Nature Notes: At Guadalupe Mountains National Park, A Painter Works at the Intersection of Art and Science

A painting of Hot Springs Canyon, in Big Bend National Park, by artist, and scientist, Walt Davis.
A painting of Hot Springs Canyon, in Big Bend National Park, by artist, and scientist, Walt Davis.

At Guadalupe Mountains National Park, A Painter Works at the Intersection of Art and Science

By Andrew Stuart

Guadalupe Mountains National Park launched an artist-in-residence program in 2013. It’s one of more than 50 residencies at national parks and monuments. For artists, the residency is an extended encounter with a compelling, if forbidding, West Texas place. The artists give back, supporting the park’s mission by donating works and leading visitor programs.

Walt Davis was the park’s spring 2019 artist-in-residence. Davis is a painter, but also a scientist, the former exhibits curator at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. His life and career illustrate both the fruitful exchange, and the tension, between the two disciplines.

“I can’t do my science without thinking art,” Davis said, “and can’t do the art without thinking science, and that creates problems.”

Art and science have been twinned throughout Davis’ life. He studied zoology at UT-Austin, and did graduate work in wildlife science at Texas A&M. But as an undergraduate, his academic advisers had to talk him out of changing his major to art.

He found a place where the two things met. In high school, he took a summer job at the Dallas Museum of Natural History, now the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. He went on to have a 25-year career there.

Walt Davis, with pages he'd added to his natural journal during his residency at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Walt Davis, with pages he'd added to his natural journal during his residency at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The center of that career, Davis’ passion, was diorama construction. Scientists and artists collaborated to create 9-by-12-foot murals and scenes of Texas ecosystems. For Davis, West Texas exhibits were a highlight.

In the field and studio, it was painstaking work. Stones and plants were photographed and collected. Objects were cast, molded and painted – down to each individual leaf.

“So I had to make a yucca,” Davis said, “or make a mesquite tree or make a post oak tree, and those were early days when we were still using things like beeswax and paraffin and paper. It was raw materials, but we figured out how to make it work.”

Davis left the museum in 1992. But he’s continued to work at the intersection of art and science. At the park, he shared with visitors an element of that practice: nature journaling.

Journaling – taking notes, measurements and sketches – has long been a vital tool for scientists, Charles Darwin among them. It’s recently gone mainstream – a means for non-scientists to engage with the natural world.

The pages of such a journal can be captivating, but “pretty pictures” aren’t the aim. Rather, in drawing something, we attend to its details in a way we otherwise wouldn’t. That opens “another dimension,” Davis said.

He recalled a recent experience. After giving a talk in the park’s amphitheater, he’d taken out his journal. It was midday, a time of stillness. But as Davis began to sketch – a lone beetle, a leaf – he became engrossed.

“I didn’t want to leave, at the end of two hours,” he said. “If you sit on a bench in an amphitheater for two hours, it can be a boring experience. But I guarantee you there’s a four-hour experience possible there. And nature journaling can open that up for you.”

As careful observers, Davis said, artists make good scientists. The examples are there. Thoreau was a literary artist, but he corresponded with, and corrected, prominent Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz. John Muir said he went to the Sierra Nevada “to worship.” But in the excursions that fueled his creative work, Muir also made pioneering insights into the science of glaciers.

Yet as Davis tries to take his art to a new level, a scientist’s habits can become an obstacle.

In his watercolors, Davis wants to be true to the landscape. But he also wants his paintings to capture an intuitive sense. That leap into the intuitive demands a certain boldness, and courage.

“I get too literal in trying to interpret a landscape artistically,” Davis said. “That is the struggle for me: to release enough of my scientific, detail-oriented, super-accurate way of looking at things, and try to capture some of the magic of the places, and you can’t do that with literal facts. You have to find an artistic way to hit a different meaning, a deeper meaning. It requires – I guess I’m not sure what it requires. It certainly doesn’t require any more thinking than I’m doing.”

For most of our species’ history, survival depended on the close observation of nature. Art and science are expressions of that fundamental tendency. Even in an age of specialization, they haven’t entirely parted ways.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.