For more than a quarter of a century, Carrie and I were a part of the Colby-Sawyer community as college librarian and biology professor, respectively. We were attuned to the dynamic pulse of its daily life. Since our retirements, we live on an island off the coast of Maine, where life unfolds according to different rhythms. It was with some surprise, then, that I encountered a correspondence between these physically distant and seemingly disparate worlds.
We were attending an art show at the island’s historical society, and I found myself studying a print by a local artist. It was a tree, devoid of leaves but wonderfully detailed in the elaborate twisting of its interlaced branches. The image seemed to emerge from, and yet be very much a part of, the texture of the paper on which it was printed. The total effect was marvelous, and for me, captivating — all the more so because this print stood out from the body of the artist’s work on display. I sought the artist to express my admiration and learn more about the piece.
The laudatory overture led to a conversation about the method behind the art. The print had begun as a photo that, through digital manipulation, was eroded to a skeletal form that served as the mask for the etching that yielded the finished print. Details of kernel configuration for image processing, acids and masking compounds for etching plates, inks and application techniques swirled as we explored the stages of the process. The paper was a wonder in itself: handmade from the bark of an indigenous tree, its variegations in muted purple on soft white, complemented by its delicate fibrosity, provided the unique surface that imbued the image with a life-like vibrancy. The artist said the subtle play of color across the print emerged from the pigment in the bark, and the unusual fiber length was critical to the tear resistance of so thin a sheet, its unique luster, as well as the correct surface adsorption of the ink. Talk of solvent-based pigment extraction and chromatographic effects, hydrogen-bonding patterns in cellulose helices, similarities between felting and papermaking, and the effect of fiber length on matrix flexibility and tensile strength filled the air, to the probable dismay of onlookers.
It turned out the artist was an art and biology double major summering on the island with her family.
A bit later, I had cause to reflect on several aspects of that evening’s experience.
First, I realized that, although the hall was packed, I had spent the night talking with one of the few individuals there under the age of 60. That is a probable legacy of having spent my professional life surrounded by and interacting with young people. Simplistically, I could say the college environment is my comfort zone; I’m not yet ready for the retirement set.
There might be a more interesting twist, however. I have been a scientist for as long as I have been a teacher, and science is simply the process of discovery. Experience brings some wisdom, but the driving force to the process is raw curiosity — the compelling need to know, to understand. It is the constant tide of youth, with its energy and challenge to norms, that propels our voyages of discovery, and I have been buoyed and carried by that tide all my life. Teaching and research, discovering and imparting, have been interwoven throughout my career, each supporting and stimulating the other.
The link between teaching and science led me to another duality that was demonstrated in my evening’s experience — the deep, inescapable rapport between art and science. We underscore the connection in shaping the grand themes of human cultural evolution; we appreciate its manifestation in Renaissance masters like Da Vinci; we extol it and teach it as a way of thought to shape a life. Even so, I am amazed every time I see its effect for real in my own little sphere. Here it was, unexpected, in the life and work of a young artist. Her tree, so lovely and subtle, seemed the ephemeral inspiration of a muse but in fact could not have existed without the premeditated and methodical application of science and technology at every stage in its creation. In the turmoil of the world, it seemed quietly comforting to know the liberal arts are alive and well on a little island off the coast of Maine.
That evening held one more insight. I had felt that in coming to this island, I was severing ties with the world I had known, losing contact with the people who populated it, giving up on the life of the mind that had been a source of stimulation and pleasure. The evening gave me a “kick in the pants.” That world has no physical limits. It can be found anywhere, any time. Open your eyes, your mind and your heart, and you will see that it is all around you. That, too, was comforting to a recent, and reluctant, retiree.
P.S. By the time I realized I would like to own it, someone else had purchased that print. There were no other copies, nor would there ever be. It was truly one of a kind. Carpe diem.