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  • Jeff Packard

Art and the Geosciences

During the 2010 GeoConvention held in Calgary, office workers and other members of the general public were presented by an odd spectacle each morning and evening, a cavalcade of 3-sided wheeled poster boards being manoeuvred down Stephen Avenue Mall, the outdoor pedestrian thoroughfare in the downtown area. The eleven posters on display were a curious mix of visual art, biography and geoscience and were the product of a unique public outreach effort jointly produced by volunteers from the Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences and professional staff from the Glenbow Museum.

The premise behind the project was to utilize iconic Canadian landscape art as a portal into the world of Earth sciences. In particular our team wanted to find a vehicle to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of some of our most notable geoscientists. If in addition we could convey some fundamentals of basic crustal processes in an entertaining and digestible manner, so much the better. Our feeling was that public knowledge of iconic Canadian art, or artistic styles, familiarity that could be overt or subliminal, educated or naïve, was likely to be infinitely better than any corresponding understanding of, or for that matter conscious interest in, Earth science. Therefore we designed our posters to utilize some psychological bait. The bait was the large scale reproduction of a well-known and/or striking, piece of art. The artwork dominated each poster. Our strategy assumed that some percentage of passers-by would be enticed to venture closer, lured in by the vaguely familiar image, or at least its bold style. At the poster, the inquisitive layperson was invited, not only to learn a bit more about the artwork and the artist who created it, but also about the geoscientific underpinning, the bedrock foundation if you will, to that same landscape.

Each 4x8 ft poster featured a pairing of an artist and a geoscientist, their co-occupation of the poster determined solely by the circumstance of geography. Both artist and geoscientist had to be connected to the featured landscape. For the artists obviously the connection was because they had artistically interpreted the landscape, and for the geoscientists because they had traversed that same area in the course of geologic field studies. They too had interpreted that same landscape, albeit in a different fashion. We would argue that both endeavors sought to understand landscape and its relationship and value to Canadians.

This was not purely an historical exercise as some of the artists and geoscientists that we celebrated are still practicing their craft/discipline. That being said, our coverage did extend back to the late 1600’s. The following Table illustrates the scope and content of the project.

The posters have subsequently been displayed at a few conventions and have managed to find their way down to Brisbane Australia where they served as a backdrop to Canada’s unsuccessful bid to host IGC2020. You are welcome to download digital copies of any of the posters from our dropbox. Over time, more posters will be added to this collection.

The Pedagogical Potential

Concerted efforts have been made over the years by EdGeo and CGEN, as well as Mining Matters and Earth Science for Society, to promote geo-literacy to Canadian youth. Given the absence of formal courses in Earth science in the Canadian secondary curriculum (with the exception of British Columbia), the adopted strategy has been to “wedge” Earth science content as appropriate, into core subjects, such as general science, physics, chemistry and biology. A similar effort to introduce geosciences into the social studies arena has not been attempted to any degree, but we believe that the opportunity definitely exists. In our minds geo-literacy should not be confined to the science stream, or serve solely as an enticement to a particular course of post-secondary studies or a career choice. Now more than ever an Earth system approach to perceiving the world in a more holistic integrative fashion, should be part of everyone’s education.

In particular we feel that the content of our posters could make a wonderful resource for educators who are teaching history, geography, and of course art, where a Canadian focus is emphasized. To that end we are presently constructing a multi-platform bilingual website to serve as the vehicle to transmit this material. The website will ultimately be hosted on, and we anticipate having a beta version of the website available by early April of this year. Our funding to build the website has been generously provided by the Canadian Geological Foundation, however we only have sufficient monies at this time to transfer the content of three English and three French posters to the web. Furthermore, the scholastic level of the content is really only appropriate for grades 9 and up. It is our hope to correct both deficiencies (see below).

Increasing our coverage

We would definitely like to see more digital posters built and made freely available. Our present coverage has barely scraped the surface. So many persons, pieces of art, styles of art, geographical areas, geological provinces and geological processes are potential candidates. We presently are preparing a poster each for British Columbia and Manitoba, and hope to have one for Nova Scotia. Other areas that are begging to be treated are PEI, Labrador, Cape Breton Island, Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Monteregian Hills, NW Ontario, the Rockies, and the BC interior. We have been collecting ideas over the past few years, and these can be viewed by downloading a our scrapbook file. We would love to have your suggestions!

Expanding our audience

Reconfigure/augment the content to make it attractive to younger students and to make it as easy as possible for teachers to incorporate into the curriculum. To this end we will be communicating with all the various provincial and territorial departments of education and their curriculum committees once the beta site is available. We need to collaborate with both CGEN and EdGeo on this initiative.

Investigating New Themes

The intersections between art and the geosciences embrace far more than landscape. There are many compelling subjects to explore that would make wonderful additions to the website. Several broad categories immediately present themselves, such as: Geologists as artists, Geology as media (pictographs, petroglyphs, soapstone & other rock sculpture, etc.), Geology as supplies (natural pigments), and Geology as art. Why not web-published essays concerned with the confluences of art and science, or the artificial rifts that now divide them? These and other ideas are presented in our downloadable ideas scrapbook mentioned above.

Looking for more volunteers!

If any of the foregoing has tickled your fancy, we would love to have your help. In particular we would be very grateful to receive assistance with:

  • Providing suggestions for geoscientists, artists, artworks, and geological map areas to feature

  • Building more posters using our binary template (artist-geoscientist); by expanding our repertoire it will give us a chance to celebrate even more outstanding Earth scientists and make this resource that much more valuable and comprehensive for educators.

  • Formatting existing content to make it web-friendly

  • Building new thematic content suitable for web presentation

  • Advising us on what grade level might be the best target audience for a simplified version of our website, and having defined that, how do we proceed in making age appropriate and compelling content.

  • Help us build online teacher tutorials so that they are best equipped to engage their students with our material.

For more information on volunteering with this initiative, please contact Jeff Packard by e-mail at


I would like to take this opportunity to profusely thank the volunteers, listed below, who donated their time to assemble the content of the posters that have so far been assembled (listed alphabetically). Normand Begin, Maurice Colpron, Neil Dawson, Jon Dudley, Karen Dudley, David Elliott, Philippe Ferron, Paul Glomick, Fran Haidl, Stephen Howell, Melanie Kjorlien, Travis Lutley, Gwen Martin, Rebecca Melenka, Jeff Packard, Lynden Penner, Charlie Roots, Ian Young, Troy Zimmer. The authors of Canada Rocks (Andrew Miall & Nick Eyles) and the publishers of Four Billion Years and Counting (CFES/FCST) have kindly given their permission to use figures from their books; both of which are marvelous examples of geo-literature that provide terrific access to the Earth sciences for the public! Finally we are very grateful to the Canadian Geological Foundation for funding this project and allowing it to ferment on what might be viewed as a geological time frame.

Views expressed in blog posts reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the CFES.

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