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Large-scale mandalas exhibit interprets ‘Nature in Chalk’ at Drexel University

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WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON 
For 21st Century Media

Everything’s ephemeral and connected. That’s what biology professor Caryn Babaian aims to relate to viewers in her art exhibit “Nature in Chalk.”
On view through May 31 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the exhibit features large-scale mandalas (spiritual and ritual symbols in Hinduism and Buddhism that represent the Universe) featuring images related to nature colorfully depicted on blackboard surfaces.
Babaian wanted to focus on the complexity and beauty of living systems within the natural world. She also wanted to demonstrate our connection to “the big picture, in the context of nature,” she said. “I hope that people will look at them, study the biology, and meditate on them to find their place in the pieces.”
The idea for the exhibit arose out of Babaian’s desire to understand complex relationships that have always intrigued her as a biologist. She wanted to convey the science behind evolution, symbiosis, and other topics in an artful way. She has studied Buddhism and researched mandalas, determining that they were appropriate for this project.
“It’s the universal circle. The sphere is representational of biology and life,” she said. “We have cycles. Everything is cyclical — the cell, the Earth.”
Babaian isn’t trying to infuse religion into her work, but she thinks that everyone wants to see themselves as connected to something, she said. It’s spiritual in that sense and also because everything comes from nature, she said.
The exhibit includes eight sequential pieces. The first is an abstract depiction of cellular life. The next shows the ecosystems of the ocean. The works continue on, telling the story of nature’s evolution. In each piece, you can see the interrelationship of ecology, she said.
The final piece, “Succession,” shows how Earth renews itself over time. It features a dandelion in a crack in concrete, as well as local plants that people can identify if they spend time in nature once they leave the exhibit.
Babaian became infatuated with biology as a child.
“I was in love with animals and plants. I loved bugs. I also liked the mad scientist thing, to experiment and to work with microscopes,” she said.
She always has been fascinated by nature’s transformative power.
“If you see an old building that isn’t being maintained, nature is always taking over,” she said. “You see the cracks and these little flowers emerging out of the cracks. Ten years later, those flowers will have crushed concrete. You’ll have the beginning of meadow, then a forest.”
Babaian, who isn’t a trained artist, likes chalk as an artistic medium and teaching tool, even in these technological times when many have switched to computer-based “smart boards.”
“The smartest board is a chalkboard,” she said.
In her classes at Bucks County Community College and the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, Babaian uses whiteboards and markers to draw cartoon-like pictures to complement her teaching. But she prefers the feeling of chalk and its ability to build layers and make subtle changes. Plus, it’s biodegradable.
Babaian also thinks chalk is appropriate for her artistic themes.
“It can be erased,” she said. “That’s another lesson right there — these things are not there for eternity.”
But while it’s there, the art aids learning. Babaian, who has master’s degrees in education and biology, believes that engaging both the analytical and artistic sides of the brain makes information easier to understand and more fun, too.
She liked to draw when she was young, but wasn’t born with that talent, she said. She persevered, though, and has improved throughout her life.
“It’s a phenomenal skill we let slide after childhood because we might not be perfect at it,” she said. “If I can draw and get a little better, anybody can.”
It’s rewarding and fun for her, as is combining art and science. She hopes that exhibit viewers will get excited about all of it, especially nature, just like she is.
“There’s a wealth of stuff on this planet right under your nose,” she said. “We’re never at a loss for something interesting.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Caryn Babaian: Nature in Chalk”
When: Now through May 31.
Where: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.
Tickets: Admission is $15.95; seniors age 65 and older/children ages 3 to 12 $13.95; children younger than 3 free.
Info.: Call (215) 299-1000 or check www.ansp.org/visit/exhibits/nature-in-chalk/

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