Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Interview with artist Glendon Mellow


Parasaurolophus skull, illustrated by Glendon Mellow

Artist, blogger, and new papa Glendon Mellow is well known in the science blogosphere for his intriguing, often surreal visions of scientific concepts. I had the great pleasure of participating in the Science-Art discussion with him at ScienceOnline in January. He's insightful, principled, and all around excellent company, as you may have gleaned from his popular blog, The Flying Trilobite. If not, you'll figure it out by reading this interview, in which we discussed his ideas about how science and art come together, his goals as an artist, and, of course, the awe-inspiring beasts of prehistory.

Please visit Glendon's portfolio, keep up with him at his blog, and support him at his online store. In addition to these outlets, he is one of the founders of the paleoart blog ART Evolved and the webmaster for Southern Ontario Nature and Science Illustrators. In December, he wrote a popular post at the Scientific American Guest Blog about science and art, and that shared interest is where we began our interview.

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Now that you've done panels at ScienceOnline three times, where do you think the exploration of the relationship between art and science needs to go?

Each year, we try to cover a lot of topics, and there are many more left untouched, by the ways the group discussion may go. One of the issues I've raised each year, is that visual art seldom leads directly to new areas of scientific research. It vexes portions of the scientifically literate crowd, but I've only ever had a couple of examples brought up. Literature, movies and other forms of self-expression seem somehow more inspiring or conducive to catalyzing research. So now I am wondering; why is this the case? Is it due to the art vs science divide most of us grow up with? Is there something inherent in the use of metaphor that prevents us from posing a useful hypothesis?

I think it would also be useful to consider visual art's role in seducing people into being interested in science and discovery. Are there ways we artists can do a more effective job with that? Or is all science-art a type of fanfic? The role of extreme-niche art about specific scientific disciplines almost seems to be pushing away from popular understanding. Art for a few people in a field who get it.

So, is science-art simply the visual artist's version of science fiction? Do you think that part of your unease about a parasitic relationship is rooted in the fact that science fiction is generally seen as contributing so much to science? And has that idea of artistic "seduction" into science remedied that unease?

There's certainly a science fiction glaze on some science-art, even in the fine art world. If you consider work like Wim Delvoye's Cloaca (an installation art piece of a machine that eats, digests and excretes) or the Genpets installation and website by Adam Brandejs, you can see that they do operate by showing us a distorted mirror of where we could be headed, as much of science fiction does. And yes, I do think some of my unease comes from that. If written and filmed science fiction can anticipate and inform research and technology, why not visual art?

Perhaps artists need to become more conscious of that seduction. It's possible that some in the science community feel intimidated by becoming schooled in visual art and some of its conventions, especially fine art conventions. After all, as has been debated in the science blogosphere that scientists are already expected to do outreach and behave like journalists - adding "art critic" to their c.v. is indeed an overwhelming thought!

It need not be though. find some art about your field, or another field, see what pleases you aesthetically. Then start asking questions about it, let that inquisitive scientific nature take over, and enjoy.


Glendon's new "Trilobite Boy" character

I've been writing my blog for less than two years, and didn't really become aware of the blogosphere until I began working in a cubicle all day, less than four years ago. In this short amount of time, it's changed me in a lot of ways. It's hard to remember what life was like before this, so it's easy to forget that web is in its infancy. Have you had a similar experience? What are your wildest hopes for where the web is going to take us in a few decades?

The Flying Trilobite is about 4 years old now, and I had been reading blogs for a couple of years before that. I remember waiting at the airport on the way home from ScienceOnline09 and speaking with Henry Gee. He asked me if I felt blogs had changed my life; I replied they had. And you see, even that question was one I had not entertained before. Blogging continues to change my life profoundly. I spent years angry and disappointed with my artwork languishing in my apartment. One day, out of frustration, I decided to start some kind, any kind of website. I went to Blogger, started typing and off I went. The people I've met, the friends I've made and the reception my artwork has had in the scientific and artistic communities has shown me that you can put on a very public face, mistakes and all and people will engage with you, and learn with you.

Where is the web going? I don't know. It certainly isn't filled with traditional storefronts and companies. It has it's own culture and subcultures, and it moves very quickly. I expect we will continue to see change, though I think blogs in one form or another are here to stay. There's something powerful about individuals having a voice that can reach the world.

I think it is still possible for individuals to shake some branches of the internet-tree. Like you David, and a few others online, I advocate for artists to at least be given credit for their artwork. Lack of credit is one reason I generally dislike the culture of Tumblr. There may be a general feeling that images online are free, but dammit, the creators need some credit! And after writing about it, and retweeting others who were writing about it in the last 6 months, there has already been some movement in the science blogosphere at least to rectify proper image use.

Art is one of those areas in which you're bound to come meet many people who don't have a scientific worldview, or might actually oppose it actively. As someone representing this loose science-art movement, have you run into any resistance from other artists, or confusion about just what the heck you're up to?

Yes. When I was in university, I was repeatedly asked by my peers what drugs I was taking to come up with ideas. Coffee is as far as I go into substance-use. It became annoying: people around me in the arts had such a mistrust of science that they assumed the ideas were the result of hallucinogens. It was rampant, even from professors, when I started my degree in '97. We would be given an assignment to paint something about our personal experience - I produced Symbiosis (full here) and was told "but you don't experience microbes". Science was evil: it gave us pollution and bombs.

I left school for many years and returned to complete my degree in 2010. And things had largely changed. Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, but I could see the way students approached an issue for their paintings seems to have been influence by a 'Wikipedia-effect'. Instead of some off-the-cuff commentary about pro-choice or fair-trade issues culled from the media zeitgeist, now my peers are producing comprehensive works. They incorporate history, science, culture, economics and emotion all into these collaged-style paintings. So I think a fascination with science is increasing. The explosion of science-art aggregating and reporting sites the last couple of years is showing there's an interest.

