LARC expedition to South Africa teaches lessons in collaboration

by WU Staff,

Willamette students participated in a wide array of internships and research projects this summer. This is the fourth of a five-part series highlighting their experiences.

From sunup to sunset, Monique Rodriguez ’14 tracked elephants across the Cacadu District of South Africa. She learned about the ecology and history of the region, observed Caspian Terns at coastal estuaries, and discovered how science and art unite to tell the story of a landscape.

Now she is one of several Willamette University students and professors who are sharing their experiences through an exhibition at the Salem Art Association’s Project Space at 365 Ferry St. in downtown Salem.

The exhibition runs from Aug. 16 to 31, with a reception on Aug. 23.

“The idea of collaboration is more on my mind now,” says Rodriguez, a studio arts major from Carbondale, Colo. “It can be important in your work for experts to come together to share and learn from one another. You become more innovative.”

Working Together

Teamwork drives Willamette’s Liberal Arts Research Collaborative program, funded by the Mellon Foundation. Through LARC, select undergraduates work alongside professors in the summer to study the arts, humanities and social sciences.

For this particular LARC project, Andries Fourie, associate professor of art; and David Craig, chairman of the Biology Department; were joined by Rodriguez, Jake Waldner ’15 and Erynn Rebol ’13 to study the interdisciplinary fields of art and science.

During the 16 days spent in South Africa, the artists engaged in scientific measurement and observation under the guidance of their scientific colleagues, while the scientists sketched with the artists. They lived together, discussed everything they observed, and exchanged ideas.

The trip also featured a five-day workshop with botanists, artists and historians from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University at the Kaboega Botanical Preserve. The workshop was created after academics there read Willamette’s LARC proposal.

Through the latter experience, Waldner ’15 says he gained a new appreciation for his liberal arts education, since the students at the South African university had little exposure to interdisciplinary research.

“Being a part of such a collaborative process broadens your thinking,” says Waldner, a studio arts major from Mount Vernon, Ore. “What I like about attending a liberal arts school is that you gain experiences related to all different subjects. This makes you more marketable and more likely to get a job after you graduate.”


For Fourie, a native of South Africa, the trip to his homeland offered an opportunity to teach others about his culture while rediscovering his own roots.

He left is country during a time of war in 1989 and didn’t return for 16 years. During his absence, he learned that what he was taught in school was not history but propaganda to reinforce racial segregation.

“What I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the U.S. is inform myself about South Africa and my relationship to it,” Fourie says. “By working with Dave, I’ve learned science is a really, really helpful way to learn about a place.”

These lessons include how to read a landscape by understanding its geology, geography, botany and history — in addition to learning how a place has been altered by people.  

“There are all these clues. You just have to figure out how they connect,” Fourie says. “Through working with Dave, I learned there is a complexity when you look at a place, that beneath the surface, there are all these dynamics.”

Craig, too, says he and the students received many teaching moments while abroad, and he enjoyed the opportunity to see the world through other people’s eyes.

‘I enjoyed watching the students suffer, to get frustrated and jammed up when things didn’t make sense,” Craig jokes. “It was fun to travel with curious, intelligent students and to have open-ended conversations.”

Creating an Exhibition

Since returning to Salem, Craig, Fourie and the three students have worked on creating an art exhibition for Project Space in downtown Salem. The show features an array of interpretive signage, steel sculptures and installations.

For the exhibition, Waldner built a cage from farming equipment. The structure is adorned with wooden elephants — illustrating the fight between farmers and elephants for land.

“Farmers are trapping elephants in an area, and the elephants are running out of room,” Waldner says about the symbolism of his piece.

For Rodriguez, spending her summer making art gave her insight into the lives of professional artists. Although she has yet to finalize her post-graduation plans, she says the LARC program enabled her to investigate her passions.

“It’s an amazing opportunity and so necessary,” Rodriguez says. “You collaborate. You gain a different perspective from your professors and the other students who work with you. It’s just very fun. I think all the students and professors are grateful for it.”

Understanding a Place

Equally excited and nervous about the new exhibition, Waldner says he’s grateful for the opportunity to showcase his work in a professional setting — an opportunity few undergraduates receive.

“If people take time to learn about the pieces, it will broaden their thinking of the people in South Africa,” Waldner says. “They are teaching pieces. They give people a sense of knowledge and learning.”

Fourie agrees, adding that he hopes the show will not only expand viewers’ definitions of art but help them understand how science and art influence each other.

“Art can be a means of investigating and understanding the world,” he says. “It can be a record of an experience or an idea. A map, a graph or even statistics can be art.

“I’m hoping that with this union of art and science, we will give people a variety of different means to access a certain kind of understanding about that place.”