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Washington State University
CAS Connect September 2016

Art adds dimensions to array of subjects

Mathematics in a flower mandala. • History in a tapestry. • Language in a woodblock print. • Chemistry in a photograph. • Physics in a sculpture. • Biology in a still life.

Almost any subject can be taught—with added dimension and meaning—by incorporating art.

Across the college, faculty in the sciences to the humanities are finding creative ways to strengthen and enrich their curricula by integrating art into their classroom instruction. Whether demonstrating scientific or mathematical principles or examining psychological experience and cultural evolution, art can be used to illustrate a range of ideas and give shape and form to abstract concepts.

“Art intersects virtually all disciplines,” said Chris Watts, professor emeritus of fine arts. Exploring these connections stimulates imagination and critical thinking—benefiting both students and their teachers, he said.

3 works of art by Chris Watts
Chris Watts’s images use numbers to explore location and sequential relationships often based on spiral, diagonal, and horizontal forms. They invite viewers to identify patterns and discover how they’re designed.

Ample art available on campus

Outdoor sculptures, gallery exhibits, and work displayed in hallways and offices are among the wide variety of visual objects readily available to WSU faculty and students for instruction and inspiration. And the Museum of Art/WSU is a key source of innovative ideas and multimedia support for teaching with art.

Museum staff collaborate with faculty to develop hands-on and interactive learning opportunities. They can assist in selecting artwork and background materials and provide special access to objects in the museum’s diverse permanent collection.

“Art delivers an active and visual interpretation on the effects of war, religion, science, politics, history, and human behavior,” said Zach Mazur, museum curator of Education & Collections. “By engaging multiple senses, it can transcend textual language and appeal to broader audiences.”

Mazur is working toward his doctorate in education and teaches a museum procedures course through the fine arts department, drawing students from a wide range of majors.

“As a resource for the entire University, the museum collaborates with other areas to raise student’s observational awareness and empower them to become socially conscious and self-sufficient learners,” he said.

Enabling experiential learning

Last fall, the art museum collaborated with faculty from the departments of English and Fine Arts in two related experiential learning projects based on an exhibition of work by internationally acclaimed artist Jim Dine.

English students recited their poetry inspired by visual art.
English students presented their original poetry inspired by visual art.

English professors Debbie Lee and Kim Burwick guided their students in exploring the intersections between art and the written word evident in Dine’s work. The students drew inspiration from the artist’s literature-rich images, installations, and performances to develop their own poetry and creative expression, which they presented at a public program in the museum’s main gallery.

At the same time, students, faculty, and staff from across WSU took part in a workshop focused on Dine’s printmaking techniques and prominent themes in his work. Led by Kevin Haas, professor of fine arts, workshop participants toured the exhibit with museum curators and gained hands-on experience in designing and making their own prints.

Inspiring curiosity and wonder

During his 27 years in teaching and administration at WSU, Watts collaborated with faculty and students in several areas to view art through the lens of their particular disciplines. Themes in anthropology and textiles, for example, resonate through geometric shapes in Native American designs.

Long intrigued by the process of composing music, Watts also teamed with a well-known composer to translate his visual work into sound. His research with composer Michael Udow led to the publication of a book of exercises for percussionists.

“Connecting to another discipline and back is still a strong interest of mine,” Watts said. “The relationship of art to science continues to be a rich resource for creative work.”

Teaching with art:

  • Promotes visual thinking strategies
  • Engenders curiosity and creativity
  • Complements and extends content in many subject areas
  • Supports different learning styles
  • Promotes visual literacy and critical thinking
  • Accommodates and inspires individual and group activities.

New exhibit offers many instructive opportunities

This month the Museum of Art/WSU in Pullman is hosting a 40-year retrospective of Chris Watts’s work—more than 50 paintings, drawings, and sculptural works that offer instructive opportunities extending well beyond the subject of art.

Chris Watts discusses one of his 3-dimensional works.
Chris Watts discusses one of his 3-dimensional works displayed at the Museum of Art/WSU.

Suffused with references to mathematics and geometry, Watts’s work connects on multiple levels with many other disciplines, including anthropology, geology, music, philosophy, biology, chemistry, architecture, textiles, and computer programming.

Reflecting his long-term inquiry into systems of order, patterning, and, to a certain degree, spiritual and esoteric ideas, he uses numbers in his images and three-dimensional forms to explore location and proportional relationships, invoking deeper levels of order found in nature. He cites influences as diverse as Bronze Age monuments, spirals and mazes, Pythagoras, crystalline and cellular structures, the double-helix of DNA, bell ringing, Theosophy, and the geometric tradition in art.

In recent years, Watts’s art has taken two directions, which, under close examination, reveal similar underlying structures. One direction he describes as resembling “linear geometric spider webs”; the other as “brightly colored tile-like systems.”

Retired from WSU just last year, he continues to bring to his work an educator’s passion for inspiring curiosity and wonder.

“I am very interested in stimulating those deeper contemplative moments where the viewer’s thoughts drift inward—perhaps into their own interpretation as to the place that patterns, of all types, including those in nature, have in our experience,” he said.

The Faculty Focus Exhibition of Watts’s work runs through Sept. 17. It is funded by the Members of the Museum of Art and the Samuel H. and Patricia W. Smith Arts Endowment.

Find out more about the artist and his work by visiting his website.