By Melissae Fellet
When you’re up close to Ann Altstatt’s artwork in the earth • science • art show in Santa Cruz jagged black lines like TV static dominate the picture. But as you walk backwards, a familiar landscape of Point Sur appears on the pale blue paper. It’s not a typical abstract mixed media: She’s portraying the scientific work of geologist Sam Johnson.
“So what Ann has done is draw the landscape [and] juxtapose [that] with the imagery that tells us how that landscape formed,” Johnson says.
He maps the location and motion of underwater faults stretching along the California coast for the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. Johnson is one of 16 USGS scientists who partnered with local artists for the exhibit at the R. Blitzer Gallery. Artist Lisa Hochstein organized and curated the exhibit, which runs through July 7th.
“My little experiment was: What would happen if you mixed these two groups of people together?” Hochstein says. “What would they come up with? Would they want to work together?”
For this artist-scientist pair, the answer was yes. Altstatt studied geology in school and instantly understood Johnson’s love of maps.
To make a map, Johnson first needs information about the rocks under the ocean. He collects some of that information by bouncing sound waves off the layers of sediment below the seafloor. Reflected sound waves generate those TV static patterns that Altstatt used in her work. Only a trained eye like Johnson’s can interpret patterns in the static that indicate faults.
And that’s just some of the data Johnson uses to make a map. “The creativity is in how you combine information to generate a map,” he says. “Where the art comes is pushing the envelope in looking at landscape in new and different ways.”
One story emerging from these fault maps involves coastal projections like Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. In the ocean just south of the point, the San Gregorio fault splits into two pieces. One piece heads inland to join the San Andreas Fault. The other turns left towards the ocean. Land squeezed between these two faults rises to form the point.
Altstatt visited Año Nuevo, which is one of places where this process is potentially happening. “Looking at point Año Nuevo, up to Franklin Point and Pigeon Point, [I remember] feeling like my experience of this place is another form of remote sensing,” she says.
Just like Johnson uses sound waves to map unseen faults, Altstatt’s view of the landscape was another way to sense the geology offshore.
So in her piece, she layered paintings of four different coastal points with the static-like sound wave data Johnson collects. Altstatt also included maps of faults along the coast and lines that Johnson draws through the data as he interprets patterns in the static.
“Through the different layers of imagery that I’m using in the piece, I’m trying to follow some of the process that Sam would go through in taking data, and mapping an area and coming up with a story of the history of that place,” she says. “For me, it’s a way of describing the wonderment of being in a place and…imagining different ways of understanding how it’s come to be that way.”
“I told her that what she’d done was kind of what I imagined when I was dreaming about the science that I was doing,” Johnson says. “Ann’s art captured that state where it’s kind of all swirling around in an interesting pattern and hasn’t quite come together into the story or interpretation.”
earth • science • art exhibits scientific research next to the art it inspires. What’s really on display is the creativity and experimentation that artists and scientists use to explain how our world works.