Last week I attended a talk by artist Connie Hayes at the Strand Theatre. She spoke on the notion of an artist’s ambitions changing over time. Hayes showed images of paintings created during the past 40 years, many brilliant with the color and elegant composition that are her hallmarks. After the hour-long talk, audience members asked Hayes questions. One woman asked, “What do you mean by perceptual painting?” — a term Hayes had used several times in her presentation. The question stumped Hayes for a moment. She started to reply, thought better of it, stood still for a moment or two and then answered. To paraphrase, perceptual painting means watching and waiting for the crux of the thing, whether it is a still life, a landscape, or a bunch of boxes leaning against a wall, to reveal itself. It is the moment of astonishment that the artist tries to transfer to canvas. 

When I was a child I spent a good deal of time watching ants. Of course I did other things — climbed trees, played kickball, terrorized my younger siblings — yet I recall long stretches of time in the sunshine hunkered down close to the ground watching small black ants dart about. I was a kid; I knew nothing about ants. I was simply astonished by their activities. Apparently purposeful lives were going on that were entirely mysterious to me. What were they up to? What was going on beneath the surface? I had a lot of patience then; my mother would have to pull me away from the hill. 

E.O. Wilson, famed Harvard biologist and author, also became fascinated by ants but for a different reason. Wilson was a curious child who, according to his autobiography, “Naturalist,” decided at age 7 that he would be a naturalist. It was about that time that Wilson’s parents separated and he was sent from his home in Alabama to spend the summer with family friends on the shore in northern Florida. Wilson lived a largely unsupervised life there, alone and mostly outdoors. When a spine from a pinfish stabbed his right eye, Wilson didn’t tell anyone. Some months later he developed a cataract; surgery to remove the cataract left him with little sight in the eye. So he turned his curiosity and observational skills to that which was small — insects, amphibians and reptiles of his native southern Alabama, ultimately becoming a scientific connoisseur of ants. 

Before Wilson there was Louis Agassiz. The 19th-century professor was renowned for many scientific pursuits but he started out as a fish expert. He classified a vast collection of Brazilian freshwater fish in 1829 when he was first out of college and then went on to publish a taxonomic catalogue of all the freshwater fish of Central Europe. Later, as a professor of natural history in Switzerland, he became intrigued by fossils of fish. Seriously intrigued: Agassiz published five finely illustrated volumes on the fossil fish of Europe over a ten-year period. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1847 and became a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard. He was well known among his students and peers for his extreme emphasis on observation as the basis of knowledge.

One story most commonly attributed to Agassiz concerned a student and a fish. Agassiz handed the student a fish and asked him to describe it. So the student did, writing down all that he had learned about that species of fish. Nope, that’s not right, said Agassiz. So the student expanded on his text, adding scientific details of all sorts. No, said Agassiz, look at the fish! After many hours of study, the student began to notice certain details that he had missed, such as the shape of each tooth, the patterns made by the scales, the feathering around the gills. Again, Agassiz told him to renew his attention. Finally, after a full week, the student produced a text that Agassiz approved of; the student knew the fish. After Agassiz’ death, one of his colleagues recalled that Agassiz would “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.”

What truths do objects contain? At first glance, one sees what one expects to see. But sit still for a while. Sit close to a hill of black ants and watch. Study the slant of the summer sun bringing out the texture of granite rocks near the shore. Watch a robin in the backyard defend his territory. Spend ten minutes in silent contemplation of tamarack needles. You may not become an artist, you may not become a scientist, but you will be closer in touch with the impulse that motivates both. In the words of Bernd Heinrich, naturalist and author of “Ravens in Winter,” who was quoted by Carl Little in a recent article, “Art and science come from the same wellspring. Neither originated from the utilitarian and both spring from the aesthetic.”