May 24, 2022
Grad student's art connects water science to the people
Science, art, and the great outdoors. Megan Leung describes these three things as her greatest passions in life.
Growing up in Mohkinstsis — on the traditional territories of the Treaty 7 region, located in the Canadian Rockies of Southern Alberta — the hydrologist, artist, and MSc geography student at the University of Calgary has always been in awe of her surroundings. It’s a love that inspired both her art and her academic path. For years though, Leung felt those passions were completely divergent parts of her life.
“I always thought you had to pick either science or art, and that they couldn’t co-exist because they’re inherently different,” says Leung. “But what I’ve learned is there are actually a lot of similarities between the two.”
The intersection of art and science, in particular hydrology, is the theme of Art-Water-Climate Connection: Virtual Water Gallery, an exhibition featuring collaborations between artists, Leung among them, and Global Water Futures (GWF) scientists which explores water-related challenges in Canada. The exhibition runs at artsPlace in Canmore from May 21 to June 17, with a free reception event on May 25. The art on exhibit comes from a larger online Virtual Water Gallery funded by GWF which launched in the summer of 2020.
Among the artists featured in the gallery, Leung — who collaborated with Dr. Aaron Berg from the University of Guelph for her Arctic Polarity series of paintings — has the rare distinction of being both an artist and a scientist.
During the pandemic the UCalgary Hydrologic Analysis Lab began working with longtime collaborators GWF to develop the Viritual Water Gallery. Leung, whose field work had largely been cancelled due to COVID-19, quickly became involved in the planned gallery as both an artist and a co-curator.
The experience made her rethink the boundaries she always perceived between science and art. “They both tell a story,” Leung says. “They’re both trying to communicate with the public, in this case on water issues. They both seek to get people thinking about their own lifestyles and the ways in which their use of water makes a greater impact.”
Leung came to realize that the connections between science and art had always been inherent to her. “When I’m out there climbing, backpacking, or doing yoga next to a rushing river or a mountain stream I immediately think, I need to paint this,” she says.
“But simultaneously I’m thinking about all the hydrological processes going on within that mountain stream. I come at it from multiple perspectives, and this has informed my art.”
Leung says that the Virtual Water Gallery helps make complex hydrological research more accessible to the public. “So much of the time the science just goes over people’s heads,” she says.
All the technical jargon and statistics and the confusing graphs and numbers, it doesn’t mean a thing to most people. Presenting it as art is a great way to catch the public’s attention and maybe evoke thoughts and reflections in a way that a 30-page journal article could not achieve.
Associate geography professor Dr. Tricia Stadnyk, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Hydrologic Modelling and Leung’s adviser, agrees. Stadnyk collaborated with Bob Haverluck, an acclaimed mentor and artist with the Trudeau Foundation, for his series of sculptures on display called Damaged Shoreline Music, inspired by the impacts of hydro-power development on the Nelson River.
“I’ve been studying climate change for 14 years and I can tell you that we as a scientific community have done an amazing job at being right and having nobody care,” Stadnyk says. “We’ve been sounding alarm bells about the impact of climate change for four decades, long before I got into the field. Some care, but not to the extent they should.”
Stadnyk says the pandemic opened her eyes to this reality more than ever before. “You had all this great scientific research about COVID-19, but for a good segment of the population it just didn’t matter. You need the buy-in of the people to make a difference. And if there’s one thing that transcends all languages, all the politics, it’s art. I see the Virtual Water Gallery as a golden opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Leung’s contributions to the Virtual Water Gallery have also provided her with a golden opportunity. Her art in the gallery came to the attention of UCalgary’s Arctic Institute of North America and this summer Leung will be artist-in-residence with the institute’s Kluane Research Station in the Yukon.
“They’ve been wanting an artist to come in and create art that conveys their research and connects it with the community, so this is exciting for me,” says Leung. “Being able to bridge that gap between the science and the public’s understanding, that’s the unique power of art.”