Lunchable: Conservation, Ecology Inspire Art Student

Fourth-year art studio major McKinna Salinas stands in front of her work, "Mountain Yellow-legged Frog."
Fourth-year art studio major McKinna Salinas stands in front of her work, "Mountain Yellow-legged Frog."

There are microscopes and Bunsen burners — and paintbrushes

by Kat Kerlin

Editor's Note: Lunchable is a regular feature of the UC Davis Arts Blog, giving readers a bite-size exhibit or other event that can be taken in during a lunch or other short break.

This story is reprinted from the UC Davis Science & Climate site. Please visit the site for this and other climate news.

People use all kinds of tools to better understand environmental problems. There are microscopes, Bunsen burners, stream gauges, satellites, and mass spectrometers, to name a few.

But there’s also the paintbrush.

After fourth-year art studio major McKinna Salinas took an introductory class in wildlife ecology and conservation at UC Davis, she translated her curiosity through a series of oil paintings representing the lectures that inspired her. Her show is called Conservation Cataclysms.

The paintings, created as part of her independent study with art professor Gina Werfel, are on exhibit through this quarter at the Academic Surge building within the UC Davis Department of Wildlife Fish and Conservation and Biology. Here’s a preview:

In the 1950s, the state began using airplanes to stock formerly fishless lakes in California’s high Sierra with non-native trout. These actions nearly decimated populations of mountain yellow-legged frogs, now a federally listed endangered species. In Salinas’ painting, Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, trees, lakes and mountains await as an airplane drops fish from the sky, much like a B-52 bomber dropped weapons. “I thought it was absurd that humans would air-drop a bunch of fish into these fishless alpine lakes so they could fish trout,” Salinas said. “It had a huge negative impact.”

The work was inspired by associate professor Brian Todd’s lecture on the topic.

“It’s a really neat and unexpected direction to see a student take that kind of energy and creativity after exposure to our program,” Todd said.

“I think art’s role in addressing environmental problems is vastly underappreciated. We’re learning in science communication that storytelling is a very human characteristic that allows people to get engaged with the world around them. That can take a lot of different formats, including visually.”

Oil drilling
Oil Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 30x40in, 2017, McKinna Salinas

The shapes of pumpjacks and an upward-moving graph meant to convey temperature rise is integrated into the piece, Oil Drilling in the Arctic, which was inspired by professor Eric Post’s lecture on “The Vanishing Arctic.” She wanted to show the potential destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska if it is opened up to oil drilling.

Dead zones, light pollution offer further inspiration

dead zones
Dead Zones, 48x60in, 2017

In the painting, Dead Zones, two canvases come together to show both the destruction and discordant beauty of dead zones, something Salinas learned about through professor Daniel Karp’s lecture on agroecology. While looking through photographs of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, she was troubled by the environmental damage but she also found the colors to be interesting, even beautiful. Stark lines cut through the landscape, indicating the geometric shapes of aerial agricultural fields. It’s one of her favorites.


Light Pollution
Light Pollution, 36x48in, 2017

Her painting, Light Pollution takes a darker turn. Dark purples, dark blues. Nighttime. Salinas learned from post-doctoral researcher Matthew Hansen’s lecture on sensory ecology that light pollution at its most extreme can veer migratory songbirds off course, as they travel by starlight. Inside the dark painting are allusions to the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge and—cutting up through a singular bright stripe—the 9/11 annual lighting tribute, whose bright beams reaching four miles into the sky have had the unintended effect of trapping and disorienting migrating birds.

Salinas said the conservation class helped her focus her art research on current events, which she hopes to continue throughout her senior year and beyond.

Conservation Cataclysms in on view through the end of the quarter at Academic Surge. The paintings are hanging in the hallway, near the conference room (1064) off La Rue Road.

Salinas talks about her art in this video. 

Other lunchable art still on view:

Bugs and Pie Included

Alum Chalks it up at Imagining America


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