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Map-Making at O’Dowd: Students Find a Place at the Intersection of Art and Science

“All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents” -Pope Francis


In 2021, O’Dowd commissioned local artist Hannah Perrine Mode to create a large-scale public art installation for our Center for Environmental Studies. Called Atlas (after Anna), the piece consists of thirty aluminum panels, all layered with geologic and topographic maps that reflect O’Dowd’s unique location within the East Bay’s rich natural systems. “This work highlights ways that human and natural systems are entangled,” explains Mode. “It offers a spiritual, scientific, and artistic take on map-making.”


Mode came to O'Dowd in the summer of 2021 to collect plant clippings from O’Dowd’s Living Lab with longtime faculty member Annie Prutzman. “I used the plants to create cyanotypes,” says Mode. This technique, pioneered by the 19th-century artist and botanist Anna Atkins (for whom Mode’s piece is named), produces a slow-reacting, economical photographic printing in contrasts of white and vibrant blue. “Using unique native plants from O’Dowd’s Living Lab turns Atlas (after Anna) into a deeply meaningful botanical index of where the school sits,” says Mode.


Mode spent another a year working with local glass fabricators to create layers of painted blue glass and hand etched topographic line work that depicts a geologic map of the East Bay. “It’s been fun watching so many community members try to find O’Dowd on the map,” shares Hannah.

Once Atlas (after Anna) was installed, Mode led a series of workshops for O’Dowd’s EcoLeaders and Solidarity in Action groups, guiding students through an interdisciplinary approach combining scientific methods and creativity. “Hannah focused on three different modalities of art: contour drawing, indigo dying, and cyanotypes,” says Isabel Rodriguez-Vega, O’Dowd Sustainability Programs Manager. “It was an easily accessible way for students to connect nature, art, and science.”


Mode’s contour drawing workshop emphasized deep observation. Students sketched plants and scenes in the Living Lab, with the encouragement to draw without looking at their papers or lifting their pens. “This was a new practice of scientific drawing for many of us,” says Imogene Park ’23. “We were challenged to have our hands follow what we saw. It was a struggle not to know where you were on the page, but going at a slow pace, the drawings were pretty accurate.”


In the second workshop, students experimented with salt dying and vat dyeing methods - producing blue bandanas from fresh indigo harvested in the Living Lab. “We created varying hues and saturations of blue to create a collective ‘cyanometer,’” describes Mode. Invented in the 18th century, a cyanometer measures the color of the sky. “Collaborating on this creative interpretation of a scientific tool deepens our connection to each other, the land, and community around us,” says Mode.

In the final workshop, Mode guided students to make their own cyanotypes (like the ones she made for the installation) - collecting materials from the surrounding garden to create sun prints on paper.


"Hannah Mode’s perspective gave students a chance to see that art and science are not mutually exclusive,” shares Isabel. “Many of our EcoLeaders are thinking about pursuing careers in an environmental field, so Hannah’s work at the intersection of art, science, and education expanded their ideas of what that could look like.”

Imogene agrees that Mode’s workshops brought new awareness and energy to the installation. “I have a deeper appreciation for the story Atlas (for Anna) tells,” she says. “When you back up and see the full piece you notice how each panel creates the California Coastline. It makes me think about how the coastline is drastically changing due to climate change, and wondering if native species will be able to adapt in warming temperatures,” Imogene continues. “These workshops provided a bridge between two passions of mine: art and science. I hope I can use them both to create environmental awareness. “


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