What were your favorite paleo-critters when you were a kid? Do you remember when your interest "graduated" to a desire to really understand the science of paleontology?

As a kid, it was really dinosaurs, like most children. The Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto has had the holotype Parasaurolophus mount since I was a child, and I remember having a toy of that. The idea of sounds beyond a roar from a dinosaur struck me as interesting at a young age.

Actually, I gave up on paleontology for some years. When I was a child, and into my teens going into paleontology was something I was determined to do. Then high school biology burned it out of me. I believe it had more to do with the curriculum then the teachers. Rote memorization of the Krebs Cycle without any worry over whether we understood it, and endless Punnett Squares killed it for me. I know that a lot of laboratory science involves repetition, but this seemed to be just rushing us through it.

I decided to become a writer, and then an artist. I was at university for Fine Art, and my mother wanted me to keep an interest in science, for fun at least, ad bought me a number of books. One of them was Richard Dawkins River Out of Eden. I was hooked. Mitochondrial Eve, armchair experiments on ancestry, the Digital River...I was drawing and painting microbes and fossils throughout university.

As a fine artist, do you feel that you have something unique to bring to criticism of paleoart and other scientific illustrations?

Being a fine artist can be less technical than being a scientific illustrator. If I take on the role of critic as you suggest, whether for paleoart or other types of scientific illustration, I think the fine artist in me looks for certain things in an image. Is there a sense of time passing? A poetic metaphor or some ambiguity that causes me to ask questions, and thereby be sucked into the image's world? These things are not necessarily desirable in a scientific illustration when that illustration is being used for clarity and instruction. Those sorts of questions are not the point.

However, more and more scientific illustrations are finding their way onto blogs and mainstream media as enhancements to stories about scientific discoveries meant for popular consumption, or at least consumption by more people than the handful of experts in a particular field. And that's when those questions come into play for me. Look at the images from stories about the Large Hadron Collider. It's clear from the images that a massive amount of industrial undertaking has taken place, using big shiny machines. But do those images that appear in the news help public understanding? A "just the facts" approach to imagery often does little to arouse curiosity or inspire understanding in lay people. I think that's where being a fine artist looking at these images can lead to useful criticism.

I've been fascinated by that idea of time passing since conversing with you and attending ScienceOnline. I think that Julius Csotonyi's Lanzendorf-winning piece from 2010 achieves it masterfully. How do you work that into your own work? How early in the process do you start to work it in?

Agreed, Csotonyi's painting achieves that really well. A sense of time passing in a still image isn't always easy, and I admire that Csotonyi is able to do that with a dinosaur carcass. This painting has a lot of motion: wind on the water, and by extension the grassy plants moving. Expressing decay can also give us a sense of time's passage, and it resonates even more in paleo art like this, which hints at future fossilization.

I think we as modern viewers looking at art appreciate time passing in a still image more than previous generations may have. It's almost essential. With YouTube, graphics on our phones, the artistry of video games, a still image that doesn't hint at motion or the passage of time is fading from fashion.

That said, I'm not sure how much of my work centers on time. Maybe I need to! I usually look for an interesting composition between my negative space and object, and try to keep things simple. I've been guilty in the past of including everything I can think of in a painting, and the past few years I've tried to make each one a little quieter: still-lifes and portraits of things that don't exist except as metaphors.

How much straight scientific illustration have you done, and what are your personal feelings on it?

It's a good question. I suppose sometimes there are elements of straight, non-fictional scientific illustration in my work; I think of the Red Knot in the Migrations blog banner or the rabbit skeleton in Haldane's Precambrian Puzzle A could count. Interestingly though, it's not what most people hire me to do. It's not expected. Outside of a couple of my Art Evolved cohorts, most people haven't asked me to do a straight-up scientific illustration. Usually the interest lies in seeing what my imagination can come up with, what disparate associations or compositional manipulations I can create to spark interest in the idea.

It's telling that most of my commissions are seeking something with a metaphorical flair, and most of that work comes from bloggers; they are looking for their subject to be rendered personal, and imbued with poetic meaning.

That reminds me a little of your recent Guest Blog post, in which you ditch "way of knowing" for "way of exploring" - a huge improvement, in my opinion. Since that post, how have your feelings about that distinction evolved?

I've thought about that phrasing a lot too. In the humanities, I absolutely think there are times when jargon is invented to be precise about a certain artifact of culture, but there are many more times when jargon is used through a combination of maintaining an ivory tower, and times when it is there through a sort of general science-envy.

Having a "way of knowing" phrase thrown around is a way to try to put (in this case) art on equal footing with science. The scientific method is the best way we have to really try to know or understand the world. The arts explore the world by tapping into human experience; emotions and associations we have. Visual art can do that in a powerful way. For most humans, our visual sense is the primary one, and the most direct one that will provoke a response.

"The Last Refuge," commissioned by Kevin Zelnio of Deep Sea News.

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I'd like to thank Glendon for taking the time to answer my questions, and encourage you again to visit his portfolio, blog, and his online store. He's currently taking commissions so don't be shy! All images in this post are copyrighted by him, and used with his permission.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, and Glendon describes and demonstrates the distinction between Science in Art and Scientific Illustration.
    I was amazed to read the attitudes you'd experienced at University. Not that they existed, but they were so similar to mine!
    I think Glendon's Art works in the way 'A'rt should, providing a vehicle to explore the ideas of science.

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