Jean Polfus: Bridging the gap between ecology and art

Jean Polfus has found a fairly creative way to combine the aim of ecology with the impact of art.

Jean is an artist, but that’s not her full-time job. She’s actually an ecologist, who looks at the ecosystem and inhabitants of the Northwest Territories in Canada. It’s how she connects creative thinking in art and the science-minded attitude behind ecology that is surprising.

After a traditional path of pursuing evolutionary and environmental biology at Dartmouth College, Jean came to discover that working with the various cultures and languages of her studies presented a unique problem. How do you bridge the communication gaps as well as beliefs of tribes, scientists, and the needs of animals and their systems?

Jean realized that art – specifically drawing and photography – is one answer:

One of my goals is to find innovative ways to bring art and science together through drawings, explanations, illustrations and photography. Though many similarities exist between artists and scientists, I have found that there is a fundamental lack of visual creative thinking in academia. This problem is apparent on all levels of scientific exploration, starting with the initial conception of a project to exchange with other academics, and of course worst of all, communication with the general public.”

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“One of my goals is to find innovative ways to bring art and science together through drawings, explanations, illustrations and photography.”

To empower the science behind her work, Jean introduces drawings and paintings into her presentations and brainstorming sessions.

When the people she meets with during her work either don’t speak the language or are leaning too far down a scientific mindset or a historic (or cultural) one, the ability to draw allows everyone to meet in the middle and see the same picture. It’s an effective way of communicating ideas without losing their meaning. In-fact, Jean explains, drawing and presenting photos often develops ideas further.

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Using artwork to present concepts and bridge communication gaps has greatly benefited Jean and her work. It’s the type of creative thinking that seems like a no-brainer once you know of it, but (as she’s pointed out) is still very absent in scientific academia and exploration.

“I have learned that appealing visuals have the potential to help local people, who are most affected by management decisions, depict their own understanding about wildlife and understand the western scientific data and results that affect their way of life.”

Jean also explains how her ability to present data in visual formats makes taking action on the information easier:

“I’ve had very good success with using informational graphics to explain the genetic side of my research to the community. Over time I’ve developed better analogies to use as well as clearer visuals that help describe genetic relationships. This has been a crucial part of my research because I want people to understand why I am doing the research and feel confident enough to provide suggestions for how I can improve my sample collection methods and the interpretation of the genetic results.”

Creativity isn’t about art: it’s about using different concepts to bridge the gaps in communication or thinking.

Jean Polfus has done just that by combining her research with her love for art. The result is effective communication and better understanding by those she works closely with and for.

How can you use Jean as an example in order to combine approaches that are usually polar opposites in order to generate creative insights?

Learn more about Jean and her work right here, and follow her on Tumblr at jeanpolfus.tumblr.com.

This article is part of the Creative Something Footsteps series, exploring the stories of creatives from around the world to share insights and wisdom. Submit your story here.