Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Research Statement Take Three

Want to know what I've been working on and why I haven't been painting as much? Here's the research proposal I have put together... it's the third application I have done over three years, so we shall have to see if it gets the funding. Anyway, I thought I'd share it with you all in case you wondered why my paint brushes have been collecting dust.

Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

Research Statement

How can botanical illustration be re-deployed using the tactics and techniques of the visual arts to communicate the importance of plants in the 21st century and can it be successfully used as a visual language to prevent plant blindness?

The way we are living our lives is causing the climate to change and many habitats across the globe are now critically endangered. Trying to find a solution to this overwhelming reality has become a massive cultural challenge (Buckland, 2007). We have already taken bold steps in addressing the crisis politically, but it is imperative that the issue does not just sit within the governmental and scientific debate, but that it enters our social fabric and becomes part of the entire global population. Through creativity and artistic thinking we are able to cultivate a visual language that can be transmitted on a human scale. For this reason, I want to build on our existing knowledge on the use of visual statements in science so that we can design better policies and develop more effective forms of communication globally in the 21st century.

Between 1956 and 1988, botanical artist Margaret Mee embarked on several expeditions to the Amazon Rainforest where she produced paintings that became powerful symbols for plant conservation (Fig. 1). Having committed her artistic talent to the benefit of botany, she successfully captured the attention of the wider public. Visually describing a very personal response to the rainforests, she became an influential spokeswoman for conservation (Crane, 2004). It was during this time, after the publication of The Genesis Strategy (Schneider, and Mesirow, 1976), that Environmental NGOs started to advocate environmental protection to prevent further global warming, and Mee’s philosophy was analogous to the debate.

Fig 1. Aechmea rodriguesiana, Margaret Mee, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

I propose to expand on Mee’s approach so that we can fully comprehend the exact supremacy of visual accounts and representations. Using both theory and practice I want to go further by measuring the capacity for botanical illustration to bring greater awareness of the botanical world. In 1998, Wandersee and Schlusser introduced the term ‘plant blindness’. They defined the term as ‘the inability to recognise the importance of plants, to appreciate their aesthetic vale and the misguided ranking of plants as inferior to animals’. Plants are the main mediators between the physical and biological worlds. They provide us with food, shelter, fuel, oxygen, materials and medicine and play a significant role maintaining the climate and improving air and water quality (Simpson & Ogorzaly, 1995). In addition to this, plants are used in many cultural practices and possess an aesthetic quality that can reduce stress and create a positive environment (Nyholm, 2009, Park & Mattson, 2009, Mattson, 2010, Halivand, et al., 2006). Therefore many botanists and conservationists consider plant blindness to be a considerable problem as we can assume that without sufficient recognition it is likely that policies in plant conservation will not be supported. Furthermore, less funding will be given to botanical research and education at a time when we need it the most.

However, plant blindness is a construct that has been under examined since its introduction (Slough, 2012). While theoretical assessments of the components affecting plant blindness exist, there has been little done to design, implement and evaluate strategies that alleviate the problem. It is clear that awareness of plants is advantageous for both economic and social reasons and that there hasn’t been a more appropriate time than now to improve our familiarity with the world’s flora. By implementing an artistic, creative visual language to extend the measured visuals of scientific representation, I propose that it is possible to execute a more comprehensive and quantifiable approach to environmental communication.

Fig. 2: ‘The Green Giant’ - Coffee Plant, (Coffea arabica), J R Shepherd,
 Watercolour on Paper (2013), 66 cm x 101.6cm
Images inspire people to think beyond their experience and grasp the implications of trends. In my own illustration work I am constantly exploring new methods and approaches to challenge the viewer. I have become widely known in the botanical art world for my large watercolour paintings of scaled up ethnobotanical plants and my ability to surprise audiences (Fig. 2). I have, however, reached a point in my work where I need to know more about the theory behind my illustration, its potential applications and how it sits within the larger scope of science communication within the visual arts. I want to be considered for a TECHNE studentship, because although I have considerable practical and scientific experience, I have to attain new expertise to carry on with my research. I need to understand the meaning of graphical statements better and how to think both critically and contextually. My work is diverse and utilises collections from numerous societies and institutions such as Kew, the Natural History Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden and is therefore collaborative and holistic. This MRes is a starting point for my career in research and education; it will be the foundation I need to fully explore the social and cultural impacts of a visual scientific language at PhD level whilst utilising my existing cross-disciplinary reservoir of ideas and skills.


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  1. What an interesting area of research. Wishing you every luck with your endeavour, and hope your proposal is accepted. It was lovely to meet you at Lindley Hall on Friday, and see your fabulous work in the flesh. I hope you survived the increased local humidity and pollen count !

    1. Aww thank you! I am glad you enjoyed your day at the RHS. The pollen didn't have the same effect on my eyes as it did on Friday, so I must have got used to it, although I was uber hot all day. So glad I wore my summer dress!