How two professors use visual arts to probe, question pervasive global issues

Exploring human suffering and resilience in war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Examining public health concepts and their larger societal conventions, including aging, disease and genetics.

There is, in fact, a common thread between the two: visual art. The concepts are the primary focus for two professors at Western Kentucky University, respectively: Yvonne Petkus and newly announced head of the Department of Art, Kristina Arnold.

Both Petkus and Arnold turn to art — painting for Petkus and painting, mixed media and sculpture for Arnold — to add creative context to issues or questions that are often hard to discuss, let alone visualize.

Yvonne Petkus, Dash (Siege of Sarajevo), oil on plexiglass, 30″ x 36″ x 1/2″, 2017

The intended result: an opportunity to spark a different way to think about, understand and even empathize with difficult subjects.

“My hope is that the experience of looking will create a similar search for meaning,” Petkus said.

Changing thoughts about health—and, perhaps, the world

Inside WKU’s Ogden College Hall, the core of the Ogden College of Science & Engineering, graceful sculptures seem to float on two walls. Delicate glass membranes in different hues — some golden brown to light yellow, others deep red to a blush pink, and still others that are clear — are suspended within gently curving cells that collectively tower 10 feet high and stretch 16 feet long.

The permanent installation, Incubate, “explores the birth, development and growth of an idea—and of a scholar,” according to a synopsis written by Arnold. “It celebrates the discovery of new knowledge, and the process of creativity that is necessary for breakthroughs in any discipline.”

Kristina Arnold with “Neuron Cloud” during a show at Artfields in Lake City, S.C.

You might not expect to find such a creative, almost ethereal, approach to thinking in a building dedicated to the exploration of science and engineering. Yet it’s at that intersection—or, more specifically, that of art and public health—where Arnold channels both curiosity and creativity to explore how we think about and react to health, including human biology.

Arnold, who pursued a degree in public health and worked at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for five years before entering art school at the University of Tennessee, said human biology references have always been a central focus in her art.

“Human biology is a touchstone in terms of imagery, but it’s larger issues of health, which include human biology, the environment and how we process socially, including challenging the larger societal conventions and models,” that drives Arnold’s work.

That focus deepened during Arnold’s time at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, an experience that “exposed me to ideas around public health like contamination and infection,” she said. The challenge: can those ideas, often viewed as alarming, even downright frightening, be positive?

A detail of “Incubate,” installed last January in WKU’s Ogden College Hall.

Some of Arnold’s more recent work also represents a more personal health journey: that of her dad, who has an undiagnosed degenerative brain disease.

Her dad’s experience “circles back to how we deal with health and aging as a society,” Arnold said. Rather than focusing on loss, “How do make sure all the good parts can still be there and celebrated?”

Driven by those questions, Arnold typically turns to research as part of her larger creative process. That often includes reading research—perusing medical articles and textbooks to better understand specific health concepts and physiology—accompanied by what she called “ ‘making’ research. I’m investigating an idea and creating new knowledge through what I’m physically making.”

One example of this process is “Portrait of the artist(s),” a ‘neuron cloud’ created from flame-worked borosilicate glass and LEDs. Austin Lundeby collaborated with Arnold on the piece to wire and program the LEDs using an Arduino board and custom-printed circuit boards. The lights, which shine in a deliberate pattern, offer visual context to a concept that’s otherwise difficult to picture: how the brain processes thoughts.

Another work, “Baker’s Dozen,” represents Arnold’s exploration of inheritability.

“I inherited stepchildren, so I’ve been thinking about what we pass on,” she said. “It goes back to biology and sociology: how do blended families work? What do you pass on through your blood and genes, and what do you pass on through your sweat and tears?”

Kristina Arnold (left), head of Western Kentucky University’s Department of Art, installing an exhibition at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ken., with the help of student assistants. The exhibition included “Neuron Cloud” and drawings.

Lofty, often nebulous concepts to be sure, but for Arnold, it’s an opportunity to help shape the conversation around health while also sharing her own perspective.

“As an undergraduate, I was idealistic and I wanted to change the world in the greatest way that I could, so I thought health,” she said. “I would hope that seeing something through an artistic translation of the idea might have positive repercussions on how ‘hard’ scientists see it.”

“Details matter:” Capturing struggle and trauma in Bosnia

How do you share and depict the lingering devastation of war and human struggle.

