Taking science outside of the white-coat lab and classroom environment isn’t a new idea for Jason York, lead organizer of the Asheville Arts and Science Festival. A consulting biologist for agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, his day-to-day practice of the discipline tends to be a bit more hands-on.
“If I’m doing forestry work, the reality of that is me in the woods with a chain saw and boots on, covered in sweat,” York says. “But those sorts of jobs require a general understanding of biology and ecology to be performed properly.”
Through the new festival, which comes to Salvage Station on Saturday, March 31, noon-6 p.m., York and his fellow organizers hope to raise awareness about what science looks like in the real world. And by incorporating a healthy dose of art, the family-friendly event also aims to hook visitors with the beauty that science can inspire.
York describes the Asheville Arts and Science Festival as a reinvention of the traditional science fair, widening its focus in much the same way that music festivals have evolved into include visual art and social activism. Groups such as the Asheville Museum of Science and the Highlands Biological Station will rub shoulders with participants from outside the scientific world.
On the musical side, those artistic additions include local songwriter Pierce Edens, DJ Chrome C. and the UNC Asheville X-Tet modern jazz group. Visual contributions come from printmaker Jackie Rubino, landscape painter and mandala artist Tom Cornish and Weaverville puppeteer Hobey Ford, who will be performing a piece called Animalia.
Ford’s work, says York, is a perfect example of how art and science can inform the same educational experience. “His show is all about various animals. It combines performance art, the craftiness of creating all of his own puppets and the subject matter, which is basically biological,” he explains. “Art and science are connected because they are both ways that people use to try and make sense of the world around them.”
York also mentions the Asheville Astronomy Club as a festival participant creating an environment that joins learning with aesthetic appreciation. The club will bring its telescopes and special filters allowing for daytime observation of the sun.
“Kids love looking into telescopes — astronomy is a gateway science,” York says. “Not every kid is going to be an astrophysicist, but if the experience gets them interested in science, maybe they’ll pursue a related field that still requires the same type of critical thinking and problem-solving.”
One of York’s fellow organizers, Nancy Lowe, says that the separation of art from science is a relatively recent occurrence. As a grant writer for the Penland School of Crafts and the director of the AS IF Center in Bakersville, a self-described hybrid between a biological field station and an artist community, she sees great value in restoring the unity of the two fields.
“Artists and scientists both invent new tools and techniques, work collaboratively and often stumble upon new ways of looking at the world,” Lowe says. “When we remember that critical thinking and creative innovation are both available to us if we just practice them, when we treat ourselves as both rational and intuitive, we are able to be fully human.”
Christopher Nicolay, professor of biology at UNCA and another festival organizer, points out that it is particularly important to keep the simultaneous exploration of art and science alive among younger generations. “Children naturally possess a love of things that are weird, beautiful, exciting and unexpected,” he says. “We all start unafraid to learn and willing to try anything without self-imposed limitations.”
Nicolay’s colleague at UNCA, Jonathan Horton, admits that the academic world can often regard artists and scientists as isolated groups. But he adds that the vigor of both disciplines in Asheville, a city that hosts both the River Arts District and the National Centers for Environmental Information, makes him optimistic about building connection.
“My hope is that people learn more about the local communities of artists and scientists as both professionals and as real people,” Horton says. “I also hope to foster more discussion and cross-dissemination of ideas between the art and science communities.”
The festival’s organizers see their first happening as just the beginning of a broader campaign to spread an integrated approach to arts and science education. York hopes to transition the Salvage Station celebration into an annual event, secure nonprofit funding for the currently all-volunteer effort and provide similar offerings to schools throughout the region.
“We’d like to bring this programming to the kids instead of having the kids talk their parents into going or vice versa,” York says. “I look at it as an entertaining way to supplement their education. There’s something that anyone can learn and enjoy, and there’s no test at the end.”
Expanding this work would also help York address what he sees as worrying trends in the larger cultural conversation. “A lot of what drives me is supporting the inherent value of the arts and sciences,” he says. “When funding gets cut, it’s usually the arts that get cut first, and then science is right behind.”
“There’s a lot of skepticism of science going on in society right now,” York continues. “Skepticism is great, but that’s what scientists do — we prove ourselves wrong and then try to do it again. Rather than just preaching, the discipline is subject to its own rigor.”
And a society facing the growing problems of climate change and overpopulation, Lowe adds, can’t afford to misunderstand its greatest tools for developing solutions. “We are heating up a crowded planet with limited resources,” she says. “Figuring out how to live together here is going to take innovative thinking, both analytical and intuitive. It requires that we use all of ourselves.
WHAT: Asheville Arts and Science Festival, artsandsciencefestival.com
WHERE: Salvage Station, 468 Riverside Drive, salvagestation.com
WHEN: Saturday, March 31, noon-6 p.m. Free; $5 suggested donation.