Intersections of science, art and faith.
So much of mankind’s history is defined by the scientific discoveries, artistic creations and sacred traditions of faith that have nurtured the human mind, body and soul. Science, art and faith have each painted their colors on the Wasatch Front’s unique canvas, and those colors have bled together in vibrant ways to produce bold innovation, deep communion and unrestrained wonder.
Standing at these points of intersection are several local residents who are invigorated in their work because of it. Their efforts to merge philosophies stimulates and challenges Utah’s unique culture.
Science + art = innovation
“Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
A recent study reported that the most accomplished scientists are likely to also have artistic interests and hobbies. Scientists who have won a Nobel Prize, for instance, are almost three times more likely than average scientists and the general public to have artistic inclinations.
Among the distinguished handful of Nobel Prize-winning scientists is Mario Capecchi, who has been a professor of biology at the University of Utah since 1973. You could say that Capecchi’s artistic hobby is The Leonardo museum downtown on Library Square, for which he serves as an advisor to the Board of Directors.
The mission of The Leonardo museum is to “fuse science, technology and art in experiences that inspire creativity and innovation.” Its goal is to embody the spirit of its namesake so that spirit can permeate through the population, and make Salt Lake a Renaissance City.
The Leonardo has been open since 2011, but the ideas behind it had been simmering in the community for about a decade prior to that. Jann Haworth, who now serves as the Creative Director for The Leonardo, was one of the people involved in that process. She reflected on how it found its place in the valley.
“The idea grew that this would be a new kind of museum seeking to blend the arts with the sciences, questioning their usual silos in our thinking and education,” she recalls. “We didn’t have anything like it! We were growing and the creative energy here was on the rise. It was time.”
In contrast to traditional museums that can be two-dimensional and hands-off, everything about The Leonardo is three-dimensional and interactive. Jann says this approach has sparked a trend that is spreading to other museums, offering the public a counterpoint to the virtual world that too often consumes us.
Jann notes that The Leonardo is a work in progress that adapts to the community. This organic process guides so many of its exhibits, and mirrors the experience that is intended for the curious patrons who visit. “The arc of development calls upon the participants to respond, change, enhance, question – all the things we ask of ourselves and our visitors. At best, it is a partnership with our community; at worst, a way of finding out that mistakes can inform and create new thinking and new paths.”
Response, change, enhancement and questioning are embodied by artist/architect Philip Beesley’s “Hylozoic Veil” exhibit permanently on display at The Leonardo. The arrangement of 500,000 small skeleton-like pieces are suspended together to construe a large piece of living architecture that spans three floors, and is engineered with sensors to move in response to subtle changes in the museum environment, such as the proximity of a human observer. The piece is aptly named in reference to hylozoism, the ancient philosophy that life is an inherent characteristic of all matter in the universe.
The Leonardo’s Innovation Showcase highlights local Leonardo-like innovators like Mario Capecchi and their creations. There is also a whole floor devoted to the science and history of aviation and flight, and the Woman/Women exhibit, recognizing women who have been a catalyst for change in the arts and sciences. The exhibit includes a large collaborative mural of 150 women—the brainchild of Jann Haworth, who is herself a well-known and influential pioneer of the pop art movement.
Art + faith = communion
“If beautiful art does not express moral ideas, ideas which unite people, then it is not art, but only entertainment.”
— Immanuel Kant
Ralphael Plescia is the owner of a small property sandwiched between a series of older, nondescript buildings that line State Street on the block of 13th south in Salt Lake City. But Ralphael’s property is anything but nondescript.
On the exterior, a relief of religious imagery and symbols emerges from a brick and cement background on which the title “CHRIStIAN SCHOOL” is painted in letters large enough to be read from the other side of State Street.
Near the door is a hand-painted sign that lets the curious know they are welcome to visit on Fridays and Sundays between 11 am and 4 pm to learn more. No further advertisement exists elsewhere, and there is no fee. Just knock.
Those who enter the Christian School will take part in an ineffable work in progress that resembles a studio more than a chapel or classroom. Three floors are imbedded with sculptures, carvings, drawings and paintings devoted to themes that are apparently religious, and some themes that perhaps aren’t so apparently religious. Scattered among the interior décor of artwork are books, chairs, a 1931 Cadillac and other forms of miscellany.