That question took Petkus to Bosnia and Herzegovina last year as part of the Zuheir Sofia Endowed International Faculty Seminar fellowship program run by WKU’s Office of International Programs.

Yvonne Petkus, professor, Western Kentucky University’s Department of Art, sketching at the International Gallery of the Portrait, Tuzla. Photo by Brent Björkman.

Prior to traveling to Bosnia in May 2017, Petkus and six faculty members spent time during the spring semester studying “the country’s history and culture, and shared scholarship about Bosnia from each of our disciplines,” Petkus said.

After arriving in Bosnia, Petkus began a whirlwind of local immersion, including meeting government officials, a camp survivor, a survivor of the Srebrenica genocide and representatives from the International Commission on Missing Persons, to name a few.

Petkus also pursued independent research, which took her to museums and galleries, as well as meetings with artists and other creative professionals.

“The strategy while in Bosnia was to take in information and sources through sketches, photos and interviews, to then process toward works that further explore the psychological content that underpins my ongoing studio work, including the idea of struggle and the residue of trauma,” she said.

Using information gathered while in Bosnia, especially sketches, Petkus returned to Kentucky to create a resulting body of work, “a series of paintings on Plexiglass and wooden panels that use the sketches from Bosnia as loose starting points,” she said.

Yvonne Petkus sketching at the historic Bridge on the Neretva River. Photo by Dželdina (Gina) Dželil.

Although the paintings depict different nuances and interpretations of the larger theme, you’ll often see repeated elements, including figures.

“The figures in the pieces are not intended to be specific persons but rather to represent a larger sense of vulnerability and loss, as well as the resilience or stubbornness necessary to survive,” she said.

Other repetition signifies images that left a lasting impression on Petkus’s mind. She sketched several photographs and exhibits from places like the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One image in particular appears in several of Petkus’s paintings.

“It’s a stark image of a man lying motionless and stiff, shot in the street,” she said. “It was only after sketching this photo for quite awhile that I noticed a small, square box lying next to him in the street, perfectly square and perfectly lit, having been in his hands moments before. This is what I found over and over again—these normalizing details within such horror, like the men’s everyday clothing, the women’s bags—and that box. I can’t stop thinking about that box.”

That experience—and the resulting work—affirmed one of Petkus’s more significant takeaways from the trip.

“Details matter,” she said. “In sketching throughout Bosnia, I was able to see that importance.”

For some people, the work of creating meaningful art from this experience is downright daunting, if not impossible. Yet for Petkus, “painting is a physical act of thinking, a way to wade through and make sense of tough content and large questions.”

It’s an experience made even more transformative by a stark contrast: ideas vs. action.

“I love that the creative process gives us a chance to ask big questions but through such humble means,” she said. “For me, this means physically moving what’s basically mud around with hair on the end of a stick. The stakes are high—to possibly shape or further thought—but the means are very human.”

The importance of community

Their subject matter, processes and resulting work differs, but Arnold and Petkus both share a bond of community through WKU and a three-person artist collective that also includes Leslie Nichols, an adjunct professor at WKU.

After a sabbatical, Arnold knew she didn’t want to lose the reinvigorated focus on her work and research. She searched for two people that fit several criteria, including the ability to work well together and that “could challenge me in a deep and meaningful way,” she said, and the collective was born.

Arnold and Petkus also find collaboration, community and support at WKU.

“One of the things I love about this university is that the community extends across disciplines,” Arnold said. “I love working with artists but also scientists and linguists and pushing ideas through different media, including what does this look like in your laboratory?”

Working with students also has a lasting impact on Arnold and Petkus’s work. It’s not always easy to juggle the demands of researching, creating and teaching, but the resulting reward is worth the challenge.

“I try to be as sharing as possible with my work and what I’ve learned,” Arnold said. “That’s the other thing in art: you don’t want your students to start making your work – you want them to make their work. What is their voice? What is their vision? That’s almost opposite of wrapping them into my exisiting studio practice.”

Added Petkus, “I’ve always found that there is an energy and exchange that happens in the classroom that can work both ways. There is the planned and the unexpected that translates back to my own studio. And the act of helping each student find their own thrust, their practice, what will most help them ask and challenge their questions, is what we all do no matter how long we’ve had our practice.”