Art as civic data science: Q&A with Pittsburgh painter Ashley Cecil -


Jul. 11, 2018 1:30 pm

Art as civic data science: Q&A with Pittsburgh painter Ashley Cecil

Her latest exhibit, Edged Out, includes works that visualizes scientific research as it pertains to amphibian conservation efforts and their ecology. Think of it as data viz for the art world.
“Diseased” by Ashley Cecil.

"Diseased" by Ashley Cecil.

(Courtesy image)

Pittsburgh-based artist Ashley Cecil specializes in paintings that depict the natural world.

She completed a six-month residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 2016 and has done commissioned work for Oxfam America. For Cecil, art is about creating connections, and her latest exhibit, Edged Out, at the Frick Environmental Center, highlights the plight of amphibians and the threats to their natural habitats.

It’s part of a six-month artist residency at the Richards-Zawacki Herpetology Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, where she’s working on creating artwork that visualizes scientific research as it pertains to amphibian conservation efforts and their ecology. Part of the grant-funded residency calls for developing STEAM workshops to engage kids in “citizen science” programs.

What does this have to do with civic data? Cecil believes anyone can collect data for scientific or civic purposes whether they’re a technologist or a scientist or an artist: “Even if you haven’t been trained in the sciences, you can help make the connections to people who are,” she explained.

We asked her a few questions about her work and the exhibit, and her thoughts on art-as-data-visualization.


Open Data PGH: Talk a little bit about how you see art as a way of explaining civic data, and how your methods of data collection vary from more traditional methods.

Ashley Cecil: I think the benefit to the researchers — I hope anyway — is that their research has a chance of being digested by members of the public who don’t have a science background. You take something that if you don’t have a background in, biology, or herpetology, whatever it is, the science can feel intimidating.

I think the objective for scientists, for their work, is meant to impact policy around conservation. How do we keep healthy amphibian populations, because they’re critically endangered or already extinct in the wild? They’re talking to other scientists other conservationists.

My goal is to take that information for those of us don’t have a background in science, take it and say, “This is what I’ve learned.” Hopefully, they draw connections between those creatures and their own well-being.


Is there a piece in the Edged Out exhibit that you think best demonstrates what you’re trying to convey?

One of the two larger pieces is meant to illustrate the spread of a fungal pathogen called chytrid [“Diseased,” above]. It’s wiping out amphibian populations worldwide. When I was in the lab I had seen some pathology of this disease, a cross-section from an amphibian tissue sample, and it used the dye colors of pink and purple. I used a painting process to populate the look of the cells on one layer, then layered the Panamanian golden frog on top of that rendering. Where the disease is, I depicted white silhouettes of the frog: Wherever this disease is, the frog is gone.

“Edged Out.” Says Cecil: “Amphibians can only thrive where they have a home. Our growing demand for agriculture is one of the many causes of deforestation, which destroys the habitats and ecosystems amphibians rely on.” (Courtesy image)

It sounds like a way of taking data visualization beyond a map.

Right, and I try to provide viewers a way to learn more through web links, so they can get involved and take steps to help. The idea is to take something most people stumble over trying to describe and distill it down to something we can digest.

What is your science background, it almost sounds like you have a toe in the art world and the science world.

I failed miserably in all my science classes! I don’t think well in linear terms, especially when there’s a right and a wrong answer. I was always horrible at that. It was interesting, that feeling stayed with me for decades, that feeling that I didn’t have a place in the science community, where I could speak to science-related topics like climate change. It was really self-excluding; no one told me to go away, I just felt like I didn’t belong there.

That’s part of why I’m doing this. We need everyone involved: scientists, artists, accountants — there’s no reason to exclude yourself from science and data if you’re not good in math and science. There are ways everyone can be engaged.

What has the response been from the scientific community, from people in that space you’re working with?

It’s been great, overwhelmingly positive. It’s relatively unusual for an outsider to come to them and say, “I love the work you’re doing, can I help you shed some more light on it?” A lot of these researchers don’t have that type of interaction with the public, so I’ve been happy to help and honored to help. I’ve gone to several major scientific institutions now, and I think people appreciated the help communicating what they do in ways that are not obvious to them.

Edged Out is at the Frick Environmental Center through Aug. 31. To get involved with citizen science locally, Cecil encourages people to check out FrogWatch.


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