March 21, 2014

Can you do art and science at the same time? Maybe...

Recently, I received a very nice email from a student.  Her question was a good one and I took some time thinking about my answer.  Perhaps I painted  a bleak picture - I didn't mean to.  In any case, I've shared the email and my response below (warning: it's long!):

Hi Alana, I recently read about your work in a magazine and after reading your biography I decided to contact you. I am also in the biology field, and I am planning on applying to a PhD program this year.  I am also an artist so I am always interested in hearing from people who do manage or have managed both a scientific career and an artistic drive at the same time.  I have been worrying a lot that during and after the PhD program I will be forced to put art and crafts aside due to the amount of stress and time involved in getting a foothold in science, so I\'m wondering if you have any advice or insights to share on finding a balance between the two, and just being both an artist and a scientist at the same time?  I would love to hear your thoughts.  Best, C

Dear C,

Let me begin by first applauding your enthusiasm for biology as a career choice and second, the personal incentive to ask strangers for advice (the second will serve you well in years to come!).

One thing I notice about students these days is they are more aware of career/life balance issues than when I was a student, 20 years ago.  Overall, young people today want to do meaningful work, be artistic and creative, travel to interesting places, eat great food and just have a fantastic life.  Well.  It can be done, but there are things to consider...

Let's address the issue of what's involved in graduate work and how it will affect your life.  I'm going to assume that you are aiming for a program in a large, research oriented university. If so, you will be expected to focus on a question, design and execute a series of experiments to address it, analyze the data, read, understand & be able to discuss hundreds of publications associated with your research, prepare funding proposals, present talks at regional/national meetings, and write up and submit your work for publication in peer reviewed journals. Although you may have assistance from others, the responsibility of completing this work is all yours.  During this 4-6 year period, you will also be expected to get A's in all your classes, participate in reading groups, collaborate with students & faculty in your research group, teach labs and sometimes classes, and read anything slightly tangential to your work. Somewhere in the middle, you may have oral exams (in which you can be asked anything, anything at all) to determine your worthiness to proceed. At the end, you must write everything in a format particular to your educational institution (usually a Kafka-esque experience) and defend your dissertation. Many buckle under the pressure, others begin using drugs and unfortunate romantic associations are common. Although it sounds bleak, this is training like no other in the world, and by obtaining a PhD, you have acquired and polished skills that are highly transferable and incredibly valuable for just about any path you choose from that point forward.

Based on my description, it may seem like there is time for little else besides breathing and eating when in grad school.  In reference to your questions about time management and stress, when I look back, it seems like a lot of students did all of the above plus one "fun" thing (besides drinking - everyone went drinking).  For example, one guy went to baseball games, another had an extensive garden, yet another fished constantly.  One woman rescued parrots, another did amazing, detailed beadwork. For those women with kids, that was their one thing (I know that sounds depressing, but let's be realistic).  For me, it was sewing.  So, when I started a quilting group, it was a big deal.  My adviser was a pretty good guy, but he was a typical male academic - his life was his work. In his mind, why would you want (or need) to do anything besides your research?  I had to deal with constant, low-level commentary about the amount of time (tiny, really) I spent doing non-biological activities.  My adviser knew he couldn't complain much because I worked like a slave and I was a very good student.  But still, the comments continued to the end...

Jump forward a few years to my days doing art fairs around the mid-West.  I was teaching part time (more typical these days) and was a horrible employee because I would cancel classes during the semester to travel and sell my work.  I noticed that, at shows, at least 10% of the artists were scientists and nearly all were young (30s & 40s).  No, they weren't leaving their students in the lurch as I was, they were striking out as full-time fine artists and craftspeople. They were not social misfits, retirees, nor had they been denied tenure.  These were all people who thought that they could not express themselves completely and satisfactorily in the academic world.  They left it behind and were all the happier for  it. These were all people who were still using their minds intensely, but in a different way that was less stressful and more meaningful to them. Most had never been involved in art/craft they were post-docs.

Jump forward to the present.  I now work part time at a public library and own two businesses (Agosia Arts is one).  I am no longer an active participant in the world of science.  Although my artwork deals with biological issues, what I do now is not science and I miss research like a lost lover. I live with it.  I would guess that, while I don't work as hard as when I was a graduate student, I now spend just as much mental energy creating new things as I did back in the day thinking about biological questions.  There isn't much down time for me - the brain is always busy.

I'm going to pick apart your question, "I'm wondering if you have any advice or insights to share on finding a balance between the two, and just being both an artist and a scientist at the same time"?  First, the balance issue.  If you are thinking about hours spent on a particular activity - you will have to make those decisions.  For someone going into grad school with an important psychological/emotional tie to their art, I think it is completely unreasonable to expect to do high quality science as well; I'll explain below. Becoming "good" at something requires constant practice AND focus, and there are only so many hours in the day.  Also, the balance depends on what type & level of art/craft you practice.  There's a big difference between knitting a sweater to relax and designing a sweater.  The former you can fit into any day easily, the second requires a totally different type of mental activity.

