ScienceOnline2012 was my 4th time attending the rockstar unconference in North Carolina. For ScienceOnline09, I had approached Bora Zivkovic about attending, mentioning that I know I'm not a scientist or journalist. He leapt at the opportunity to have me, and asked if I could do an art+science session and a workshop on putting images on blogs. I was taken aback - I'd been blogging a couple of years then (coming up on year 5 now!) and had never met Bora in person, or even spoken via Skype. I asked if he was sure: how'd he know I'd be okay speaking in front of a room full of strangers?

"Because I read your blog," Bora emailed in reply.

ScienceOnline is a different experience than any other. I wasn't sure what to make of that level of trust based on my blog. Since then, I've been fortunate enough as an artist to speak at the Center for Inquiry Ontario, moderate a discussion at SciBarCamp and appear in a number of podcast and radio interviews to discuss the fertile growth blossoming between the art and science divide people once thought existed. At the airport, while waiting for delayed flights, Nature editor Henry Gee asked if blogging had changed my life; it has and continues to do so, and ScienceOnline has been a part of that trajectory each year.

The Past

In addition to various workshops about image preparation for blogs and the use of graphics tablets, here are a few notes:

At scio09 I ended up moderating solo, to a very full room. I fretted at the time about whether it was possible for visual art to give back to science, to lead research; I worried art like my own is parasitic on scientific discovery and doesn't give back. Made for a lively discussion, and I'm still thinking about some of the responses to this day.

Also at scio09, researcher-artist Tanya Sova and I discussed ways to improve images using shareware programs; Tanya's resources are still ones I use today.

Scio10 was a very different experience: after noted image-maker professor Felice Frankel accepted my invitation to co-lead a session with me, we explored metaphors, and how far they can be pushed before they break. Images can often elucidate the confusing in science; from physics to geology to anatomy; but every representation is a metaphor for the real thing that can have limitations.

Scio11, I was joined by graphic designer David Orr of Love in the Time of the Chasmosaurs, and popular anthropologist-blogger-artist John Hawks, and we talked about the varying nature of representations through time, whether science can actually lead to research, as I gathered examples since raising the point two years earlier, and general issues of when do artists charge for use, and how important is accuracy? You can see video of that entire session here.

Each year, I think we've raised some thought-provoking discussions that have spilled over into Twitter, blogs, and the hallways outside the sessions. I felt like art having a relationship with science is something most attendees desire to see more of, even if there aren't too many ways of bringing them together. If you think funding for science is low, remember that scientific illustration and in-lab artist residencies are contingent on portions of those low funds.

But how to raise the profile of science-art further? If it is a valuable educational tool, a hook for stories, a visual treat on blogs, a thought-provoking image, a new way to think about research, how, after multiple years of having a couple of artists at ScienceOnline, does the relationship take a step forward?

The answer, is community.

Building a community

There have been numerous communities of science-based artists online for a while now. I think what made this year different for ScienceOnline, once again started with Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen and their vision for large umbrella science communication.

After Pepsigate, while new science blogging networks were cropping up quickly, Bora approached me about the ambitious scienceblogging.org. He wondered if there would be enough science-based artists' blogs updating frequently enough to warrant an RSS feed, to be carried on scienceblogging.org. I assured him there was: the Science Artists Feed was born, (a full list of blogs here and here). I started doing the Scumble posts on my own blog, The Flying Trilobite and have since moved them here to Symbiartic to showcase interesting links from around (but not exclusively) the Science Artists Feed. An interesting side effect is that so far, while the Science Artists Feed has not penetrated most science blogger's consciousness, it has made more and more of the artists themselves aware of each other as they check out who else is included in the round-up of links.

This nascent community, combined with the #scienceart hashtag on Twitter, (most often employed ably by the talented and amazing @artologica and @katyannc, among others) has created a space where scientific illustrators, fine artists, editorial illustrators and cartoonists can find each more readily.

Karyn, among others, really wanted to art show to happen. It it could not have without her. She and Anton really bent over backward helping me organize and attend in a year where as a stay-at-home-dad/freelancer-when-he-naps, I wasn't sure I could attend. My heartfelt thanks to both of you.

And so: ScienceOnline2012 had an inevitable groundswell of artists and illustrators attending, most of them affiliated in some way with or have appeared on Scientific American. This is no accident. Since being hired as the SciAm Blog Editor, Bora knew that visual communication matters. It's why we have Symbiartic, Compound Eye, Image of the Week, Creatology and blogs that use images so strongly and effectively like The Artful Amoeba, The Thoughtful Animal, History of Geology and Tetrapod Zoology to name a few.

Artists at ScienceOnline2012. This photo was in no way Photoshopped or taken by Russ Creech. Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

L-->R: A Tree Lobster, Glendon Mellow, Michele Banks, Katy Chalmers, Kalliopi Monoyios (kneeling), Perrin Ireland (doing that Wizard-of-Oz-head-thing she can do), Nathaniel Gold, Lynn Fellman and another Tree Lobster.

It was eclectic impromptu group; for the first time at ScienceOnline, there was a small incursion of artists. Just like the researchers in attendance, the subject matter, career-paths and disciplines each of us engage in varied wildly. Click on the links below the photo above for one visual treat after another.

Splashy, Painty, Impact?

There were a couple of messages I hoped artists would get out to the unconference and I think we did in a non-organized way. I learned so much from each of them, here's what I observed they brought to the unconference:

  • Hiring an artist can be a fruitful relationship. Nathaniel Gold and his partnership with Eric Johnson on The Primate Diaries showed that.
  • Making images doesn't have to be scary - the biggest impact, Perrin Ireland's sketchnote workshop gave everyone a tangible, useful, non-intimidating way to see how images can be put into the employ of science for fun, retention, and in a semi-systematic way during unscripted discussions. Big impact.
  • Artists are out there - Kalliopi Monoyios (*waves from across the blog*) introduced lots of people to the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators and Science-Art.com, two places that can be used as professional resources while I discussed group blogs like ART Evolved and Mad Art Lab and introduced the Science Artists Feed.
  • Your Wild Life Lab put money where the communication matters, and sponsored prizes for the Science Art Show.
  • There's a huge variety of accessible work for different disciplines - Katy Chalmers and her space and cephalopods, Michele Banks and her watercolour neurons and cells, Lynn Fellman and genetics, Tree Lobsters and their modern mash-up skepticism, John Hawks bringing the emotive realism; just the people in attendance showed how much variety exists in science-art blogging.
  • Images can change your blog writing - Emily Bauerfeind of the New England Aquarium raised eyebrows by suggesting that the Aquarium's bloggers are encouraged to start with their images, and write the blog post around it.
  • Finding dodges around copyright is silly in this day and age: email people and ask for use.

Journalism and book authorship at ScienceOnline have finally been joined by visual art: the relationship continues to blossom and the soil is rich.

Please leave your comments below:

Was there an impact?

Did you speak with someone there, did they change your thinking about art in the employ of science?

Did you just see something cool?

Was the art show on your radar?

How essential do you find images for your own blog posts?