People Issue

UNT Professor Ruth West Is Linking Art and Science to Make Both Easier to Understand

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

UNT professor Ruth West is showing me a diagram of branching lines that resembles a March Madness bracket. It's Darwin's handiwork. The scientist sketched the visual tool in order to reclassify earth's living genealogy, as informed by evolution. It's just one artful rendering, but it represents a total change of perspective in how we view and understand the world. Ruth West likes that. A lot.

This sweet spot, the intersection of aesthetics and research, is where West digs in. She moved to Denton from Los Angeles last year to educate across four of UNT's colleges -- Information, Visual Arts and Design, Arts and Sciences and Engineering -- and to run UNT's new xREZ Laboratory, a hybrid creative studio and research lab.

In a world where careers die or evolve before diplomas are issued, West wants xREZ to prepare graduates to be thought leaders, analytic artists, aesthetic engineers and artistic scientists, so they can nimbly adapt to life's hard angles. But West's efforts go beyond simply bridging the arts, sciences and humanities. Her real goal cuts much deeper. She'd like to use that interconnectivity to change the way we explore ideas and solve problems. She'd like to ride that razor's edge between the subjective and objective, where artists could visually represent complex data batches, algorithms or whatever's on the table so scientists could re-explore the problem from a different angle. Span out and that same feedback becomes interactive art for everyday folks, so they can better understand the stuff of living from a more meditative framework.

It takes a special mind to believe all this possible, and that's exactly what West has. Before taking a stand on art/science integration, previously career incarnations had her working in microscopic imaging by day and moonlighting nights as a fine arts painter. Eventually she wondered if that left/right brain divide wasn't a gap but a point of balance. As she explored that idea, she considered art's reach of usefulness in modern, tech-soaked society. From her rare vantage point West decided it was time for a big change, so she went all in and got to work. Most of that work involves taking batches of data -- like human and rice plant genomes or 287,800 images of the universe collected from robotic telescopes -- and giving them elegant 3-D representation that's interactive.

Her recent collaborative effort, rePhoto, is already a downloadable app. Users can capture images over time to create a picture in timelapse. Much more than a party trick, rePhoto can be used by everyday people to collect data about their urban forests or other visual indicators to assist in scientific review. West will even journey to Tasmania this summer to meet with water management professionals and discuss if giving regional farmers rePhoto can help add more depth to their data sphere.

Allowing scientists to visualize the numbers from an evolving, human perspective? That's an idea Darwin would really get behind.

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Jamie Laughlin
Contact: Jamie Laughlin

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