Ralphael’s Christian School is a product of passion that has occupied his sundry talents since the late 1980s, when he first began to explore art as a means of illustrating how scientific and religious principles are compatible. Ralphael is a student of texts and philosophies from many faiths who feels that the less obvious and most important interpretations are more adequately articulated with a paintbrush than a pen. “I show what is ignored,” he will tell you.
The Christian School is probably not like anything that you’ve ever seen – unless, perhaps, you’ve been to Gilgal Sculpture Garden over on 5th South. The creator of Gilgal Sculpture Garden, Thomas Child, asked the question, “Can I create a sanctuary or atmosphere in my yard that will shut out the fear and keep one’s mind young and alert to the last, no matter how perilous the times?”
He spent the last 18 years of his life carving his response to that question in stone before he passed away in 1963. The result was Gilgal, a set of imaginative sculptures that pay homage to sacred texts according to Child’s personal and sometimes mysterious interpreta- tions of them.
Ralphael knows Gilgal Sculpture Garden well. In fact, in his youth, he knew its creator, too. “Child was my Bishop,” Ralphael explained. “I went to the 10th ward.”
As a boy of junior high age, Ralphael often played football with friends near Bishop Child’s home and eventually became aware of the sculptures that Child was making in his yard.
“I’d walk over to see if he was working on it,” Ralphael recalls. “I’d stand there and watch him. I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know what any of that stuff stood for, I didn’t understand it. I watched him, but I didn’t think I’d be doing anything like this.”
Like Thomas Child, Ralphael is given to using art to express what cannot be adequately stated with words about life’s most spiritual questions. Religious people are common, but rarely do you meet ones like Ralphael Plescia and Thomas Child who are so deliberate in their pursuit for understanding. For them, creation is communion.
Faith + science = wonder
“Philosophy is written in the grand book of the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze.”
— Galileo Galilei
When 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded a crowded ship bound for the Galapagos islands in 1831, his limited luggage included two books. One was Principles of Geology, by his mentor Charles Lyell. The other was his personal copy of the King James Bible.
By the end of Darwin’s life, he was less fond of religion, which in turn became less fond of his theories. Partly because of this, perhaps no philosophical divorce has been as bitter as modern religion and science.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding between the two groups,” observes Steven Peck, an evolutionary biologist and Associate Professor of Biology at Brigham Young University.
“I don’t think people of faith need to be afraid of science, I think it’s the best way to understand the universe that we have,” Steven explains. He adds, “On the other side, I think people of science need to have humility about the questions science can and can’t answer. Science doesn’t handle questions about value and meaning at all, and religion is very strong on that.”
Steven has elaborated extensively on the intersection of faith and science in his books titled Science: The Key to Theology and Evolving Faith as well as in his posts on the popular LDS blog By Common Consent. He is a prolific author, and writes novels and poetry, too.
Steven became interested in science and evolution while growing up in Moab, Utah – a city built on sandstone and dinosaur bones. “We had these books in our house on the
early man and dinosaurs, I always loved that kind of thing when
I was a kid,” he remembers.
However, the paths of theology and theory did not begin to converge for him until his studies in college at BYU. “There was a teacher named Duane Jeffery who sort of introduced evolution to BYU. He came in the late ’60s and started the evolution classes. He was a big influence on me. He modeled the idea that you could be an evolutionary biologist and a person of faith as well.”
Since that time, Steven believes there has been growing local acceptance of scientific ideas such as evolution that have previously challenged religious thinking. “There’s a big difference between when I was an undergraduate here and when I came here as a faculty member, and I think, in my experience, it continues to grow,” he observed. “Students that are arriving are much better grounded in science, and not as afraid of it.”
As scientific explanations related to man’s origin become increasingly fundamental in our understanding, and religious thinking evolves in response to new discoveries, science and faith can begin to converge rather than conflict.
For the scientific, it may require acknowledgement that the purposes of faith often lie outside the bounds of the material world, and people of faith are varied and complex in their personal beliefs rather than simple caricatures of religious fundamentalism.
For the religious, this may require understanding scriptures to be an ancient account of man’s spiritual relationship with deity, rather than historical documents to be interpreted literally without regard to physical evidence.
For both, Steven Peck hopes that mutual understanding will expand one’s capacity to appreciate the wonder of a human consciousness that exists in a universe that is constantly expanding, and at the same time unfathomably small.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
— William Blake, Augaries of Innocence
Robert Lawrence is a former research scientist who now writes about science. He is also a person of faith who enjoys taking the occasional pottery class. You can find more of his work at www.robertlawrencephd.com