The University Record, May 8, 2000

Ceramist, paleontologist explore parallels in their work

By Britt Halvorson

The earthenware and terra sigillata pieces shown above were part of a 1995 installation in Vancouver, British Columbia, of Sadashi Inuzuka’s work, titled ‘Nature of Things,’ that included 600 pieces and covered 6,000 square feet. Photo courtesy Sadashi Inuzuka
A focus on form and the evolutionary process as they relate to artistic creation and the natural world are two parallels ceramist Sadashi Inuzuka and paleontologist Peter Kaplan draw between their seemingly disparate work.

Inuzuka, assistant professor of ceramics, and Kaplan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geological Sciences and a specialist in invertebrate paleontology, spoke April 27 at “Spirals, Stars and Spineless Wonders,” the second lecture in a two-part “Nature of Art and Science” series sponsored by the Exhibit Museum of Natural History and the Ann Arbor Art Center. Each presentation in the series brought together an artist and a scientist who work with similar materials or objects but to different ends.

Inuzuka displayed many of his colorful, distinctly shaped ceramic pieces that suggest the simple organic forms, such as mollusks and starfish, that Kaplan studies. In creating such interesting creatures, Inuzuka says he allows his hands and subconscious to take over and tries not to think too much about each piece, letting childhood memories, emotions and recollections of fascinating forms shape each item’s structure. He does not model his work after photographs or sketches of naturally occurring species, relying instead on ideas of forms he carries in his mind. Inuzuka said his work is motivated by a general curiosity he has relating to small, natural objects.

In contrast, Kaplan provided the scientific questions that guide his work: Why do morphologies that we see today exist? What is the source of organic forms? What are the reasons for the differences between organisms? Functional problems, historic constraints and constructional restrictions offer some explanations for the adaptations that have occurred and the morphological differences scientists observe in invertebrates, Kaplan said.

During the program’s question-and-answer session, Kaplan noted his fascination with Inuzuka’s strongly organic work and stressed that the essence of the problems they approach—the forces behind structural, morphological differences and the creation of unique forms—is the same.

“I think scientists and artists should work together more,” Inuzuka commented, adding that although scientists and artists approach their work from two different directions, they should learn to appreciate the insights that each perspective can provide.

According to Amy Harris, associate director of the Exhibit Museum, the idea of a lecture series connecting artists who use natural materials or focus on natural objects with scientists who study similar species originated when she was introduced to Ann Savageau, an artist and instructor at the Residential College, by a member of the Museum’s board of advisers.

In her artwork, Savageau uses hornet nest paper, which resembles the marbled paper found in the end papers of old books. The first “Nature of Art and Science” lecture, held last year, connected Savageau with Mark O’Brien, an entomologist at the Museum of Zoology.

Last year’s series, co-sponsored by the Alumni Association, included presentations by an artist who visually represented animal sounds in sculpture and two graduate students who cracked the code of the 17- and 13-year-old cicadas’ unique sound; and a married artist and biologist who discussed the inclusion of diatoms, single-celled algae that inhabit freshwater and ocean, in their work.

Harris, who also has a background in art history, said the starting point for each lecture has been with an artist who uses natural materials or focuses on naturally occurring species in his or her artwork. As each artist was identified and expressed interest in the series, a scientist was found whose research interests related to the artist’s work.

Through the series, Harris said the Exhibit Museum, popular with families and school groups, hopes to increase its adult audience. The Museum and Art Center have offered a separate children’s workshop in conjunction with each lecture to make it possible for parents to attend.

“We enjoy having programs in our gallery,” Harris noted. “Artistic displays of scientific content” present in the gallery have complemented the series’ theme.

The Exhibit Museum plans to continue the series during winter term 2001. “Word has gotten out,” Harris said, noting that several other units and individuals have expressed interest in the lectures’ interdisciplinary approach. She hopes to link the University’s focus on the life sciences to a future presentation.

Through the program, several of the participating artists have garnered a new understanding of the structure and function of the organic forms they represent in their work, and scientists have taken away a different perspective on the classification, use and visual qualities of the species they research.

“It’s been fascinating,” Harris concluded of her work with the program.