Sculpting the Census: The Intersection of Art & Science

The words "census" and "data" do not usually conjure up images of art. But two faculty members – Patrick Heidkamp, assistant professor of geography, and Jeffrey Slomba, associate professor of art – are joining sculpture and 2010 census data in an innovative project called "Sculpting the Census: Integrating Geographic Information Science, Sculpture and Social Engagement."

The project is funded by a grant from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, made possible by the state of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development/Connecticut Office of the Arts.

The grant program – called "REINTEGRATE: Enhancing Collaborations in the Arts and Sciences" -- is an initiative meant to foster relationships and dialogue between the scientific and artistic communities in the region, according to the Reintegrate website. Heidkamp and Slomba are one of seven teams of artists and scientists who received Reintegrate grants of $10,000 each to complete their projects.

Heidkamp and Slomba are creating three-dimensional representations – maps -- of geospatial data from the state, gleaned from the last census. One piece might focus on displaying uneven economic development and poverty in greater New Haven or all of Connecticut through the sculptural rendering of census information about household income.

The three-dimensionally mapped census data would show economic disparities between counties and even neighborhoods. Heidkamp and Slomba wanted to render the data as three-dimensional objects to encourage viewers' engagement with each piece.

3D mapsAs their grant proposal suggests, "Viewers may locate themselves within these topographical ranges, reach for and touch peaks of wealth, and peer into the dark depths of poverty -- which might be less comfortable."

Heidkamp and Slomba say their project "links the sciences and art in a new fashion" and explain that science and art collaborations are growing in popularity. Slomba says that STEM education has expanded to include art, transforming the STEM 'Sculpting the Census': The Intersection of Art and Science acronym into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). Such an approach is "truly interdisciplinary and breaks out of the traditional boxes," he says. Heidkamp adds, "Cross-disciplinary work is what will preserve liberal arts education. The truly innovative thought is where the two disciplines intersect."

Heidkamp says that creating three-dimensional maps to represent census data will catalyze discussion and public engagement on a greater scale than what is typically generated by, say, a journal article. Slomba and Heidkamp are also team-teaching an honors course – Meanings and Materials – and while planning the course they came upon the arts council grant. As with

"Sculpting the Census," the course ties geographic thought to creative production. Depending on how they use the census data – whether they show Connecticut at the county, city or neighborhood level -- some of the maps might have gentle slopes and others sharp spikes. The maps will show uneven development in the state, and Slomba and Heidkamp's hope is to open up conversation about spatial inequalities.

"We are looking at data regarding populations' achievements of economic rights, such as food, healthcare and housing," says Heidkamp. "The maps we are building are showing the disparities among economic groups as physical three-dimensional forms."

Slomba says the models are now made of cut styrofoam and wood, but eventually the professors will use AutoCAD, a design software, and 3D printers to create the finished models. He and Heidkamp are both working on the art and science portions of the project.

"Both of us have to understand what we're really doing and do these things together," says Heidkamp. Such collaboration is part of the Reintegrate philosophy. Slomba says he is getting a crash course in GIS (geographic information systems) and spatial analysis, and Heidkamp is getting a crash course in sculpture. They are planning to produce four models altogether: one that looks at Connecticut at the state level, and then others that break down the state by counties, towns and blocks, all based on 2010 census data.