Science-art can take us to surprising places. It's not always the product of a lab or research, but the seeds of understanding can have a large impact on different facets of culture. It's one of the ways we know that science is woven into all of our lives, and not just kept in the gee-whiz box on the shelf.
Today, I present an interview with two artists from non-science backgrounds, both of whom have an affinity for bones. Bones are culturally loaded artifacts of lives lived, of the macabre, of lost chances. I've known and been a fan of these two artists for years, one in real life and the other online, and I'm excited they've agreed to share their work and thoughts here on Symbiartic.
Hello Sean, Hello Holly! Thanks for agreeing to this emailed-chat. Please introduce yourselves.
Currently I am living in rural Ontario befriending many small woodland animals and practising my birdcalls...ok not really.
Before I lived in Toronto I grew up in a small town 3 hours east of Toronto.
What started your interest with depicting bones and skeletons? Is there something about making the image that's important to you, instead of referencing photos?
Holly: We were surrounded by farms and country side. My interest in bones and skeletons come from the animals that would live in these areas. You would always find little mouse bones or other little animal skeletons in the woods. That always made me think of little stories about the animals that those bones belong to. I am currently working on a series called "The Bone Collectors". Little spirits that go around the woods gathering the bones of the animals who lived there.
Sean: It began with my first drawing class. Once we’d achieved a reasonable level of draftsmanship, our instructor brought out a box full of human skulls. Complexity, symmetry, and organic flow made them the most engaging objects I’d drawn up to that point, difficult but not impossible. There’s a sense of honor about doing some subjects justice. That these skulls were once parts of people, worthy of affection and respect, demanded a higher level of artistry than I’d been motivated to achieve before.
Since my surrealist works referenced in this article are initially assembled from photographs, it might be good to point out that what I do here is influenced by the culture of appropriation. I’m using the techniques a lot of people use to create collages, posters, and LOLcats. But rather than appropriate the photographs I work with, I take them myself to fit a preconceived composition, and instead of collage, I try for montage.
Working with photographs has been an unexpected boon in many ways – as an example, I learned more about light in the few months it took me to do the initial set of images than I’d learned in twenty years of art study.
Sean is a writer of unusual and science fiction, and Holly an illustrator (I hesitate to call you a cartoonist since you don't work in sequential narratives). Do bones and skeletons symbolize anything in your artwork? Is grappling with human mortality a part of the work?
Sean: The Bonelands depicted in these images represent post-traumatic stress disorder as much as mortality. They’re a landscape shaped by the emotional response to violence, specifically the Civil War, but that’s a stand-in for institutionalized violence in general. It’s a carrion world being gradually reclaimed by the inevitable forces of life.
Holly: I have always been fascinated with mortality. That started at
a very young age, not sure why. I definitely think that it helps fuel my imagination.
My interest always tend to lean towards creepy and dark.
Each of you has online galleries or blogs. What made you decide to take your images online? Is feedback helpful?
Sean: Putting art online seems like a natural first step in introducing one’s work to the world. And while feedback is helpful, I’ve found I need an audience to work at my best. If I work for myself, I drift from one technical challenge to another. If I work for others, I have to communicate. It’s as if the work is a string. If it’s just me holding onto it, it lies there, limp. But if someone grabs hold of the other end, it pulls taut.
Holly: Online is the best way to promote yourself, Especially if you are self employed. Feedback is always great, although I usually get that from friends and family. Its nice to share your work with the rest of the world and that gives me a lot of inspiration. Meeting people who have similar interest, etc etc.
Do you foresee or have you found that your paintings have informed your research or other artwork in some way? (Holly, for you is it part of an aesthetic. You're not exactly goth, but...)
Sean: It’s not something you’re supposed to admit, but my art is strongly literary. These prints have two separate literary influences. The black-and-white versions of these images accompany the fiction published in Swill magazine. The stories are not considered while the images are being made – that it’s possible to match images to stories and enhance both is a pleasant mystery.
The seminal influence is my recently-completed novel. Deep in the writing process, my concepts and imagery became predictable. So I lay down in a quiet room with my eyes covered until I began to see things. I rendered these visions as prints. Once I incorporated those images into the novel, the story began to provoke prints directly. It developed into a complicated feedback cycle, and the fictional world defined itself over the course of a four-year public conversation between my art and my writing.
Holly: It has a lot to do with aesthetic, I am heavily influenced by what I watch, read and listen too. Fashion, movies, songs. Like I mentioned earlier, anything creepy and dark seems to tickle my fancy. I find even just looking at Gothic Lolita girls online for half an hour gives me a lot of inspiration.
Do you have a favourite medium to work with?
Holly: Gouache! I love the stuff! 'Time to time I pull out the acrylics.
Sean: Well, my favorite mediums would be graphite and the computer. I don’t paint. I fight with paint. Colored pencil is limited and laborious. The sound of pastels against paper makes my flesh creep. And so on. But pencil and charcoal are simple extensions of my hand, requiring no thought. And the very first time I used a first-generation Wacom tablet, I knew I’d found my medium. I am a digital artist.
Tell us about the image that's made the most impact.
Sean: The Kicker has gotten around more than any other image from the Bonelands. It started off as the cover for the third issue of Swill, was placed in an art show at Berkeley City College, was reproduced in a student newspaper as part of the promotion for the show, and due to personal requests, it’s also on three different kitchen walls.
