By Carolyn Belardo
Caryn Babaian: Nature in Chalk, on view in the Art of Science Gallery, features large, colorfully detailed mandalas that focus on the complexity and beauty of nature. The circular compositions reference traditional Hindu and Buddhist mandalas—spiritual and ritual symbols representing the universe in those religions.
The artist, Caryn Babaian, is a biology professor at Bucks County Community College and at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies.She is an accomplished artist and has been featured on Nova’s The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.
We were curious about why she has her students make artworks in her science classes, so we asked the professor a few questions.
Q: You’re a biology teacher, yet you have your students draw animals as if it were an art class. Why?
A: There are actually some awesome reasons why biology students (and professors) should draw and why I encourage this with students. Drawing increases observational skills. It’s the perfect tool for the life sciences. I’ve found that it deepens your relationship with your subject and it’s a skill that resides in everyone. Armed with only your eyes, hands, and a pencil, you can uncover many fascinating mysteries of life. Leonardo da Vinci helped us recognize that drawing and science naturally go together. Our best adaptations are our visual brain and our eye-hand dexterity. These are our evolutionary “tools,” and using them by drawing makes us engaged, active learners.
Q: Your exhibit is a series of mandalas. What is a mandala and why did you choose that structure to express nature?
A: The word “mandala” is Sanskrit for “circle,” or, some say, “whole teaching.” Originally from Indian Buddhist tradition, the creation of a mandala was a way of revealing and meditating on the universe, deities, and the spiritual. Many scientists and artists have searched for a way of organizing information, data, ideas, and relationships in evolution. I chose the mandala to represent biological systems because biology has lots of details, and they often appear disconnected and abstract. The mandala helped me organize dynamic and broad topics, like ecology and evolution, and synthesize them into an educational art form. Nature is dynamic and really beautiful at all levels.
I use the mandala in biology to talk about big concepts like evolution, ecology, and symbiosis, but I also use it to talk about species diversity and species extinction. Mandalas help connect all the concepts together; they give the big picture and the details. The other important aspect is that they were created to be a meditative narrative, that is to use the “right” visual brain as well as the left linear brain to promote biophilia.
Wetland Restoration Mandala
Q: Why did you use chalk for the mandala?
A: I use chalk quite a bit. I like chalk; it’s quintessentially educational. I can take anything from my finished art and move to an empty chalkboard and start drawing and telling stories about biology. Also, chalk is highly biodegradable; after all it used to be alive! An added bonus is you can show the impermanence of form, something the mandala is meant to convey and something we forget about in the cycle of life.
Q: I hear you have a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci. How does his life’s work influence yours?
A: He’s a hard guy not to be fascinated with and love. To me, he’s the ultimate biology/anatomy professor, and his influence on my work is a pleasant validation. Everything he pursued, and the virtuous and beautiful way he pursued it, spells great educator, passionate scientist, and all around cool guy. He lived a life that was truly authentic. I’ve read his notebooks and appreciate his sense of humor, his skepticism, his inventiveness, and his love of animals. I think we need to model our learning a lot more after people like Leonardo—people who forged a deep relationship with their own skills and with the planet.
Q: When you see a spider inside your house what do you do?
A: I think spiders are cute. When I see a spider I’m careful not to mess up their webs. I try to identify them and leave them alone. I know they have an important niche to fill. Besides, I like their company.
Caryn Babaian: Nature in Chalk is on view through May 31. The exhibit is free with regular museum admission.