In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world, it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions. These are the kinds of skills that students develop in science, technology, engineering and math — disciplines collectively known as STEM.
So begins a page dedicated to STEM on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. As true as that statement may ring, many take issue with the omission of art from the buzzy STEM equation, evidenced by a determined push to update the acronym to “STEAM.”
Detractors argue that adding art to the mix would distract STEM’s focus from hard sciences, but proponents suggest the more inclusive STEAM approach would add valuable elements — creative problem-solving, design skills and aesthetic appreciation among them — to a platform that’s built on the integration of disciplines.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call local artist and educator Jayne Lawrence a cheerleader for the STEAM movement. A native of Illinois, Lawrence relocated to San Antonio in 1983, co-directed the bygone Blue Star gallery Cactus Bra Space with likeminded artist Leigh Anne Lester for 19 years and has been teaching art at UTSA since 2000. While Lawrence is known for work that runs the gamut from intricate drawings of hybrid specimens and scenes seemingly plucked from surreal fairytales to conceptual, mannequin-like sculptures she refers to as her “ladies,” her latest — and potentially greatest — project recently materialized in the Wunderkammer for Ontological Observation (aka the WOO Lab), a “cabinet of curiosities” housed in UTSA’s Department of Art & Art History.
As its name might suggest — ontology is the philosophical study of being — the nascent WOO Lab is both ambiguous and all-encompassing, but its goals are quite specific: to pique curiosity, spark creativity and coax visitors out of their comfort zones to discover new ways to think, learn, work, solve problems, even see the world and its inhabitants.
Curated by Lawrence as something of an evolving installation, the lab in its earliest configuration contains anatomical models and posters, skulls aplenty, assorted taxidermy, preserved beetles and spiders, wasp nests, exotic feathers, seashells, bones and complete animal skeletons interspersed with microscopes, early image projectors known as “magic lanterns” and complementary work by local artists including Ken Little, Alex Rubio, Judith Cottrell, Megan Harrison and Lawrence herself. Save for a sunlit workstation where guests can research, draw, write or simply observe, the visual takeaway is as much “gallery” as it is “lab” — and that’s clearly the point.
Two weeks after the WOO Lab opened to the public, I arranged a lunch meeting with Lawrence and fellow artist and educator Michele Monseau. Longtime friends with a shared history rooted in the early artist-run spaces of the Blue Star Arts Complex — Monseau ran Three Walls Gallery next door to Cactus Bra Space — the pair are both UTSA grads who now teach at the university. For their latest chapter together, Lawrence invited Monseau to inaugurate the WOO Lab with an exhibition of her meditative video pieces fielddowndeep, powerline (heave) and chaosterrain.
While both were visibly excited about the lab becoming a reality, conversation drifted into fascinating territory exploring the inspirations for the space, its present-day relevance and the concepts and practices that might be employed there in the future. More than once, Monseau drew parallels between the left brain-right brain theory and trends within education systems — specifically cold, hard facts trumping aesthetics and creativity.
“We have to be able to see the whole picture,” she said.
Lawrence got starry-eyed musing about robotic bees, the Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design, the fusion of art and science that connects author Keri Smith’s interactive guide How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum and the far-flung endeavors of MIT Media Lab professor Neri Oxman, whose notable projects include 3D-printed interplanetary survival garments enhanced with synthetically engineered microorganisms and a “Silk Pavilion” created by a swarm of 6,5000 computer-guided silkworms.
“She’s amazing,” Lawrence said. “So, with all that, it is design. If we’re going to build clothing, if we’re going to create an environment, if we’re going to create a building … we have to have some sort of aesthetic.”
If You Build It, They Will Come
The WOO Lab has been on Lawrence’s to-do list for at least a decade.
“I’ve been writing this [in my] annual report for 10 years,” she said. “I am working on a nature lab.”
With equal doses of sincerity and humor, she mentioned that hopeful mantra immortalized in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.
