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Art brings science to life along the Mohawk River

During the final Mohawk River Watershed Art and Science class meeting, students put the finishing touches on their art projects.

Kailee Tomas ’26 turned on a lighter to melt torn plastic in waves on some collages.

Justin Chen ’24 painted the edges of a canvas black to create an abstract data visualization in orange and yellow representing bird species and their conservation status.

Justin Chen ’24, an environmental and sustainability major, paints the edges of his canvas black. His final project is an abstract data visualization that shows the rarity of bird species, their conservation status by state and seasonality.

Jacob Duffles ’24 glued aqua blue rhinestones to a vinyl-covered corset. A length of pipe filled with creek water sat nearby, and would soon adorn the water-themed garment.

Creating this kind of art was a first for most of these students, mainly environmental and sustainability students.

Cornell affects New York State

Anna Davidson, senior research associate and lecturer in natural resources in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, designed this capstone course to interweave art, science, and culture in the study of the Mohawk River, which flows through central New York and the Greater New York region. capital flows. Combining these usually disparate disciplines allowed students to study a complex natural system in depth, she said. They looked at the region from different perspectives and used multiple methods and tools, from cartography to hydrophones.

“Using multiple learning strategies encourages students to work both within and outside their areas of expertise and comfort, often exploring untapped talent and creativity,” she said. “This inherently connects the students to the watershed. People become deeply personal with their work, and I think this creates a strong sense of place, which can help lead to sustainable environmental management.”

Throughout the semester, the class learned about the Mohawk River basin from numerous perspectives. First they covered ecological art and studied artists who have created art with rivers as a subject or medium. They then covered the science of the river, including hydrology, geology, toxicology and stream restoration in the region, before moving on to Indigenous knowledge of the watershed.

They traveled to the Mohawk River several times to experience the area and learn from the people who live there.

Olivia Fisher ’25 created a functional sculpture for her final project. A filter made from an upturned broken pot that was recovered on a rope during an excursion. She can strain contaminated water samples to provide clean water to a Seneca Red Stalker corn seed – a variety grown by the Haudenosaunee – planted in a pot below.

“I learned that by combining a scientific understanding and a historical understanding of a particular place, you can better create art about it, and vice versa,” she said. “Making art about a place cultivates a sense of intimacy with the place, making it easier to do science and understand the ecology of the place.”

Chris Rivera ’24, an environmental and sustainability major, created a mosaic telling the Haudenosaunee creation story for his final project.

The class also created large, community-oriented art projects, fueled by messages about the watershed and climate change they collected from indigenous residents, scientists from the Mohawk River Watershed Symposium, high school students from the Mohawk River Watershed Youth Climate Summit, and from New York Mills. Oneida County High School.

They created a canoe-shaped collage of reports that Davidson will paddle down the Mohawk River to Albany this summer for display in the nation’s capital. The idea of ​​“The Mohawk River Canoe Project” is to deliver the messages directly to legislators by placing them where they need to pass on their way to get coffee.

Jacob Duffles ’24, an environmental and sustainability major, sews a skirt to complement his water-themed corset.

Master’s student Anna Mehlhorn, assistant to the class, also takes up these messages and creates a large collage with eleven panels of 60 cm plexiglass, cut in the shape of the river. The space between the panels creates 10 divisions representing the locks built in the Mohawk River as part of the Erie Canal. The locks permanently changed the river’s hydrology, Mehlhorn said, leading the group to name the piece “The Broken River Project.”

The messages represent the high school students’ concerns and memories of living near the river. “The river plays an important role in their lives,” says Mehlhorn. “But of course there are so many environmental problems. Students notice the pollution and the lack of fish and the fact that the water is constantly brown because there is so much sediment.”

The students’ individual and community projects will be on display this summer at the Schoharie River Center in Esperance, Montgomery County, New York. “The Broken River Project” and “The Mohawk River Canoe Project” will be exhibited at The Concourse at Empire State Plaza in Albany in late summer and at the Mann Library from November to January.

Davidson will plan this summer for a similar class focused on art and water next year.

She received funding from the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and from the New York State Water Resources Institute to support this class.