Experiencing the Dawn of Art

by Jailson Lima (Chemistry Department) & Owen Wood (Communications: Media, Studio Arts)

Vanier College, Montreal, QC, Canada

One of the main hurdles experienced by science teachers who are interested in exploring STEAM is the lack of opportunities for dialoguing and collaborating with art teachers. My own process of creation is triggered by being exposed to innovative approaches as well as being able to daydream while brainstorming novel and, sometimes, conflicting ideas. It took me several years to establish partnerships with experts in the visual arts, but these collaborations have been crucial. For example, consider the Mars sci-fi creative assignment that was described in the previous post: I was only able to design the art lab using iron-oxide egg tempera because of the invaluable contribution of Prof. Janis Timm-Bottos’s research group in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Concordia University.

More recently, I started a fruitful collaboration with Prof. Owen Wood, who teaches the art course in the Liberal Arts program at Vanier College. Owen and I have been constantly brainstorming and daydreaming about ways to engage students’ emotions with scientific concepts through artistic expression. Last year, we stumbled on an article that immediately caught our attention. In this article, Prof. Adelphine Bonneau, who teaches both chemistry and history at the University of Sherbrooke, describes an activity in which students create cave paintings on the concrete tunnel walls between university buildings.

I felt an immediate connection with her proposed learning approach. Like the planet Mars, pre-historic cave art has sparked my imagination since I first learned about them, to the point that pre-historic art also became an integral part of my learning ecology. I had the opportunity to visit the Altamira National Museum in Cantabria, Spain, where the iconic red bulls are displayed. While reading the article about Prof. Bonneau’s project, I immediately made the connection: the shade of the red bulls that I saw in Altamira was identical to the iron-oxide red color that I used in the Mars art lab! I felt like a student making a groundbreaking, earthshaking connection.

Inspired by Bonneau’s article, Owen and I envisioned a new project for the Liberal Arts’ History of Science course in which students would use egg-tempera red paint and charcoal to simulate those prehistoric cave paintings. Besides exploring the roles of creativity and imagination in the learning process, the activity has multiple purposes:

  1. to allow students to analyze the properties of the materials that are used to make art from a chemical perspective,
  2. to contextualize the development of art techniques that were used in ancient times, and
  3. to experience both the process of self-expression and the creation of meaning using art.

To test the viability of this project, we conducted a trial version using wood panels.

The excellent results obtained in this trial gave us confidence to propose a more ambitious,  larger scale project to the administration: to paint some walls in the college.

The art in the Cave of Altamira was discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist who owned the land where the cave was found. Like many scientific breakthroughs throughout history, this pivotal 19th-century discovery was initially received by the established scientific community with a mix of skepticism, discredit, and ridicule. They adamantly rejected Sautuola’s theories and even accused him of forgery due to the lack of soot on both the walls and ceilings of the cave. Only decades later, after Sautuola’s death, were his findings corroborated by extensive scientific evidence as well as the discovery of other caves with similar artwork. For those interested in the subject, I recommend watching the movie Finding Altamira (2016), which tells the story of Sautuola’s discovery of the cave paintings and the relentless, implacable criticism that he received.

The outstanding Paleolithic artworks in Altamira show elaborate artistry and a high degree of planning. For example, by painting the shoulders of the bulls over rock’s protrusion, viewers experience a three-dimensional effect that would not be seen on a flat surface. In the late 19th century, the scientific community was entrenched with the conviction that Homo Sapiens from the Paleolithic did not possess the cognitive development required to create such sophisticated form of artistic expression, which partially explains their intransigent denial. It is noteworthy that in recent years, new evidence has made archeologists start speculating on whether some cave paintings were made by Neanderthals. This offers an excellent opportunity to show students that scientific knowledge is constantly evolving, and it is subject to change, which challenges their common misconception that scientific knowledge is fixed and universal.

The cave painting project illustrates the importance of artistic expression as a quintessential human trait from a historic perspective. Owen and I were amazed by the level of engagement and the interest of the students throughout the process. With slight adjustments, this project could be adapted to different disciplines or topics such as pre-history, history of art, archeology, anthropology, sociology, paleontology, neuroscience, evolution, and technology involving chemical substances. The level of discussion and reflection can also be adapted to either a college or high-school curriculum. This active-learning activity invites students to experience the dawn of art as a gateway to multiple opportunities for reflection and debate such as the role of art in human cognitive development, the need for self-expression, the creation of symbolic representations, and the role of myths in society.

Images: Cave painting in wood panels and in the walls of the college (photos by Owen Wood)



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