Who says you have to be either a left-brainer or a right-brainer? A West Virginia University project is using art to communicate science.

Dave McGill, professor of forest resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and an Extension specialist, wants to teach people the science of measuring trees—even if trekking through a forest isn’t feasible.

This fall and winter, McGill wants host a series of seminars across the state and bring “trees” to the participants with the help of Sonotubes—concrete forms typically used to create columns for buildings, light posts and other structures— that are painted to resemble trunks of several trees native to West Virginia.

McGill hopes to piggyback on prior success of attracting audiences to seminars related to natural resources issues like tree identification.

“I’m hoping to engage people during a time when they may have ‘cabin fever’ with a hands-on experience that allows us to talk about sustainable forest management and other important topics,” McGill explained.

During the seminars, participants will learn different measurement methods including total tree height, merchantable height and various diameter measurements, all of which are tools used to estimate the volume of wood in a tree and how valuable it might be if harvested.

Since many tree measurements rely on some simple trigonometry, McGill also hopes to attract math teachers to the seminars and provide them with different exercises they can use in their classes.

While they may look like large grey tubes now, with some paint and a bit of imagination the Sonotubes will morph into trunks of paper birch, red oak, yellow poplar, sycamore, black cherry and sugar maple.

That’s the goal of Elizabeth Basham, a forest resources management graduate student, anyway.

With an undergraduate degree in visual arts from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., Basham is a perfect fit for the project.

A biology major before switching to visual arts, she’s always been passionate about art and science.

“I think they overlap considerably,” Basham said. “Art is a science and science is an art. Trees have been a recurring theme in my artwork over the years. I decided to pursue my master’s in forestry because I adore trees and being outdoors, and art will always be in my life, regardless.”

To represent each tree species as accurately as possible, Basham is using a variety of paints including an oil-based primer, acrylics and textured spray paint, as well a sponging technique to achieve a bark-like effect.

“When I’m putting paint on the tubes I imagine I’m literally painting the bark onto them,” she said. “The idea is similar to a sculptor seeing his finished work in a hunk of marble and just freeing it from the block.”

While the process may be tedious, Basham believes the end result is what’s most important – creating a way to educate others.

“I like this project because not only am I enjoying one of my favorite activities – painting – but I’m also contributing to an outreach program that will educate people about our forests,” she said. “The more people become involved in these activities, the more knowledge spreads and the healthier our forests will be as a result.”



CONTACT: Lindsay Willey, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design
304-293-2381, Lindsay.Willey@mail.wvu.edu

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