Taubman, Student Club Join Forces to Help Graduate Students Communicate Their Work Through Canvas and Acrylic Paint

This photo shows two dozen people standing in a room with a human-sized snowman figure in their midst. All are facing the camera and smiling.
Virginia Tech graduate students pose with the Taubman Museum of Art’s holiday mascot. Photo courtesy of Frankie Edwards.

The Taubman Museum of Art, in partnership with the Communicating Science Club at Virginia Tech, hosted the kickoff event for a new project called Science on Canvas, providing graduate students with activities to practice communication techniques and be creative. Frankie Edwards, Communicating Science club co-president, organized and attended the event and provided this report.

My thoughts quickly raced as I looked at the blank white sheet of paper in front of me. My goal was to draw a painting that I was facing away from and that I’d never seen before, as I listened to my partner describe the details of the piece of art.

“There are two hourglass-shaped jars with lids that look like little bells, and one is slightly hidden behind the other,” she said.  I frantically sketched that out. I did my best to focus on my partner’s words and hers alone; others around us were also explaining other works of art.

On December 3rd, I was one of 24 graduate students participating in Science on Canvas, an art event at the Taubman Museum of Art. In this draw-a-painting activity, we practiced communicating and tried out different styles of art communication (e.g., describing the shapes of objects, shading, distance between objects, or a combination of all). This activity parallels the challenges graduate students experience when communicating their science to people who do not see the research daily or as closely as the researcher themselves.

The Taubman Museum of Art sits in the corner of downtown Roanoke and provides solitude to those who seek creative inspiration. Its unique architecture makes it a staple of the culture in this mountain city. As a Virginia Tech graduate student who lives in Roanoke and works on the Health Sciences & Technology campus, I often visit the museum to see new exhibits. Since living in Roanoke, I have desired to host an event at the Taubman because the space creates unique feelings of inspiration for me, and I wanted to share that experience with other graduate students.

As a fourth year Ph.D. candidate, I have several ongoing projects, manuscripts-in-progress, and grant deadlines; however, my schedule did not deter me from helping take the reins as co-president of the Communicating Science Club at Virginia Tech earlier this year. As a co-president based in Roanoke, I felt that it was important to host events here and expand the reaches of science communication. Thus, the idea of Science on Canvas was born.

This photo shows the backs of a group of people listening to a talk by a woman. All are standing in a gallery with paintings of various sizes hanging on the walls.
Taubman Museum of Art staff member King-Singh shares her knowledge on different techniques to describe art with Virginia Tech graduate students. Photo courtesy of Frankie Edwards.

Science on Canvas was an idea that formed in my thoughts while thinking about how Virginia Tech graduate students could communicate their science through a different medium. Immediately, I knew canvas and acrylic paint were the appropriate tools for this artful endeavor. I am by no means an artist, but I enjoy drawing and the process behind painting. Much like graduate students carefully design experiments to test hypotheses, art requires thoughtful consideration of the shapes, shading, and color palette. Thankfully, other graduate students, 24 to be exact, were interested in participating in what I hope will be an annual event.

In many ways, Science on Canvas was inspired by my uncle, Timmy B. Huff, who was an artist. His artwork hung on the walls of my childhood home and provided me with visuals and artistic expressions of the bucolic landscapes of southwest Virginia. I cherished seeing his artwork around the house and would often spend hours looking at all the artwork that filled our home; it was like a museum in many ways, with my parents as curators.

The Taubman staff, including Cindy Peterson, Katrina King-Singh, and Laura Moats, were incredibly helpful in launching Science on Canvas. I’m thankful for their time, energy, and help towards creating activities for graduate students to learn about communication and art techniques. The activities included a collaborative collage, communication through observation and drawing, and a short presentation on doodling and calligraphy.

During the collaborative collage activity, graduate students were given one minute to draw, color, or glue scrap pieces of paper to a white sheet of paper. Once the one-minute mark was reached, the piece of paper was given to the person to their left. There were at least 5 rounds of this cycle. This resulted in a collaborative collage. The purpose of this activity was to generate rapid creativity, a challenge because as graduate students we are used to technical and detailed approaches. But this event provided the opportunity to let that go for a moment. For me, the lessons learned from this activity translate to collaborative projects such as writing manuscripts. There is a common goal, but each author has a different and unique perspective to communicating the science.

The final activity of the night included a presentation on doodling and calligraphy. The message communicated by King-Singh was to fill the spaces of our notebooks with doodles and to draw out our notes when we have a hard time finding the words to describe it. This is a simple yet fun way to incorporate more creativity in our laboratory notebooks, journals, and the various places we might take notes or write about our research.

Overall, the kickoff event for Science on Canvas was a great success! With financial support from the Virginia Tech Graduate Student Budget Board and the Student Outreach Program at Virginia Tech Carilion, the event provided 24 graduate students with an 11” x 14” canvas and acrylic paint set (brushes, various paints, palette, and sketch pad). Graduate students will have until the start of the 2022 spring semester to work on their canvases. Once the spring semester starts, the artwork will be put on display in the Taubman Museum of Art’s atrium for a maximum of two weekends. Public visitors will have the opportunity to learn about graduate students’ research through a unique medium. Afterwards, graduate student artwork will be placed in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s atrium for the remainder of the semester.

Additional photos and a short video can be found in a VTX news story about the event.

By Frankie Edwards, co-president of Virginia Tech’s Communicating Science Club

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