feel like I haven’t seen that a lot at all in residencies.”

Over the next year or two Baczek will make periodic trips to the center where she will collect plant samples that she will press and use to make photograms. “Photograms are when you take something and put it directly on your light sensitive paper — in this case glass — and expose it to light and then you get the outline of the object. And if it’s translucent in any places you’ll have different effects.”

She makes the photograms with a cyanotype, a blue chemical, and then houses the pieces in a custom wooden frame that has a motion sensor-activated light behind it. When a person walks past the frame, the image lights up. “The idea is that, just like when you’re out walking or on a hike and you don’t really notice things until you notice them, that there’s this thing going on around you that you have to interact with in order to recognize it and in order for it to appear to you,” Baczek says.

The project got underway this October, and Baczek is building toward creating a larger piece. “The culmination of this will be a grouping of light boxes. I’m hoping to partner with a biologist at some point, who I’ll find through the Rio Mesa Center, who can give me some information about the plants and if they’re native to that part of the state, or, if they’ve been brought in, what the plant’s history is. And that will determine where it goes in the installation and if I use a colored or stained glass,” she says. Baczek’s goals for her residency extend beyond wanting to complete a project and into a desire to give something back to the Rio Mesa Center. “This place has so much potential that I want to help it meet its potential. So I also feel really motivated to do something great down there,” she says.

As she works at the center and strives to create something wonderful, Baczek encounters some of the other people who are utilizing the space and finds inspiration to experiment with her work. “When I was down there about a month ago, there were some people doing bird research. They had nets up by the river. They were catching birds and banding them just to study what birds were down there. So I photographed them with their birds and whenever feathers would fall off from when they were catching the birds, I collected those and we were doing some photograms with them.”

This kind of collaboration is what Lundeen is hoping to foster through the center. “You’re in this very inviting environment where any of those perceived walls or divisions between sciences and humanities are down because it’s a much more casual atmosphere, it takes you out of the more traditional university setting,” he says. “Hopefully that promotes more interaction.”

The barriers between art and science are crumbling at the Rio Mesa Center. As the center grows, perhaps people will begin to realize the two disciplines are not at odds with each other. The reality is that art and science are more powerful when they’re combined.

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