“Not to quote Kevin Costner but … there wasn’t anyone that I talked to in any field that didn’t [think the nature lab was a good idea]. I thought, if I’m getting that, all I have to do is be the facilitator,” she said.
Operating without funding of any kind, Lawrence furnished the lab with university surplus and then called friends and associates to get the word out that the lab was starting to build its collection. Within three months, she’d gathered the motley array presently on view.
She acquired the aforementioned magic lanterns from Dan Judson, whose late father Jack Judson displayed his enormous collection of projection machines in the Magic Lantern Castle on Austin Highway. Lawrence had shared her idea for the WOO Lab with Dan Judson years ago and he asked how he could help. When Lawrence finally got the green light, she made a bee-line to his office and asked for help.
“And he did,” she said. “He just said ‘yes.’ And I said, ‘I feel like I just walked into Santa Claus.’ So, he gave us all these really cool machines that punctuate the lab.”
Arguably the object Lawrence is proudest of obtaining, however, is a taxidermied hawksbill turtle — a rarity she’s careful to point out was legally and sustainably acquired prior to the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
“I have received written permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to display it for educational purposes,” she explained. “Only 20,000 breeding females today exist. Kids can’t see those things unless you go to a special museum.”
Currently being cleaned and restored, the hawksbill turtle is expected to arrive at the WOO Lab by mid-October.
WOO Lab Wish List
The WOO Lab’s doors may be open, but Lawrence and Monseau are quick to admit there’s plenty still to be done. Although it’s hinted at by the mixture of natural relics and machines old and new, one of the key themes is the interplay of old and new — examining something from the past with the tools of the future. In order to further what she sums up as “futuristic possibilities,” Lawrence hopes to equip the lab with a 3D printer, a laser cutter and a green-screen stage.
“We’re hoping to get further equipment,” she said. “Just to move outside your comfort zone and take a walk on the wild side a little bit, maybe just to get away from the problem and look at it from a different point of view … and that ‘aha’ moment occurs because you’re focusing on something else.”
Beyond the possibilities they would open up for visual artists, the additional equipment would help solidify the lab as an interdisciplinary destination.
“I see great potential for the lab across multiple disciplines,” Lawrence said. “It is my dream that, years down the road, our lab can develop into a fully funded on-campus museum and makers’ space. … It already invites a unique way to problem-solve, using a method of focused, hands-on observation that allows students’ minds to diverge from the mental chatter created by circular thinking or overthinking. I have spoken to several engineering students who understand that sometimes the way through a problem is to ignore it and focus on something else.”
Experiencing the Lab
Speaking about the environment she hopes to conjure with the WOO Lab, Lawrence brought up the Wong Spot, a bygone gallery hybrid on South Flores that was ahead of its time.
“Art was thrown into that space with spiritual artifacts. It was just a strange [space], one of those places where you walked in the door and you kind of left the world. … I see that in the lab.”
Beyond a slightly surreal alternative to the unmistakable campus vibe that surrounds it, the sensation Lawrence described could easily be conjured by sitting and sketching one of the natural oddities on display — there’s a modest array of drawing supplies for those who arrive empty-handed — or gazing through a microscope at neurons, insect parts or plant life. Another alternative would be taking in Monseau’s zen-like, landscape-oriented video works, which remain on view through December 5.
Staffed by Lawrence along with UTSA senior lecturer Jason Willome and grad student and teaching assistant Angelica Martinez, the WOO Lab keeps weekly hours throughout the semester, but it’s best to schedule a visit by calling the number listed below.
Keep up with the WOO Lab’s upcoming special events and workshops by following them on Instagram @utsa.woo.lab
The Wunderkammer for Ontological Observation (WOO Lab)
Free, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday
UTSA, One UTSA Circle, Department of Art & Art History, 4th floor, 4.10.16 C suite, (210) 458-4352, instagram.com/utsa.woo.lab
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