The perception of nature

First NEST residency exhibition at Firehouse Art Center explores the boundaries between the natural and artificial


After three months of work — between five and 10 hours a day most weeks — artist Amy Hoagland’s work will come to an end when her installation Scope of the Natural opens to the public at Firehouse Art Center on Feb. 11. 

For Hoagland’s collaborator, Jennifer Cole, the work is just beginning. 

On paper the two might seem like an odd pair: Hoagland is a sculptor, while Cole is a social psychologist. Yet both CU graduate students use their respective work to explore how humans relate to nature, with Hoagland creating 3D scanned sculptures of natural objects like rocks and trees, and Cole studying the psychological processes of pro-environmental behavior. 

The two were a natural fit for a new residency program sponsored by CU Boulder’s NEST Studio for the Arts. The program pairs artists with scientists to explore the interrelation between disciplines — how science can inform art, and how art can inform science.

Scope of the Natural, showing at Firehouse through March 7, addresses the boundaries between the natural and the artificial in a technology-heavy world, but it also uses Hoagland’s sculptures — 3D renderings of rock formations bound in crystalline structures of metal and glass — as an environment where Cole can conduct research on how viewers psychologically experience art. After patrons view the installation, they can choose to take part in a research study. 

“My half of the project is the research half,” Cole explains via email. “So now that Amy (Hoagland)’s work is almost done, mine is just beginning! Specifically, I have designed the experiment and created the survey materials, will manage the recruitment of participants and collection of data, will perform statistical analyses on the data and compare data collected in person at the Firehouse to data collected from several online studies (two I have conducted already, one more I will conduct in early March using the video tour of Scope of the Natural) that look at similar research questions, and then will write up and present the findings.”

The NEST (Nature, Environment, Science and Technology) residency is the Firehouse’s first partnership with CU Boulder. Firehouse Curator Brandy Coons says she was immediately drawn to Hoagland and Cole’s proposal. 

“This project was really exciting, and the specific goals of their project are particularly interesting to us,” Coons says. “[Cole] is providing what we hope will be some kind of quantitative data related to how people interact with the visual arts. That is so cool because we do so much talking and arguing about the value of what we do [as an arts organization], and so being able to put some numbers behind that is really exciting.” 

With limited capacity allowed inside the Firehouse (you’ll need to call ahead to make an appointment to visit Thursday-Friday if you’d like to participate in Cole’s survey), Scope of the Natural provides ample space — a visual feast with minimal materials. Glass and metal lattice structures cradle 3D scanned sculptures of rocks, and cleverly placed lights and mirrors cast shadow sculptures of their own. The effect feels both natural and artificial, like moving through a digital rendering of Arches National Park. 

“Because we’re in this limited capacity situation, there’s a minimalism to the experience of the work,” Coons explains. “You’re not trying to see it around other people and you can actually see the way that the light is moving on the walls, and that becomes part of the experience.”

Hoagland creates the rock sculptures using a process called photogrammetry, where multiple photos are taken of a natural form — in this case rocks — and then placed into a software that stitches the images together to create a 3D file. Hoagland then uses a laser cutter to fabricate the pieces of the 3D file from cardboard. She texturizes the sculptures with sawdust as lichen.

The materials act as a way to further blur the distinction between natural and man-made.

“At first glance, one may not notice the material as cardboard, but looking closer it becomes much more familiar,” Hoagland explains via email. “This allows for a connection between a material we would possibly not readily identify as nature to be more recognizable as nature. Cardboard starts off as a tree, of course. The metal sculptural elements are made of steel welding rod, which is coated in copper. Steel welding rod is not traditionally used as a singular material; it is an industrial material that secures the joints of the support beams that hold up our buildings. The steel and copper are rocks and came from rocks. The glass is scientific glass, which is conventionally used in science labs to test our understanding of the world around us. Glass is directly connected to sand, and sand is connected to eroded rocks.”

Hoagland questions what humans consider to be natural, “particularly the perception that nature is outside of human society.” 

“I’m interested in the hierarchies that we set as humans and investigating these boundaries to understand why they have come into existence,” she says. “With a greater understanding of our position within nature, an empathetic link can be formed.” 

Patrons can sign up for a timed ticket to see the exhibition during Firehouse’s Second Friday opening reception on Feb. 11. For those unable to visit during the exhibition’s run, a digital version of the installation is available ( At-home viewers will still be able to participate in Cole’s research survey.     

On the bill: ‘Scope of the Natural.’ Feb. 11-March 7, Firehouse Art Center, 667 Fourth Ave., Longmont. The Firehouse is open Thursday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. by appointment only; Saturday and Sunday noon-5 p.m. for no more than 5 walk-in guests at a time. Email at least 24 hours in advance to schedule.