Avenues to Inspiration: Integrating the Life and Work of Nature Artists into Middle School Science

By Campbell, Ashley | Science Scope, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Avenues to Inspiration: Integrating the Life and Work of Nature Artists into Middle School Science


Campbell, Ashley, Science Scope


Under the microscope, I found that snow/lakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.

Wilson A. "Snowflake" Bentley

Integrating the worlds of art and science can be a perfect tool for engaging students who wouldn't be initially interested in a science class. Even those students who love science may delve deeper into the subject when it's associated with art. One way to make this connection is to explore the life and work of great nature artists of the past and present. According to Content Standard G (History and Nature of Science) of the National Science Education Standards, "Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity" (NRC 1996, p. 130). Integrating the life and work of those who have successfully combined these disciplines into the science curriculum demonstrates that science is a human endeavor and has the potential to inspire students' creativity. Students may gain a newfound appreciation for the wonder and beauty of science.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Potential artists for study

Notable nature artists include Maria Sibylla Merian, John James Audubon, Wilson A. Bentley, and Andy Goldsworthy. This sample of artists includes people from different centuries, male and female, all of whom made a mark on society with their passion for art and science; additional scientist-artists are included in Figure 1.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

So many great naturalists are drawn to the subject at a young age, and Maria Sibylla Merian was no exception. Born in Germany in 1647, Merian was fascinated by insects as a child. Her father, Matthaus Merian the Elder, who was a printer and publisher, died in 1650. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla Heim, then married the Dutch painter Jacob Marrel, who influenced Merian to draw and paint.

Merian is the first person known to draw insects in their native habitat (Reitsma 2008). She is recognized for her three-volume publication focused on flowers and plants, as well as her first (1679) and second (1683) Caterpillar books.

Merian had two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria, both of whom followed in their mother's footsteps by painting flowers and animals.

In 1699, at the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter, Dorothea, set out for Suriname in northeast South America, where they spent two years. Upon her return to Europe in 1701, Merian produced a book on the insects of Suriname. This book, published in 1705, featured drawings of life-size insects in their natural surroundings. In addition, it provided art of the complete metamorphosis of butterflies of that region. Her collections from Suriname include flowers, insects, and reptiles.

The J. Paul Getty Museum maintains an excellent website documenting the life and work of Merian and her daughters and has released a book of her images called Insects & Flowers: The Art of Maria Sibylla Merian (see Resources). Teachers can use the slide show on the Getty Museum website to share with students visuals of Merian's work, as well as audio descriptions of the artist and her pieces. A number of the illustrations in the slide show focus on metamorphosis--not only on each stage of the insect life cycle, but also on the insect's host plant. Using Merian's pieces as a prompt, students can create their own art of insects and host plants. For example, one option would be to provide students with a list of different butterflies, such as monarchs, black swallowtails, American painted ladies, and buckeyes. Each student could choose one of the butterflies to draw and color or paint. …

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