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The Art and Science of Seeing

An artist in residence at the Milwaukie Academy of the Arts is helping mix art and science with a course in scientific illustration.
by: david stroup, Student Paige Titus studies her model — a lizard in Ken Blacksmith's biology class.

In Mr. Blacksmith's class, they're drawing live, nude models.

Don't worry, though - most of them are quite comfortable in their fur. Or scales. Or chitin.

Ken Blacksmith's biology class is host to artist Nancy Klos - an artist-in-residence at the school conducting an extended series of twice-weekly visits with the students

'I'm teaching a foundation in drawing class,' Klos said - but Blacksmith isn't an art teacher, he teaches biology. Instead of typical high school art class tricks - geometric solids, a bowl of fruit, perhaps a live model - the students are learning the ins and outs of scientific illustration.

'They learn a basis in drafting media, graphite, charcoal, colored pencils on paper. They're keeping sketchbook-note books every week, and each week is a building block for the next.

'By the time we're complete in our program here,' she said, 'they're able to render in color and three dimensional style of representation - animals and natural habitat.'

The idea is new, but not unique.

'We're kind of inventing it here,' Blacksmith said. 'From Young Audiences' - an artist's collective - 'we learned that other classrooms are doing this sort of thing - but it tended to be more elementary school and middle school.

'What I wanted to do was start incorporating scientific illustration into the classes,' he said. 'I thought the kids would be better able to observe if they were taught the skills from the standpoint of an artist - rather than just ask for a cell and get a circle in a circle, I will now get some detail.'

Art and Science

The effort to merge the worlds of the beaker and the beret is part of the North Clackamas School District's innovative Milwaukie Academy of the Arts - a school-within-a-school housed at Milwaukie High School.

'This is a mixed class of 9th and 10th graders,' Blacksmith said. 'We have four of these classes, and I teach biology to these folks. Next year I'll teach other subjects.'

'I've been teaching for 25 years,' Kloss said, 'and I've been with Young Audiences in Oregon and southwest Washington for 16 of those years - in both public and private schools.'

Young Audiences, Klos explained, is 'an organization that represents artists of all media - art, dance, theater, music, all the arts. Schools contact the organization and they see in a book that's published every year what we offer - we offer a variety of workshops, teacher training, private consult for teacher groups, that sort of thing.'

When class starts, the textbooks •don't• come out. Instead, the students turn their attention to the classroom's stars - the animals, ranging from cute to creepy-crawly, who are distributed among the tables in an assortment of cages and terrariums.

'They're using a packet of pencils and charcoal that we started out with - working with line, shape, form, composition and the rendering is much more detailed drawing.

'I do a lot of guided exercises,' Klos explained. 'we do drawing warm-up with every class and then we have a period of time - these are hour-and-a-half classes, which is really a great segment of time for art - they have time every week to do full renderings and detailed drawings.'

Soon, the students are staring intently at Bullwinkle the tarantula, Rocky the scorpion, Rusty the snake and the others. They're learning more than just invertebrate anatomy.

Klos said the students learn skills they can take beyond the classroom.

'The artistic goes into everyday life,' she said. 'How to perceive your natural world. If you perceive it, appreciate it, see the beauty and purpose of it - you're more likely to care for it, on-going, as a life practice.

'It's not so much about making an artist out of a student,' Klos continued, 'but enabling a student to perceive their world through the action of drawing _ and being able to integrate that into another discipline, science.'

'Kids don't want to miss school…'

The integration of art and science goes beyond the goals of the one class - it's a microcosm of the larger picture of what artists and educators are trying to accomplish at the Art Academy.

'Our courses are so separated - everything's compartmentalized,' Klos said. 'This is an integration of the two.'

'It's not just the arts - it's also the other classes,' Blacksmith explained. 'For example, in history, they're talking about the Holocaust, so in my class we're talking about euthanasia.

'We're also looking at art as a means of keeping the kids interested - getting them to come to school every day, getting them to perform on a higher level than they normally would, in other schools - and we're seeing that in our testing.'

'What we're seeing is that the kids don't want to miss school,' Blacksmith said. 'Our attendance is in the very high 90s, and we also see that the kids show up and are very proud of their work.

'It's not an effort for them, they enjoy it,' he said. 'They stay after school on their own - they work on projects. It's really very exciting to see this integration of all the classes.'

Blacksmith said he hopes he's preparing his students for their first year in college - when they're certain to encounter some biology and chemistry.

'This is our second year of working on this,' he said. 'Our intention is that we end up with a charter school here.'

Student Lauren Durkheimer is sold on the idea.

'The first thing we started with basically was getting the full properties of each pencil,' Durkheimer said - learning what how different types of pencil lead deliver different tones and shades, depending on how hard they are.

'Our next thing we did was contour line drawings - we did single lines and then took the different pencils and while using a single line we filled them in… it was really really fun, too.

'After that they gave us a fossil to work with,' she said. 'That was a lot harder than the protozoa - it was really hard to differentiate the different types of light off the fossil. All you had was the pencil, so you had to show the different properties with only grey, black, white and a silverish color - which was really hard!'

From there the students worked their way up to rendering three dimensional forms - with accuracy and precision.

'I'm getting a lot quicker at drawing - I used to be very slow at it, but now I've gotten a lot quicker.

'I'm starting to see more colors,' she added. 'You never realized that - something's not just green, there are yellows and blues and all other colors incorporated.

'It's really interesting,' she added. 'It's made the year a lot more interesting than normal. Normally, Blacksmith's classes are lots of fun anyway - because he's a cool teacher, with lots of interesting stuff he shows us. We're all labs, all hands-on.'