Reading Rocks: Earth Science and Art in the Pacific Northwest

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Spring 2017 quarter

Taught by

This program will explore the relationship between earth science and visual art. Through an introductory study of the earth’s physical characteristics, we can find evidence to support theories about the history of the planet, changes in climate, and human activities. 

Artists observe landscapes and use natural materials including pigment, clay, and plants that come from the earth and are supported by geological processes.  Importantly, geological concepts can inspire expressive artwork.   We are all concerned about human impacts on earth processes—for example, climate change and increased soil erosion affect our ability to develop soil and support agriculture, or sequester carbon.  Artwork about the earth and changes in the earth must be grounded in an understanding of earth’s processes.  Artists could be at the forefront of highlighting the vital importance of fundamental life-giving earth materials, most notably soils that affect our survival as a species.   While scientists and artists both use close observation in doing their work, their communication processes and audiences are different.  Scientists investigate environmental processes and advise government and business communities about geological factors that will impact human activities, while communicating through advisory reports and journal articles.  Artists however can reach a different and potentially broader audience through visual communication that can tug at the heartstrings of the public to value earth materials and processes that we don’t understand, and take for granted.  In conjunction with the program, there will be a library exhibition,  Dirt? , in which contemporary book artists and poets will provide a timely example of the connection between visual arts and earth sciences, inspiring student engagement in this interdisciplinary endeavor.

Initially, we will study geological processes including the formation of the earth, geologic time, plate tectonics, rocks and minerals, physical and chemical erosion, while honing our observational skills through drawing and field journaling.  A three-day field trip to the Olympic Peninsula will allow us investigate high impact coastal erosion, while making on-site artistic installations that draw attention to these processes.  These field studies will be conducted in the context of the consequences of sea level rise and ocean acidification for coastal communities.  Back on campus, we will explore –from multiple perspectives-- how human activities affect geological processes and in particular soil formation.  We will use earth materials in our artistic expression, making paint from natural pigments and paper from local plants.  We will use natural materials in mono-printing.  Woven through the quarter, students will work on independent projects conducting research and creating an artist book about an important geological or climate-related issue.

Program Details

Fields of Study

environmental studies field studies geology visual arts writing

Preparatory For

environmental sciences, geosciences, and art.


Spring Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First class meeting: Tuesday, April 4 at 9am (Sem II D3105)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$225 for art supplies and an overnight class field trip to Olympic Peninsula.


2017-02-24Fee reduced (from $270 to $225).
2017-02-24Description updated.
2016-04-13Fees increased (from $250 to $270).