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Seaquest

Christine Baeumler illustrates science's most pressing concerns—literally.
By Linda Shapiro

Professor Christine Baeumler
Christine Baeumler
Photo: Kelly MacWilliams

As an art student, Christine Baeumler didn't think much about the connection between scientific inquiry and artistic expression. “Sitting in a drawing class I could never have predicted that someday I'd be swimming with whales" and documenting their habitats in a variety of media, she says.

But science needs art for its most important messages to have an impact. “We're suffering from a failure of imagination," says Baeumler, an assistant professor of art. “We're in denial about our impact on the environment and how it's going to change because of that. Imagination makes us empathetic. Artists use their imaginations to envision what could be in the world. So perhaps art can create a sense of empathy that will lead to better stewardship."

With that in mind, Baeumler has traveled to World Heritage Sites such as the Australian Rain Forest, the Galapagos Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef, where she swam with 25-foot long dwarf minkie whales, videotaping them at such close range that she was virtually eye to eye with them. Her video installation “Beneath the Coral Sea" documents her attempt to cross the culturally constructed divides between human and animal species.

She hopes that her drawings, paintings, and video portraits of endangered species in their habitats can help convey a sense of the physical and emotional engagement that she has experienced as an artist in these geographically far-flung settings.

Closer to home, Baeumler has been involved in local restoration projects at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul. There, Baeumler worked with volunteers, including the East Side Conservation Corps, Dakota Tribal members, and some of her own students, to restore an area that had become degraded. Cleaning up decades of debris and restoring the area's soil and wetlands has facilitated social healing for the Dakotas, to whom the site has long been sacred.

On campus, Baeumler teaches a cross-disciplinary course called Art and Social Engagement. “The students are working through the question of how beauty plays a role in social change and identity," says Baeumler. With St. Olaf College faculty members Jil Evans and Charles Taliaferrohe, she is also organizing a conference on Charles Darwin to be held in 2009 at St. Olaf. A group of scientists, philosophers, and artists will discuss how Darwin's theory revolutionized the way we look at nature. “The irony of Darwin," Baeumler says, “is that the species he studied are the very ones being endangered by the environment we are creating."