Public spaces like national galleries have created a perception that art can be understood and appreciated by anyone, while the fine art world itself has grown ever-more self-referential and obscure to outsiders.
Here on Symbiartic, we sometimes cover artwork that's accessible to a specific audience, rather than everyone and no one. Artwork that speaks, evokes, and moves the scientifically literate. One of the best and sharpest artists in this new science-art movement is watercolour painter Michele Banks, a.k.a. Artologica. Banks has been having an excellent month online, her artwork appearing previously here on Symbiartic, then subsequently on the popular sites Brainpickings and io9.com.
At long last, I'm pleased to present an interview I knew I wanted to be doing way back when Scientific American first approached Kalliopi and myself about starting a blog.
Hi Michele! Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Michele Banks. I’m a painter living in Washington, DC. I got here by the scenic route: I got a BA in Political Science from the George Washington University with a focus on Russia. I went on to get an MA from Harvard in Russian Studies and from there embarked on a career as a management consultant, working with big firms in London and Moscow on privatization and developing the post-Soviet markets. After five years of that, I was pretty bored and disillusioned, and I got married and came back to DC. Shortly after that, my husband got offered a job in Bermuda, so I went along but I was not given a work permit. I used the free time to have a baby and mess around with some artwork. After we moved back to Washington, I started showing my work in the usual places that beginning artists do – coffee shops and community festivals. And I basically plugged away at it in a small way for years, until about two years ago, when I got online and kind of unleashed the kraken. (more below) You will probably have noticed that in all that background there is no art or science education. I’m entirely self-taught.
You work in watercolour, which is a deceptively unforgiving and challenging medium. What about it appeals to you?
The things I really love about watercolor are its transparency and the amazing things it does when it’s wet. Most of my paintings use a wet-in-wet technique, which means that I put down a background color and then add another color while the first one is still wet. The paint “bleeds” naturally and forms amazing fractal patterns, just like tree branches, blood vessels and brain cells. This particular quality makes it ideal for mimicking forms in science and nature. In fact, I got into science art backward – I started out making abstract paintings using the wet-in-wet technique and so many people told me they looked like things under a microscope that I decided to investigate. Then I studied up and started doing it on purpose.
The other thing about watercolor that appeals to me is speed. Some people like to work on a painting for months, but I am not one of them! I like to finish a painting in a single session. So while it’s true that it’s harder to fix things in watercolor than in other media, it’s OK, you just let it go and make another one.
Another thing – that cliché that necessity is the mother of invention has a lot of truth. I started out with watercolor when I had a small child at home. I didn’t want dangerous solvents around, or acrylic paint that was going to stain everything. So watercolor it was. And all the little squares in my work – partly I make those because the contrast between the regular shapes with hard edges and the crazy, free, soft shapes inside them attracts me visually and intellectually. Partly I came up with it because it’s very hard to control wet-in-wet watercolor in larger spaces. If you go too big, the water pools, the paper buckles, and bad things happen.
Tell me about displaying work for sale on Etsy. What made you decide to take your images online? Is feedback from the Etsy community helpful?
After a number of years of showing and selling my work locally, I was in a rut. I needed to find a way to get to the next level and reach a bigger audience. I actually started on a site called Makers Market, a kind of joint venture between the Make blog and BoingBoing.net, which was trying to position itself as an “Etsy for geeks”. Unfortunately, the site didn’t survive, but while it lasted, my work was featured on both Make and BoingBoing, which have huge online audiences, so that instantly raised my profile. When Makers Market shut down, I moved over to Etsy, which has been great. It’s harder to stand out because of the huge numbers of sellers, but I joined some teams focusing on science art – Astro & Neutrino and Mad Scientists of Etsy - that promote each other and all things geek.
I think it’s much easier to reach a niche audience online than in the traditional art world. I mean, in any gallery or festival crowd, how many people are going to be interested in biological watercolors? Probably not a great percentage. Whereas online, if you target the right blogs and websites, you can find lots of them. Maybe they’re scattered all over the world, but they’re all coming to those sites.
That's how I feel about art online too. I think a lot of artists make the mistake of linking only to other artists, instead of finding their audience the way you have done.
