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Flowing between art and science

May 18, 2023 By Elise Mahon

Julia Buskirk believes scientists and artists have a lot to learn from each other. That’s why in 2021, while an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she and then-graduate student Alexandra Lakind started The Flow Project as part of Water@UW–Madison.

The Flow Project is still going today, and it pairs undergraduate artists from University of Wisconsin schools across the state with water scientists to create art pieces inspired by water. The collaboration highlights the value of art not only as a tool to communicate science, but also as a way to inspire new science.

This year, the cohort had representatives from all 13 UW System universities, and they created more than 30 art pieces ranging from paintings and drawings, to garments and sculptures, dance and music. The exhibition can be viewed in an online gallery or throughout the state in a traveling exhibition through October 2023.

Aakriti Bagchi, a UW–Madison sophomore studying textile and fashion design, was paired with Yuan Liu, a third-year PhD student in civil and environmental engineering who studies storms and flooding in the Mississippi River Basin.

Liu generates computer models of storms caused by atmospheric rivers, which are large fluxes of water vapor that move on to land from tropical seas. His models strive to predict flood outcomes from these storms in the Mississippi River Basin.

Patterns, designs and motifs from Liu’s research inspired visual elements that Bagchi transformed from scribbles on a page to a wearable garment.

“There’s so much you can do with fashion,” Bagchi says. “You can do all your research and you can find crazy solutions […] But then at the end of the day, it needs to get out to the rest of the world. And so finding ways to portray your thoughts in like a creative sense or just in a very clear way is very important.”

She wove blue and brown yarns through gauzy white fabric to portray the multiple layers of water vapor involved in the storms Liu studies. They also communicate the idea of cascading water and a sense of “bursting at the seams,” she explains.

The garment features a jacket whose front showcases an array of indigo-dyed fabrics patchworked together to form a map of the river basin. Bagchi chose each patch of fabric to represent the basin’s various regions.

But Bagchi’s art wasn’t the only thing inspired by the collaboration. Liu says talking with Bagchi throughout the process and seeing how she approaches problems encouraged him to take a step back and consider new approaches to his own work.

“I think it does shift a little bit of the focus when I’m doing research from like just thinking about all those details, those mathematics, to like some of the big pictures,” Liu says. “That’s pretty important actually, for you to become a better scientist.”

The 2023 Flow Project was supported by Water@UW–Madison through funding from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and the University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute. UW–Stevens Point’s cohort was supported through Extension Lakes, Center for Land Use Education, and Center for Watershed Science and Education. UW–Green Bay’s cohort was supported through their College of Science, Engineering & Technology and College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.