Proximities, a new blog by Eric Magrane at the UA Institute of the Environment asks the question, “What kind of possibilities open up when we imagine and explore the various proximities between art and science and art and environment?” Eric has been a past guest poet and collaborator on Tumamoc Sketchbook. This time, I’m a guest on his blog.
An Interview with Tumamoc Artist in
Residence Paul Mirocha
by Eric Magrane
If you’ve lived in the Sonoran Desert for any amount of time, you’ve probably come across artist and illustrator Paul Mirocha’s work. He has illustrated books by authors Barbara Kingsolver and Gary Nabhan and has designed exhibit signs for destinations such as Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. Mirocha’s painting of Titanoboa, the largest snake on Earth, appeared in the April 2012 edition of Smithsonian Magazine. His large portfolio includes the illustrations for numerous children’s books, science text books, and interpretive museum exhibits. Since 2011, he has also been artist in residence at Tumamoc Hill—“Horned Lizard Mountain”—an ecological and cultural treasure in the heart of Tucson.
Paul will present a talk, “The Science of Art, the Art of Place,” on October 20 at the Drawing Studio, an event in the POG Poetry in Action reading series. (I will be the other half of that event, providing poetry.) As a lead in to the event, I’ve asked Paul a few questions about his work at Tumamoc.
Eric: In your Rainmaker post (July 30) from your Tumamoc Sketchbook blog, you write about your image of saguaro flowering stages: “Just to be clear, this image is not art. It’s science.” Tell me a little more about why you made that statement.
Paul: I may have just been playing with words, but there was an underlying jab at the categories we use for defining things. It’s like Magritte writing “This is not a pipe,” on his painting of a pipe. People in a profession put a lot of energy into defining their activities and getting others to accept those definitions as though they exist independently in the real world. (I use “real world” in the sense of quoting your poem.)
In art school I remember a sculpture student who maintained that sculpture was art, while painting was finished as art. The same goes for different specialties in science, which actually makes for a more interesting history. But we should remember and study the history of ideas about the world and the fact that these definitions change over time and ours is not the final definition.
So, to me right now, the most interesting things are those that don’t fit into any particular category like science or art. I carefully collected the best samples of the stages of the saguaro flowering from Tumamoc’s Desert Laboratory grounds. I only could do that because I was up there on the hill every day and it is right there outside my door in the desert. I arranged them in order with some eye to balance and aesthetics, and cleaned up the scan, but essentially tried to do as little as possible, stepped aside and just let the saguaro speak for itself. It was a very technical process.
I also made that scan of dried saguaro fruits. I set it up like a scientific botanical plate, but the content would not be interesting scientifically. It wouldn’t be the right question to a botanist. I did keep some rigor in the project—all the fruits were from the same cactus. I wanted to prove that each dries into its own unique shape, but follows the laws of geometry for an ovoid shape breaking apart and flattening. If I wanted to be more scientific, I’d scan every fruit from that cactus. It would be a series of pages. As it was, I chose the ones that most interested me, that were most appealing.
Eric: You’re getting at different conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity in science and art.
Paul: If you really think about it, you can’t precisely define where you end and the world of inert, independent objects begins. Is it at the outer edge of your skin? Or is it as far away as you can see? Is the outside world inside you when you are processing it within your brain?
I wonder, is a landscape a beautiful, aesthetic whole when you just stand there and look at it? Or does it become that when you paint or photograph it with that intention? Is there an aesthetic harmony or beauty inherent in the saguaro itself, or do we have to add it using art? That’s what fascinates me about 19th century geographer, explorer, artist, and scientist Alexander von Humboldt’s concept of Kosmos. The whole universe can be seen as a harmonious whole, like a work of art. I’m still trying to understand exactly what he was thinking because he came from another time period. As I said earlier, the categories change.
The categories limit our awareness, even though they are very useful. A larger viewpoint comes from not labeling something at all, maybe not even thinking about it at first, just coming from a position of allowing in your impressions. It’s hard to do. Once I tried to listen to a babbling radio news show as pure sound—it’s almost impossible to do in one’s own language, yet easy when it is a language you do not understand. You become aware of the raw sounds in themselves. Of course, like everything, they are still not “raw,” but have been heavily processed by your brain’s sensory system.
Eric: At Tumamoc, you’re also working with a GigaPan robotic camera mount, which allows you to open up an extremely wide field of vision. In one of your blog posts on this work, you write “Some of the interest to me is creating an image that is larger than the angle of view of the human eye.”
Paul: The GigaPan takes a snapshot of a period of time, maybe 10-15 minutes, rather than one hundredth of a second. The hardware comes from research for the Mars missions, developed by NASA and Carnegie-Mellon University, to photograph the landscape the Mars rovers found there. In a sense it is like going out with a large-format camera, which used to be the ultimate quality image for icons like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Maybe it still is. But I can attach a cheap point-and-shoot camera to the GigaPan robot and make images of much greater depth and detail.
When you crop down a GigaPan, often there is this sense of an expanded view, larger than what you’d see standing in a scene without moving your head around, yet it’s crammed into a normal-sized frame without the distortion you get with a super wide angle lens.
If a gigapixel image is printed large enough, or viewed through the zoomable software, the viewer can choose her or his own view and composition. They can wander around in it and explore, a little like you would outdoors walking around. (Of course it’s better to just go out and walk around.)
Eric: The scale you’re working on with the GigaPan also reminds me of paintings such as Church’s The Heart of the Andes (which was inspired by Alexander von Humboldt as well). The painting looks like something that one could step into and walk around in, just like the work with the GigaPan. Speaking of stepping outside and walking around, you’ve invited a number of artists up to Tumamoc to go outside with you and walk around, you’ve had field sketching groups, and POG is organizing the Tumamoc Hill Writing Project. Can you talk some about this community aspect of your work at Tumamoc?
Paul: Early scientists at the Carnegie Desert Botanical Lab, founded on Tumamoc in 1903, built a fence around the property because the whole landscape was their laboratory. They wanted to keep people and their livestock out. For the past 110 years, scientists have protected it because of the huge ecological value of the long-term data collected here.
San Juan’s Day: Downtown Tucson from Tumamoc Hill Summit with Monsoon, photo montage by Paul Mirocha
(to go to zoomable GigaPan, click on image)
Now things are changing. The lab is operated by Tumamoc: People and Habitats, managed by the University of Arizona’s College of Science and Pima County. The hill is surrounded by a growing city. About 1,000 people walk the road to the summit every day. Preserving Tumamoc for the next 100 years, or the next seven generations, will be everyone’s responsibility. It will require us to develop a shared cultural value that our community wants to have a wild, mostly untouched, desert mountain two miles from downtown.
In one of his last essays, Henry David Thoreau fantasized that each town might have its own “primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres,” left undisturbed for “higher uses—a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” At 860 acres, Tumamoc fits right in.
Artists and writers are the ones who can speak of and communicate these higher uses to the broader community. That’s their traditional role. I love seeing artists out in the landscape (within the public boundaries of the walking road up Tumamoc, of course) drawing and painting. In doing that they are forming a relationship with the place, just as you would with a friend. They are learning to observe and to see.
Artists and poets are building a sort of investment bank of images and words that will accumulate equity, increasing in value over time. To me, art as simply “self-expression” is fine, but it’s so limited. I like to feel part of a higher purpose, joining with others in building the “Kosmos” in the sense of the word used by Alexander von Humboldt 300 years ago.