Peter Krsko prefers not to label his profession though among his list of potential titles are scientist, artist, gardener, explorer and most recently artist in residence at UW-Madison.
Labels are “limiting” since he tries to “do a lot of different things,” he said.
This semester Krsko has been teaching a course titled “Zoethica: Bioinspired Art and Science” as part of his semester-long work as the Art Institute’s spring Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence.
According to a UW-Madison release, Krsko elaborated on the name of the course as a combination of “zoe”, the Greek word for life, and “ethical”.
One of the goals for his time at UW-Madison is “to explore bioinspired art and technology, not only from the aesthetic and scientific point of view, but also to explore the ethical implications,” he said in the statement.
More broadly, Krsko wants his program to explore the possibilities of teaching science in a way that’s more accessible.
“Art is a friendly way to do it,” he said. “It’s very simple. It’s like being fun and playful.
Science gets scary sometimes. If people hear about science in science language that’s not as understandable for people in the public and it is limiting the conversation. Art allows us to bring more people together around the table.”
The challenge Krsko posed to his students was to take scientific research from the university or their own work and translate the research goals or their findings into an artistic installation.
Installations of the students’ creation, as well as some of Krsko’s own, will be available for viewing at Olbrich Botanical Gardens starting on Friday through Aug. 6.
He said it’s a good challenge for the students who are largely science or engineering students. All but one of the students are undergraduates and only one member of the class is an art student.
After receiving his PH.D. in biophysics and material science, Krsko began working at the National Institutes of Health. He left NIH in 2009 to work on more public art projects, educational art projects and creating lesson plans for educators.
“I was looking for ways to improve the communication both ways,” he said. “(From) scientists and the public and the public and scientists.”
He said a major concern he heard from many people while he was working at NIH is that only a small fraction of the discoveries made at the institute were made public. That pushed him to find ways of engaging the non-scientists and cultivating the flow of communication.
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One type of sculpture that Krsko has made a few times resembles a tree constructed of thin pieces of wood. He created such a sculpture in the lobby of Birge Hall on the UW-Madison campus. It took him five days to build.
Some of the tree-inspired sculptures are made from materials reclaimed from construction dumpsites.
“We use this wood for building our houses and in many cases it gets thrown away after,” he said. “... first you have a tree — a nice organic natural form — which is then cut into a very sterile, straight piece of wood. I cut that up into smaller pieces and put it back into its natural tree form.”
Some of the projects that his students are doing include a video instillation about the growth of slime mold, a structure that visitors can walk through that resembles a spiral found on certain sea shells, a trellis that is concave in one direction and convex in the other (a common shape in the plant world) and a contraption that simulates a flower opening in the morning, he said.
Krsko is also using experiments from the semester to develop lesson plans for other teachers to use.
Those lesson plans are formatted specifically for middle and high school teachers with the understanding that their budgets are limited, so most of the experiments can be done with household or easily attained at a local hardware store, he added.
After his residency is over, Krsko will be sticking around for the Madison Mini Maker Faire before heading out to Washington D.C. to work on a few projects for a month.
Then Krsko will build an interactive trailer to take around to festivals for the months of June and July. Every year, for example, he creates pieces for Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits.
“Besides fine art stuff or educational stuff, I like to reach audiences in unusual venues and create pieces that are interactive, participatory or educational,” he said.
After a busy summer creating all kinds of work, Krsko is looking forward to coming back and spending time at his home in Wonewoc where he moved a year ago.
He said he likes the Midwest, which is why he chose to put down roots here. He likes the proximity to the West Coast and the South and he thinks the area is “just beautiful.”
Although he doesn’t use a specific professional label, Krsko will continue to make his way around finding new ways to inspire people to understand science on their own terms.
Or as he would like to put it, “tricking people into learning.”