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Science, history students show environmental concerns through art

One river passes through all the stages of environmental degradation, finally emerging into a state of grace.

It’s clear turquoise as it travels through pristine forest, but goes murky as it passes into a polluted city. It weaves past those problems to the realm of solutions — solar energy, clean water and untouched wildlife habitat — where it turns again to a bright blue.

This is a mural UC Merced students put the finishing touches on Wednesday. They aren’t art students. Their majors range from psychology to electrical engineering. “Many haven’t had art since the third grade,” laughed Karen LeCocq, art teacher.

Still, they finished a colorful piece to portray a common connection among their concerns — the condition of today’s environment.

It used to be good, says the first part of the painting, full of endangered animals and thick rainforests. But the earth is being destroyed with pollution, litter, violence and overdevelopment, the middle of the art piece suggests.

Hope and solutions are portrayed in the mural’s final section, with UC Merced and its solar research and renewable resources as a focus.

The 6-by-18-foot canvas can be moved to various locations on campus or even travel to other California campuses, if that opportunity arises, LeCocq said. Its first appearance will be at Lake Yosemite on Tuesday.

“But hopefully it will end up here for future UC Merced students,” said Stephanie Franco, 20, a psychology major.

Students all had their own reasons for joining the teacher’s UC Arts 71 class, a class that varies by medium and subject each semester. UC Merced doesn’t yet offer an art major.

“It’s relaxing — it takes the stress away,” said Travis Campbell, 21, a junior majoring in bioengineering and chemistry. He paused from his painting of snowy-white polar bears to add: “And the theme, it’s what’s going on right now — global warming, pollution.”

None of the 12 students had any idea of the subject matter they’d cover when they first signed up.

LeCocq passed out index cards to the class and asked them to write down ideals in the world they were either excited about or against. Positive comments included peace, green energy, equality, freedom and saving the environment.

Students listed war, air pollution, global warming, racism and government corruption as negatives.

“There was a range of ideas, but every one of their cards had something about the environment,” the art teacher said. “It seemed like what they were interested in — a key unifying factor.”

And the students felt strongly about the subjects they painted. Freshman Alex Tani, 18, a history major, created a scene of a dump truck dropping trash into a river. “So I guess I’m representing reality,” he said grimly. “We are using up oil, chopping down trees, taking what’s not ours and destroying it.”

For senior Uday Bali, 22, significant subject matter came together in more ways than one. Bali is studying environmental engineering with an emphasis on renewable energy. He’s also working with professor Roland Winston on a solar energy project.

“It just all matched up,” Bali smiled. “It’s cool, the whole aspect. I tied my major into an art class.”