(It also inspired a fight scene in the novel.)
Holly: My most "famous" piece of art would be my Vampire Jelly Donut and Bride and Doooom (above). Vampire Jelly Donut always makes me giggle but I'm proud of my Bride and Doooom, that piece got me really inspired to keep going with the skull people.
Although each of you is exploring images of skeletons and bones, I don't see anything gruesome or horrific in your work. Is that a conscious decision?
Holly: There was a short period of time where I experiment with more gruesome looking pieces. None of it was documented, I'm not even sure if those piece are around still. My work has been described as Gothic Hello Kitty. Sometimes there is a bit of blood, but usually I hear "oh its so cutesy creepy!",hahaha.
Sean: I think there are specific images that do have some horror to them, but for the most part, I was aiming for a sense of contemplation more than anything else. Quiet, vast, enclosed. The bones aren’t there to be scary; it’s the implied space between them I’m concerned with. The juxtaposition of emotionally charged complex objects helps the viewer create an emotionally resonant space in their mind, one that harmonizes with some of my states of thought.
Where do you go to look for references?
Sean: My wife uses bones as decorative elements in her garden, and her plants also play a strong role in these images. I gather broken bits of machinery and electronics and scatter them around my studio. That’s how I start – I look around the house until I see the other world.
Karen gets most of her bones at yard sales (this should tell you something about Berkeley), but I’ve gotten in the habit of nabbing any carrion that crosses my path. Got a lovely fox skull and skunk skull that way. I’m still wondering what happened to the baby raccoon I found – I was going to use it in a series to be called The Exhumation of the Boy King, but some animal, probably another raccoon, stole the body from our compost bin before it had sufficiently decayed.
Holly: In the days before the Internet, I got a lot of my ideas from movies and illustrations. Which I still do, but the Internet helps me find more of it. Like when I was a kid I would get a lot of inspiration from movies like Dark Crystal and Return to Oz. And A LOT of books like Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz series.
As for reference, my bones and skulls are loosely based on real anatomy. My bones are super simplified and not technical at all.
Why or how did you get into this field? What do you hope to do with your work?
Holly: I have always been creative, recently I was going through all my old report cards from grade school. Every single report card said the same thing. Satisfactory grades in everything but Art and Drama. I always had top marks in the arts. So when it came time for me to think about a career I didn't really have a hard time deciding what direction I wanted to go in. As long as I'm being creative. I enjoy working with my hands and hope one day to do more sewing and sculpting. I love toy making and costumes, so I have been pointing myself more in that direction lately.
Sean: I was pulled in by necessity. I was asked to illustrate Swill, and after I used up my old work, I had to do new work that was both presentable and quick to produce. I’d always thought of myself as primarily a draftsman, but the time constraints made it impossible for me to use an illustrative approach. I turned to photographs and scans, figuring it would be easy enough to generate quick compositions.
It didn’t work out that way. Rather than filling pages, I found myself emotionally invested in the images. I wasn’t just illustrating; I’d graduated to something I regard as real art. The followup series to The Bonelands, Seven Views of the Downtown Area, includes much less skeletal imagery, but contains a much richer level of interior content.
I’m tentatively exploring the fine arts scene. I’ve been in a couple of shows, talked to a couple of gallery owners. My goal is to produce one show from the art previously done for Swill.
Then I want to try and work outside the range of traditional printmaking. I want to use my prints as the basis for work that borders on the sculptural. I work digitally. I don’t own a color printer, so I rarely print my work. When I do? It’s exciting, but the print feels too small or limited, too flimsy, too cheap to feel like ‘real’ art to me. It’s not like working with a press and plates; a machine does all the work.
I want to do something more substantial. More like ‘real’ art. My current works are rendered as vector rather than raster images, so they can be outputted at any given size without loss of resolution. The images could be fed into laser cutters, or printed onto slabs of Lucite, or used as templates for molding concrete. This is extremely tentative, and I don’t know enough about the real-world possibilities to make serious plans. We shall see.
And earlier, I hinted at something important to me. I think I’ve figured out what it is that’s important to me in art, and how it relates to current theories of cognition. I think the experience I value in art comes down to complex and meaningful patterns of neurological activity, and I do know that my work has improved as a result of attempting to simultaneously trigger multiple brain centers in the reader or viewer. There’s something about the trifecta of evoking a memory, an emotion, and a sensory stimulus that seems particularly effective… I would dearly love to see if it is possible for me to do this predictably – and that would mean doing actual research with actual scientists. Again, at this stage of my career, this sounds a bit like hubris.
Where can interested science-art fans and institutions find you online?
Sean: I have a gallery up at Redbubble, and I’m associated with the ART Evolved paleo-art blog. To my amazement, I have an Amazon page , and my short story Tourists may be read at Tor.com and purchased from most ebook outlets. More recently, the story Deep Blue Dreams has been published in the anthology Future Lovecraft from Innsmouth Free Press. My blog, Renaissance Oaf is basically like hanging out with me – boring, funny, thoughtful, worrisome, cranky, offensive, obscure, and occasionally horrifying. Also on Twitter @seancraven .
Holly: Phthalo blue, so, greenish blues, blueish greens. I love them. Most of my hair is green! Thanks a lot Glendon!
Thank you both!