An Odyssey in Science and Art

Artwork ©2001 Alan Campbell Studios COSTA RICA BEAUTY: Campbell's work includes images like this Costa Rican banana tree. Alan Campbell's studio in a second-story loft overlooking downtown Athens, Ga., has the unmistakable stamp of a painter. Daylight streams through large windows; brushes, paints, and tools sit in assorted cans and mugs; canvasses and prints stand on easels, lean against walls, and lie flat on tables. The University of Georgia's (UGA) north campus quad, home to th

Barry Palevitz
Nov 10, 2002
Artwork ©2001 Alan Campbell Studios
 COSTA RICA BEAUTY: Campbell's work includes images like this Costa Rican banana tree.

Alan Campbell's studio in a second-story loft overlooking downtown Athens, Ga., has the unmistakable stamp of a painter. Daylight streams through large windows; brushes, paints, and tools sit in assorted cans and mugs; canvasses and prints stand on easels, lean against walls, and lie flat on tables.

The University of Georgia's (UGA) north campus quad, home to the humanities and arts, is just across Broad Street, but a quick perusal of Campbell's work shows he would probably be just as comfortable amidst the bioscience departments on south campus. Adélie penguins, relaxing on Antarctic ice, look longingly toward a deep cobalt sea; palmettos and marsh grass dot a barrier island landscape; pastel toucans perch on a Costa Rican tree.

Campbell captures nature in paint, and he loves rubbing shoulders with scientists as he tries to understand what makes nature tick. He's so good at his painting that the National Science Foundation and the Organization for Tropical Studies asked him to record his impressions at sponsored research sites.

Having grown up on a dairy farm in rural Watkinsville, Ga., a stone's throw from Athens, Campbell's love of nature came easily. He also gravitated to art at an early age. Even in kindergarten, says Campbell, "I was the kid who could draw." A fourth-grade teacher was so impressed, she filched one of his drawings, only to return it years later as a wedding gift. Campbell did his first oil at age 11, and eventually merged his art with writing under the influence of "two incredible English teachers" in high school. Now, "my sketchbooks are also my journals," he says.

A stint in scouting fueled Campbell's bond with nature, while visits to the annual school science fair at the university introduced him to research. "I enjoyed physics and geometry," he says, but "didn't fall in love with biology until I got to UGA. I had terrific teachers there."

The science bond got a lot stronger between his freshman and sophomore years, when Campbell spent a summer on Sapelo Island, one of a series of barrier islands that hug the Georgia coast. While there at the Marine Institute, he collected bioluminescent mud worms for a University of Georgia scientist. "That was pretty pivotal," says Campbell in hindsight. "I couldn't work at high tide, so I painted on the side the whole summer." And what was there to paint but nature. Campbell actually majored in art at the university, but "essentially minored in biology--I took a lot of courses."

Artwork ©2001 Alan Campbell Studios
 ICEBIRDS: Alan Campbell painted this work while at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

MORE TO LIFE Looking back, Campbell says he also loved going to natural history museums. "One of my heroes, sculptor Henry Moore, said his greatest teacher was the British Museum." Campbell thinks there's a lot of nature in Moore's work, and to make his point he reaches for a collection of sea-worn rocks that resemble miniature Moore sculptures. "The dry valleys in Antarctica look just like Moore sculptures, too," he adds.

Still, Campbell admits to other influences besides nature. Commissioned by a local bank early in his career, he painted cityscapes in Moultrie, a city in southern Georgia. "It's amazing how things influence you and you don't know it," he says, recalling block-like white buildings resembling the icebergs he rendered years later.

Campbell stayed in Athens for graduate work under the direction of famed painter Lamar Dodd, who encouraged him to focus on color and light. "Monet's use of color was based on work of the French chemist, Michel Chevreul," enthuses Campbell, pulling out a copy of the scientist's classic book, Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their Applications to Arts. While pursuing his master of fine arts (MFA) degree, Campbell took a course in creativity. "We read the journals of artists, writers, and scientists," he recalls. "I realized science is inherently creative."

