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  • Art can be a powerful tool for environmental connection. In this story, we meet artist Gabby O’Connor who is applying a creative lens to science communication and education.

    This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, exploring New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.

    Rights: Gabby O’Connor, photo by Mark Tantrum

    Gabby O’Connor

    Artist Gabby O’Connor with one of her Antarctica-inspired artworks.

    Art from the ice

    David Attenborough is quoted as saying “no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. However, there’s no way we can all visit everywhere on Earth or learn everything through first-hand experience.

    Only a few people will ever get the opportunity to experience Antarctica for themselves, and artist and PhD candidate Gabby O’Connor is one of the lucky ones. While her passion at high school was maths, she also loved science, art and design and ended up at art school in her hometown of Melbourne. While she was at art school, she went on her first ever trip overseas, her flight passing over the Arctic.

    “It was the middle of winter, no cloud cover, and I could see all the ice below lit by moonlight. That image really stuck with me, informed my making and really just shifted my thinking, this aerial at-a-distance perspective of Earth. I was very focused, I suppose I still am, on water in all its forms.”

    Since then, water and ice have been central themes of her art practice. In 2015 and 2016 she spent time in Antarctica as an artist aligned with an oceanographic research team. Influenced by the Antarctic ice in its forms and colours, she created a series of iceberg-influenced artworks that showed in New Zealand and internationally.

    Rights: WavyGeek, CC BY-SA 4.0

    Artist Gabby O’Connor in Antarctica

    Gabby working in a field container on the sea ice of Antarctica.

    Working with oceanographer Craig Stevens, she began exploring ways to bring this passion to others.

    “I designed a workshop where myself and a scientist attended. We talked a little bit, and then there was a collaborative activity that the kids did, recycling the iceberg work. And that’s all about geometry and math and history. We realised at this point how much more effective it was than we conceived and what it was doing in terms of capturing kids in schools who often miss out on science connections, miss out on sharing their own knowledge.”

    Using art to connect communities with climate change

    Now, Gabby’s working on her PhD on communicating climate change to communities through an art/science connection with Auckland University, supported by the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge. Her desk at NIWA’s Wellington base is easy to spot. Most of the desks in her shared office have papers neatly stacked beside the computer monitors, a couple of pieces of tech holding them down. Gabby’s desk is a riot of colour – coloured lengths of rope and paper fight for space with books on art, philosophy and Antarctica.

    Rights: Gabby O’Connor, photo by Hamish McCormick

    Exploring Antarctica in the classroom

    Gabby O’Connor teaching about Antarctica. The learning is followed by an activity where students create their own artworks in response.

    She describes her research as a mix between creative practice, social science and marine science. In her research, she works in tandem with a scientist, going into schools to explore ideas around climate change, sometimes focused on Antarctica, sometimes on local waterways.

    “By going to a school with a scientist, you’re covering a really broad range of curricula. It’s an exposure. You’re not able to teach them everything about anything, but you’re exposing them and giving them a taster that hopefully feeds or creates receptiveness to more information as they go on.”

    Rights: Gabby O’Connor, photo by Braden Fastier

    Gabby O’Connor with artworks created by students

    Gabby O’Connor with artworks created by students as part of her ongoing Sustainable Seas education programme.

    Together, they lead an enquiry-based learning and question session before the students take part in a collaborative art-making activity.

    “Essentially, my project is around climate change and how things are changing, but we don’t use that terminology in the workshops. We demonstrate how things are changing, what happens when they change, how they change, cause and effect. We wanted to create science literacy and receptiveness, you know, some science positive kind of citizens as well. They’re not able to necessarily recite a list back at you of what you’ve taught them, but they’ve tried to make connections and make sense through their own understanding of the world.”

    The Unseen – art and science

    Find out more about the Sustainable Seas challenge arts-science-education project that Gabby O’Connor worked on.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Gabby is compelling in her conviction that art and science combined offer a deeper way for people to connect with the world around them.

    “Both art and science are about looking, slowing down our looking and thinking to see more detail. Drawing is one way of doing that, helping to ground and focus thinking. Often, you know, art can be a really good way of introducing new ideas and subjects.”

    Related content

    Watch this video featuring Jane Mullaney who believes that science is “just as artistic as being able to paint, sing or play an instrument”.

    The articles Indigenous perspectives – giants of the forests and The Majestic Samaúma – art meets science explore the value of art and indigenous connections with trees in Aotearoa and in the Amazonian rainforest.

    We have lots of resources on Antarctica. Start with our handy introductory article, and for more, see the variety of content under the Antarctica topic.

    Climate change is one of the world’s big issues. Climate change resources – planning pathways suggests ways in which climate change can be broken down into smaller, more manageable themes or investigations. Browse through the wide range of resources under the climate change topic for more.

    See the range of content that we have developed using resources from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge in this handy collection. Learn how to create, use and share collections here.

    Find out more about why it is important to teach the Nature of science ‘Communicating in science’ strand of the New Zealand curriculum.

    The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

    Use our Pinterest board Visual arts and science for further inspiration on ways to include both art and science in your teaching.

    Activity ideas

    Wanting to combine art and science in your class? How about trying the Fresco painting chemistry activity.

    The activity Exploring Lapita pottery through observation and art is a cross-curricular activity that uses Lapita pottery as the context for enhancing scientific observation by recreating designs on paper or in clay.

    Useful links

    Use these Pinterest boards for more profiles of people working in science.

    Touch the World uses Art-ivism to explore social and environmental sustainability through the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Schools section showcases a pilot project with Te Uku School.

    See How Can Art Assist Climate Science in Antarctica? by Gabby and Natalie Robinson and Craig Stevens on the Frontiers for Yound Minds website.

    Follow Gabby on Instagram.


    This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.

      Published 7 February 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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