How Art and Science Inform Each Other for Geophysicist Larry Hughes
Creativity is so important to us at EnSafe that it’s in our tagline – “Creative thinking. Custom solutions.”
For us, it’s the ability to turn new, imaginative ideas into reality. It’s applying science in clever – even artistic – ways that transform our lives.
For Larry Hughes, PG, one of EnSafe’s geophysicists, creativity grows from his practice of both art and science. As an Artist in Residence (AiR) for the US National Park Service for the last six years, Larry spends a few weeks every summer leading art workshops, painting trailside, and being a good will ambassador to the park’s national and international visitors.
Larry’s tenure in Yellowstone’s magnificent geothermal environmental this summer was enriched from his years of geophysical exploration and overthrust belt geology studies.
“Understanding the science behind the image informs how I design the image, choose colors, and depict geological features,” Larry explains. “On the reverse, being an artist informs how I create 3D conceptual site models for clients that go beyond annotation of site features to add some artistic subtlety that clients such as the Navy seek.”
Larry’s explanation of how science informs his art brings to mind Leonardo da Vinci’s study of human anatomy:
For painting rock outcrops, such as at Zion, understanding that the material is Navajo Sandstone with specific joint patterns and conchoidal collapse features leading to “blind arches” in the outcrop – all that helps me get the morphology right. From there I can arrange the composition and lighting to best advantage. It’s like doing a portrait: the underlying anatomy needs to be well understood before the artistic juices can flow. Knowing how geothermal gradients form in a geyser pool at Yellowstone keeps me mindful of the parts of the pool where extremophiles (bacteria and algae) can exist, and thus shift the colors in the pool.
When asked about any interesting encounters he’s had over the years, Larry responded, “How long do you have?” … Once he opens his paintbox, says Larry, people start telling him their life stories.
Here are three of those encounters:
On a pre-school, cross-country road trip with his father, a pre-teen boy lingered to watch Larry paint. He seemed fearful of the long trail ahead, but his father encouraged him, not with machismo but tenderly. Larry watched as the two set foot up-trail, hand in hand. Two hours later, they returned triumphant, and the boy fixed his eyes onto Larry’s painting again. His eyes lit up when Larry asked, “Would you like to paint?” "That day,” says Larry, “he took home three things: that his father loved him, that he could overcome adversity, and a painting he made in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park,” says Larry.
A WWII veteran who stopped to watch Larry paint in the Petrified Forest National Park He shared how he had flown over the forest in the 1940s on his way to flight school in California, with the dream of becoming a pilot in the war. Color blindness had kept him from realizing one dream, but the dream of setting foot on Petrified had come true, now some 70 years later. He and Larry shared tears of thankfulness – and tears of regret – as he told his story.
Tourists from China almost always gave enthusiastic smiles and thumbs-up when they saw Larry painting trailside in Yellowstone this year. During one such exchange, Larry noticed one woman occasionally speaking some English and asked her to write a message in Chinese to better communicate with the Chinese tourists Larry encountered every day: “I am representing the Park as an artist, and I want to greet our honored guests to the United States.” When the note was written, an elderly Chinese gentleman took the brush from Larry’s hand, approached the painting, and started dipping the brush in Larry’s palette colors. Then, instead of touching the painting, the gentleman started writing his own note on a fresh sheet of paper: “You should be proud, you have a beautiful country,” his message said. “All of a sudden,” Larry recalls, “trade disputes and military juggling and angry government proclamations were all subdued by the sheer humanity of an unscripted encounter in a national park.”
Thanks, Larry, for demonstrating one of the myriad of career paths EnSafers carve out for themselves, as they follow their interests and launch new initiatives in search of creativity!