At the time, Dodd was working for NASA, which engaged painters and photographers to help document the space program. That impressed Campbell: "What Dodd was doing was incredibly exciting. I thought I'd love to do something like it." The seed was planted.

GERMINATION After three years teaching and painting in southern Georgia following his MFA, Campbell returned to Athens. He soon found himself at a gathering of artists and writers on Ossabaw Island, another of Georgia's coastal pearls, where he showed slides of his work--"cattle auctions and foundries," he reminisces. "I kept apologizing for not being in New York yet," Campbell admits. After all, that's where every budding artist was supposed to be, wasn't it? But a wealthy Michigan patron who owned the island challenged him: "Why do you want to be in New York? Stay here and develop a vision!"

Photo: ©2001 Alan Campbell Studios
 ARTIST AND FRIENDS: Alan Campbell sits among penguins in Antarctica.

Campbell followed her advice, returning to the island to paint. In 1983 he joined the university's Sea Grant program, which hired an artist each year to raise public awareness of coastal issues. "I did paintings of marine research 100 miles offshore," he says. The experience "also made me aware of all the ways I've bumped up against science."

Campbell yearned for new ways to explore his interest in color and light. He'd seen pictures of icebergs in National Geographic magazine "and was blown away by the surreal imagery of an ice landscape bathed in eerie red light." When Sea Grant's director visited campus, he suggested Campbell contact Guy Guthridge, who manages the Office of Polar Programs at NSF. "Guy Guthridge is a visionary," affirms Campbell. "He convinced NSF to send artists to Antarctica." Picked to go to McMurdo Station in 1987, Campbell used the base to visit various research sites. The artist was so impressed he returned to the icy continent two more times, in 1989 and 1994. "I hope to go back again," he says.

Guthridge is pleased with Campbell's contribution. "His work is memorable because of his use of light. Light is an unusual aspect of the Antarctic because it's so low. Alan used it to good effect." The Antarctic paintings enriched Campbell's portfolio immensely--a catalog from a traveling exhibit is still available. The publicity also impressed Guthridge: "We're really pleased when the work we support gets out there," he says.

CAREER HEATS UP Not long after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Campbell "started thinking about adding a new dimension to my science/art interface. I began thinking about the tropics," he says. The idea didn't come out of the blue, though--Campbell had already been to Kenya and the Galapagos Islands. Friends urged him to work in the rain forest and Campbell liked the idea. When university scientists introduced him to campus visitor Gary Hartshorn, director of the Organization for Tropical Studies, "It was a quick sell. They sent me to La Selva and Las Cruces, ecological stations in Costa Rica," says Campbell. "I got on a plane in the morning in Atlanta, and by one o'clock in the afternoon I was standing in the rain forest," he muses.

Hartshorn says he was impressed when he first met Campbell and visited his studio--so much so that "we decided to create an artist-in-residence program. Alan was the first one." Campbell didn't disappoint. "We've displayed his work at fund-raising sessions," Hartshorn enthuses.

Reflecting on the contrast between the Antarctic and tropics, Campbell thinks the experience "was great." Says the artist, "It's harder working in the rain forest because of the humidity. You can't paint there." Campbell recorded images on film, drew and wrote in his sketchbook, then painted back in Athens.

Having traveled so much, Campbell might be tempted to take it easy now--fat chance. He's working on a book about Ossabaw Island in collaboration with writer James Kilgo and photographer Jack Leigh. Campbell is also exploring new digital methods to produce large prints of his work, some of which can be seen on his Web site:

Some see science and art as separate, opposite pursuits. Poet John Keats even accused scientists like Isaac Newton of "unweaving the rainbow"--by analyzing nature, they ruin its magic. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman thought otherwise: knowing how a flower works--even the finest cellular processes--only enhances its beauty, the famed scientist maintained. Campbell agrees: "All the scientists I've met in the tropics and Antarctic are highly attuned to the arts. They welcomed me." Keats' comment reflects limitations of the artist, he thinks. "You can't be intimidated by knowledge. Was Leonardo wrong by being interested in science?"

Barry A. Palevitz ( is a contributing editor.