A group of students sit under a pavilion with sketchbooks to the left of the photo while to the right a female professor gestures

Art class lets students explore nature

Art in the Natural World is a general education class at Penn State Beaver that combines art and biology. The class, taught by Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Sarah Nilson, is a chance for students to slow down, observe nature and question the things they see.

On Thursday afternoons you can find Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah Nilson’s class congregated at picnic tables underneath chestnut trees near the Laboratory Classroom Building.

Walk a little closer, and you might see students with sketchbooks drawing a bug or butterfly. Other days they might have gone off on a wild goose hunt – literally – to observe and sketch the birds walking, eating and preening on Penn State Beaver’s grassy hills.
It’s all part of Art and the Natural World, a general education class that combines biology and art.

Nilson said the combination of biology and art is a natural pairing. “Biology started out with naturalists,” she said. “They had to draw the flora and fauna of the new world.”

The class is all about observation, about taking the time to slow down, relax and really notice things, Nilson said. “It’s just about sitting and looking and coming up with questions about what you see,” she said.

The class has brought out the creativity and talents of some students who might not have considered taking a more traditional art class because of lack of interest or the idea that they couldn’t draw. Nilson said one student in a past class was a fisherman. She said he was very quiet through the whole semester, and then turned in an impressive final art project of a native Pennsylvania trout.

“The hunters and fishers can come up with amazing projects,” she said.

Each week the students focus on a different part of natural history. One week they learned how to layer media to create texture when drawing insects. Another week they learned how to use watercolors to paint fungi.

The day they followed the geese, each member of the class picked one goose and observed a set of behaviors. The class combined their observations to draw conclusions about the behaviors of the gaggle.

Nilson also has arranged field trips for the class, and more recently she invited guest artists to talk about their work with art and nature. One artist was Ashley Cecil, a Pittsburgh-based artist whose work connects nature and people. Another was Cathy Benscoter, adjunct instructor of multimedia and photography and full-time Penn State Beaver marketing and web specialist, who discussed landscape photography techniques. The students planned to use their landscapes as the basis for watercolor paintings.

Fall 2021 is Nilson’s third semester teaching the class. It’s clearly left a good impression on past students. She said sometimes they will see her class outside, stop and sit down and begin to draw with the current class.

Nilson said she plans to have a mini art show on campus towards the end of the semester to display the work the students have done.