Twitter has been an amazing resource for me in so many ways. I follow all these fascinating scientists and science bloggers, so just by reading their blogs and the things they link to, I’ve learned a lot more about science in the last couple of years than in the rest of my life put together. I’ve gotten specific ideas for paintings from my tweeps, too – Streptomyces from @twistedbacteria, Slime Molds from @rpg7twit, and the Tree of Life from @phylogenomics, to name a few. All of these smart, hardworking people are always talking about their brains and their need for coffee, so I put that together to make my coffee-stain brains.
My twitter followers have been really supportive in terms of passing my work along to their networks. I mean, who knew that Twitter had a Pathogen Posse? There are people out there who are crazy about nasty microbes – you just have to find them. I also learned about the ScienceOnline2012 conference via Twitter. I am so excited to attend in January and finally meet in person a lot of people that I’ve come to know online. All in all, Twitter has had a great impact on my work – it provides me with inspiration and support, and it’s definitely helped to expand my audience.
I think some artists don’t get the best out of Twitter or other social media because they mostly write about their own work. I talk about everything – art and science, sure, but also football, music, politics, kids, cats, whatever. If you think of it as a great free-flowing conversation that you can jump into any time, and you both listen and respond, then it’s amazing. If you just talk about yourself, then you’re that guy at the party that just talks about himself, and you’re not going to be very popular.
Good advice, yeah. It's the social part of media: you're not only selling your work, you're part of a community. Art-blogs should not be television commercials.
Let's talk about the aesthetics of your artwork. The first thing I notice when I look at your gallery is the lack of defined contours, and bright colours. You are doing scientifically-informed work, yet it appears close to minimalist in execution. How did this style develop?
I’ve noticed a pattern when it comes to things in nature, that there’s a sort of continuum, or maybe curve is a better word, of abstraction as you get farther away and closer up. Here’s an example. If you look at, say, a fly from a distance of six feet, it looks like a black speck – very abstract. Then you get closer, and more details appear – like wings and legs. If you get really close, you’ll see tons of detail – all the little hairs and the patterns in the wings and so on. And that’s where a lot of science artists and illustrators like to be – in that zone where you can see all the little stuff. I like to take it even further, so when you’re looking at the fly’s eye or leg, for example, at a super high magnification it becomes abstract again – just a pattern of basic shapes.
I mentioned before about the wet watercolor making patterns like tree or blood vessels. You see these same types of branching patterns everywhere in science and nature, on every scale – from rivers to trees to the veins in leaves to the tiny structures inside cells. It’s one of the things that makes biology such a compelling subject for me is that link between things at different levels. There’s an intense relationship between your bloodstream and a creek progressing toward the ocean – it’s magical.
I can’t explain the prevalence of bright color very well, so let’s just say I like bright color. But even I get sick of super-saturated color sometimes – I do a lot of work in just blue and white as a sort of visual palate cleanser.
I really enjoy your use of blue. My stand-out favourite in your gallery is Indigo Neuron, above. It's mysterious and lonely, and the colours are so rich.
Tell us about the image that's made the most impact.
The paintings I’m best known for are my images of mitosis, or cell division. I just love the amazing patterns and the sense of movement in these pieces. Plus, mitosis is just such a deep, basic thing – it’s the engine driving living beings, so how could it not be compelling?
My coffee-stain brains have been very popular too – those are definitely the ones I’ve sold most of to my online friends. They’re fun – they have that little bit of science mixed with pop culture. Everyone can relate.
My favorite recent piece is my Tree of Life collage. I took a form that I’ve used before – a “recycled” collage of pieces of other paintings, and filled it with science. I love the way it pulls together different strands of my work.
Why or how did you get into this field? What do you hope to do with your work?
I moved sideways from being an abstract artist to incorporating more and more scientific imagery in my work. Not to be all profound about it, but I think scientists and artists are doing the same thing. They’re both finding ways to explore and explain the world. So that’s really what I want for my work – for people to feel like it expresses something essential about life, especially about what makes living beings go – and sometimes what makes them stop.
As far as my art career, I’d of course like to show my work in more places – online is fine but seeing paintings in person is a much more satisfying experience. And I’d like people to buy my paintings and hang them on their walls!
Where can interested science-art fans and institutions find you online?
- Etsy including Banks' Petri Dish Christmas Ornaments
- Portfolio Website
- Twitter @artologica
- Behance Network Portfolio
Any upcoming shows?
Michele, what's your favourite colour?
Manganese blue, how I love you.
Thanks for the interview, Michele!