How did you find your passion for the natural world? I think it’s always been there. When I was a little girl, I’d paint horses and other animals on my wall. I even had a subscription to the Teddy Bear Review magazine and made my own teddy bears. I must have collected 300 teddy bears. Being around plants and animals has always felt like being home.
What additional skills did you need to make the leap into scientific illustration? I followed my printmaking BFA with a master’s certificate in science illustration because the two disciplines approach art in a very different—and complementary—way. Science illustration demands that artists ask a different kind of observational question than fine art does; it requires understanding the world from a functional perspective rather than an aesthetic or conceptual one. The more I know about my subjects—whether they are plants, animals or entire systems—the more directions I can explore in representing them, whether that be in a work of fine art or a strict science illustration. The discipline teaches artists how to communicate by not only expressing feelings, but also conceptualizing facts.
When did you begin making large-scale murals, and what are the unique challenges? My first foray into large-scale painting was working as a decorative painter after college. One day, while driving from Monterey to San Francisco, I got sick of seeing ugly billboards trying to sell me things, and I got the idea for our Migrating Mural project. Our goal with the Migrating Mural is to create a network of public works that celebrate wildlife along migration corridors it shares with people. I think our world would be so much more beautiful and interesting if, instead of advertising, there were interpretive signs explaining the world around us.
Because murals are created in the public sphere and meant to be incorporated in our daily lives, they can have broad social and political impacts. From Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to the works of Diego Rivera, the stories murals tell are a reflection of the values of society. I can’t think of a more important topic for a public forum than the health of our planet.
How has the response to your projects shaped your perspective on who your work reaches? The subject of our current Migrating Mural is the monarch butterfly, which has historically been found across North America and is under tremendous environmental threats. Last year alone, we created seven unique Monarch Migrating Murals, in places like Arkansas, Florida and Utah—states whose political leaders have not been particularly open-minded about concepts like climate change. The response we’ve received from the people in these places, however, have been overwhelmingly positive. In taking often-overlooked subjects like the monarch and representing them in a monumental and unique way by blending fine art with scientific illustration, we make these issues easier to embrace and the animals impossible to ignore. In creating common ground, we’re opening up an opportunity for further dialogue and positive change. Fox News has covered the Migrating Mural more than any other news outlet thus far, so the message is getting out there.
How do you balance scientific accuracy with artistic license? The Wall of Birds mural I painted at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great example of balancing scientific accuracy with artistic license. The Cornell Lab is the world’s leading institute of bird study, and for the lab’s 100-year anniversary, they asked me to create a 2,500-square-foot mural celebrating the diversity and evolution of birds.
Scientific illustration is data driven and designed to inform, educate and simplify complex processes. When I’m creating scientific illustrations, I focus on how I want the audience to perceive and interpret the work. I’m hoping to elicit a specific reaction and understanding. In that sense, the Wall of Birds was one giant scientific illustration. Our goal was to tell a story celebrating the diversity and evolution of birds by showcasing the animals at life-size, within their range, in natural positions and plumage. The artistic parameters were rigid, and the message was targeted.
Fine art, on the other hand, is an internal process. Consideration of the audience is secondary to bringing my artistic vision to life. Rarely do I create a work of fine art with the desire to drive the viewer to a singular conclusion—on the contrary, the best fine art presents a host of philosophical paths for the curious mind to wander. Scientific illustration delivers a lesson. Fine art inspires reflection.
To create a successful mural, I had to find equilibrium. Fidelity to accuracy was unassailable, but if that became the sole focus, the mural would run the risk of becoming too dry, too academic and fundamentally ineffective. Though, neither was this the place to channel Frida Kahlo.
What can artists learn from scientists, and vice versa? Both rely on the power of observation, but in different ways. Scientists value a specific line of questioning, where one question leads to another and another, in a never-ending series. Artists question in a less linear manner, often searching for unlikely relationships. Artists respond to the beauty of the information gathered, not just the factual outcomes, embracing patterns not directly tied to cause and effect. Scientists are trained to focus on communication within their own scientific communities, while artists take a much more egalitarian approach to their audience. With the way that science is under fire here in the United States, I think the scientific community—and the world—would benefit by thinking about ways to communicate with both their peers and the general public. Both scientists and artists are experimenters, whether in a laboratory or a studio.
What’s one of your favorite creatures that you’ve drawn? I’m painting a lot of plants right now and love it. They’re so complex and varied, even within the same species. It’s an endless exploration; I don’t feel like I’ll ever totally understand them.