What’s your place in the world?

It’s not a question commonly posed by a scientist. But it’s central for Dr. Shelby Bohn, the University of Guelph artist and post-doctoral researcher leading College Royal’s 100th anniversary mural.

The mural design was revealed during this year’s College Royal, U of G’s annual open house. It will be the latest artwork featured in the University Centre’s student lounge and will be completed over the next few weeks by Bohn.

Studying with Dr. Madhur Anand, professor in the School of Environmental Sciences (SES) at the Ontario Agricultural College, Bohn says the mural is part of her larger mission to bridge disciplines that don’t often communicate with each other. 

“I’ve always been interested in different ways of knowing the world around me,” she says. “That includes art and science, and how those two ways of knowing overlap.” 

College Royal mural design concept, where "College Royal 100th" appears in stylized red lettering, surrounded by various icons, including foilage, buildings,  animals, and tools
100th College Royal mural design

In the mural, Bohn employs her trademark style, which combines the massive expanse of history with the intricate details of everyday life. She uses smaller motifs – plants, foliage, creatures and other objects – to lead the eye in a left-to-right stream, like a book or a historical timeline. 

These artistic choices in which individual elements weave together until they reveal a larger design are a commentary on our interconnectedness and “sense of memory,” Bohn says, the way individual experiences ripple into larger interactions.  

“I want people to feel the gravity of 100 years,” she says. “And I want them to have thoughts about how that weight might shape the future of the University and how they might be part of that.” 

Breaking the science and art barrier 

Although the mural is a separate initiative from her current research, Bohn sees it as an extension of her projects of knowledge mobilization, connecting disciplines that are often at odds with one another. 

Shelby John, sitting on green field with dog. Artistic illustrations of icons arc above and around her
Dr. Shelby Bohn

She has an uncommon research project. Cross-appointed with the International Institute for Critical Studies and Improvisation, her work at SES is “insight through making”: to craft visual communications alongside research papers and see what new knowledge can form, and how science can be better communicated to a broad audience.

“We are psychologically very drawn to visuals,” Bohn says. “Being able to communicate my research visually to my friends and family has been really important to me. My research project allows that opportunity, for me and Dr. Anand – both of us scientists and artists – to break down the science-art barrier and work together as partners.”

Anand was recently recognized as a 2024 YMCA Woman of Distinction for community leadership in bridging the arts and sciences. On top of international recognition for ecological research, Anand has also won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction. 

Studying with Anand, Bohn continues this synthesis of art and science within SES at OAC.

By the end of her project, she hopes she can answer some crucial questions: Is this partnership scalable? What advice can artists give to scientists, and vice versa? What knowledge do we lose when artists and scientists don’t work together? 

Ecology brought to life

The central question behind the College Royal mural – “What is your place in a broader community?” – is ecological as much as it is artistic.

“My understanding of ecology as organisms interacting with their environment, as well as others in that environment, has expanded my art practice,” she says. “I’m painting a lot of murals in their specific places. I’m also asking people looking at the mural to interact with both the mural and their context and the environment around them.” 

College Royal began as an agriculture show in 1925 and has since grown to involve every college. Bohn is capturing that historical memory, guiding us to reflect deeply on what’s happened then and what’s happening now, and where we fall in that story.