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Art of science: Museum’s new exhibit shows work of scientists through artists’ eyes

Sitting in front of a panel of electron micrograph images produced by scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, Ravalli County Museum director Tamar Stanley displays one of the many pieces of art that will be displayed this summer and fall as part of a new collaborative exhibit entitled "Science in Wonderland."

Ravalli County museum director Tamar Stanley is always looking for ways to reach out and find new audiences for the treasures contained inside the century old courthouse building.

Just a few blocks away at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, scientists like Beth Fischer and Olivia Steele-Mortimer spend countless hours studying electron micrograph images that are absolutely breathtaking.

In the past, outside of professional circles, those images have rarely been seen.

A new museum exhibit opening May 24 should help bring new visitors into the museum to experience the science accomplished at the laboratory through the eyes of artists.

Entitled “Science in Wonderland,” the exhibit will continue to evolve and expand through the summer and fall as new artwork arrives and a weekly lecture series offers insights into both the world of science and art.

The idea for this unique collaboration began last summer after Fischer and Steele-Mortimer attended a lecture in the basement of the American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The speaker talked about the potential of using art to convey science to the masses.

The two scientists were fascinated by the potential of doing something similar with their own work.

“As a microscopy group, we have taken many photographs of fascinating structures that are actually quite beautiful,” Fischer wrote in an email to Stanley.

The idea of reaching out to local artists and schools in an effort to merge art and science soon took on a life of its own as people began to consider the possibilities.

Local artists and different RML scientists with their own artistic flair began looking at ways to unleash their creative juices in a way that could help open new worlds to people at the coming exhibit. Teachers at Victor and Corvallis schools signed on.

Before it was over, even the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theater offered to participate at the exhibit’s closing in October.

Bitterroot Valley photographer Barbara Michelman helped write the story of the ballet. She remembers the first time she saw the images of viruses produced at RML.

“It seemed to me the cosmic battle between good and evil, Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader,” she wrote. “The more I read, the more it confirmed my sense of the story. Small pox killed 300 million people in the 20th century. … All the wars in the last century killed a mere 60 million people. Who was the greatest enemy? And who are the heroes?”

Michelman envisions the dancers taking on roles of viruses and the life they impact.

For some students in Pam Caughey’s university level class, the assignment to create an artist’s book took on a personal note as they signed up for topics like breast cancer, muscular dystrophy and Raynaud’s Syndrome.

“Many students expressed that this was a therapeutic project for them, and their work largely expresses a deep consideration of content and meaning,” Caughey wrote.

Brooke Jessop in Maureen Powell’s high school photography class looked for a way to combine both living and deadly into a single photo.

“I wanted a picture that brought together a vibrant, alive flower with an equally alive disease,” Jessop wrote. “They are two different parts of life, the flower brings life and beauty into the world, and the disease kills.”

“Two contrasting ideas that come together to form a photo that represents life, the joys and the trials,” she wrote.

Both Fischer and Steele-Mortimer are encouraged by the response so far.

“We feel very privileged to be part of this,” Fischer said. “There is such a sense of wonder created by these absolutely beautiful structures. It’s a world that a lot of people don’t get to see.”

“You don’t have to understand the science to enjoy the wonder,” Steele-Mortimer said.

Stanley said the exhibit has been growing on almost a weekly basis.

“People will see something new all throughout the summer,” she said. “Our younger students’ artwork and some from the university will kick it off. We’ll have weekly speakers talking a wide variety of topics.”

The current list can be found at the museum’s website at under exhibits.

Representatives from the museum, RML and schools will be on hand Thursday, May 24 for the grand opening and reception at 6 p.m. to explain more about the first exhibit, “The Deadly Beauties.”

“I think the scientists at RML are really excited to bring their science to life for people,” Stanley said. “They live it everyday and rarely get to share it with anyone. This will provide them an opportunity to kind of take the mystery away.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or