Second, your question points to a pervasive misunderstanding that our society promotes: that there is a distinction between scientific and artistic efforts.  That somehow the brain turns off one switch and another on.  That science and art are polar opposites.  Not so!  You use the same switch, the same mental activity, it is only the details that differ.  And that's why it can be difficult to do both well. When you go to grad school, a lot of your creative juices are going to be channeled in another direction. 

I'm going to assume that most of the biology you've done to this point has been under the direction of a faculty member, and I'm going to make the horrifying assertion that up to now, you haven't really been doing science.  Before you become completely insulted, hear me out.  Scientific inquiry is a demanding practice.  It requires a huge expenditure of mental energy to consider the entirety of a body of knowledge and formulate a manner to add to it meaningfully. This is an incredibly creative and time consuming process.  There is a big difference between 1) going out to the field to collect insects,  and then 2) going back to the lab, analyzing the data set 50 different ways, redoing the experiment, agonizing for months about it and trying to figure out what (if anything) it means, then starting over.  The collection part is visible and what most people think scientists do.  The other parts aren't usually discussed, but are 95% of the effort, and arguably, the most important.  

So, if you go to grad school, you are going to start doing science.  The real stuff.  We're talking a lot of effort.  It will be a challenge, sometimes fun, often not fun, but definitely worth every second of hassle.  Moments of discovery will pierce your mind like nothing else. You need to realize that it won't be easy; it isn't supposed to be easy.  You will have to learn to manage your time.  There will be sacrifices. When you're done, you may not have a job (that's another issue and we won't go there now), but you will be, as a former Department Chair often said, "one of the most highly educated people in the world".  That may sound a bit uppity, but it isn't meant to be.  If you survive the process to obtain a PhD, you really can do anything with your life - and that's empowering!

What advice can I give that you haven't already heard?  Be true to yourself, do what you love, and so on.  All of this is true, up to a point.  So here's what I suggest: think about what you do, enjoy, and want, from a strategic point of view.  Think about the ends and the means to get there.  Graduate school is basically an apprenticeship program and it sucks up a lot of time. You will be trained to think - and think well.  If it is important to you to hone other skills, you must be honest with yourself and your adviser about your needs and goals.  Becoming a good painter goes beyond spreading some color on paper; one must learn to see, analyze details and practice - the very same skills needed for science.  In an ideal world the disciplines are complementary and not antagonistic, but success takes self awareness and discipline.

I don't know if I've helped or not.  I don't want to dissuade you either from grad school or artistic endeavors.  But, you do have to realize that both can be tough.  I think the main reason is love.  When you are an artist, your work is personal; the same for your doctoral dissertation.  You can pour so much emotional energy into either one, that it drains you dry. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it certainly is normal.  I wish I had the magic equation.  No one does.  It does seem to help if you are honest with yourself - really honest.  Sad to say, that is one of the most difficult skills to acquire in life.

The last thing I'll leave you with is this: focus on the positives.   In grad school there will be plenty of people telling you what you can't or shouldn't do.  Find people who are kind and encouraging and be nice to them.  These are the gems who will get you through the day.

Best regards, Alana

February 7, 2014

Lone Stars and Silk Ties

Recently, I have been thinking about making a star quilt similar to the 1855 antique I described in a post a few years ago.  It was a stunning little quilt and displayed the fine skills of its maker.  Sadly, I don't have the time to devote to create such tiny stars with so many tiny points.  Perhaps a small-scale lone star would do the trick.  A few months back, I read a book (Little Lone Star Quilts by Lorraine Olsen) that described a unique paper piecing technique for making perfect lone stars.

This weekend, I tried a sample.  As usual, I was using necktie silks, but in this case I didn't use a fine batiste to back them (visit this previous post for why I use batiste).  I thought the added fabric would add bothersome bulk and was willing to see how the silks behaved with only a paper backing.  All went well, except the process is quite slow.  It took me two hours to make one star - that does not include its insertion into a block.  This is a concern because I think a quilt would need at least 16 stars.  That's a lot of time!  Remember, I make these quilts to sell.

The star itself is very nice and the points match well.  After making the sample, I do have some concerns unique to my process.  First, the directions indicate the paper backing should remain until the quilt top is completed.  I agree with this, but I am deterred by the huge number of tiny paper pieces that must be completely picked out.  Second, because I work with linen and silk, the silk stars will be much thinner than the linen backgrounds.  I'm not sure the silk will be stabilized enough.

I will need to experiment a bit more before I decide what to do.  I went though one of my favorite quilt books (The Art of Machine Piecing by Sally Collins) and she had some alternative stars that have fewer pieces and would be faster to sew.  I will give those a try before deciding on my final design.  Stay tuned.

January 24, 2014

Reworking a Porcupine

January is a time for new beginnings and I usually go into the studio with a eye towards organization.  Winter is my favorite time in the studio because the sunlight pours in brightest at this time of year - and it is the warmest room in the house.  This year, I took a hard look at my design wall.  For years - yes, years!- I have had a porcupine figure hanging unfinished.  I took him down from the wall and decided I would complete his look.

So, what was the problem?  It was the quills. I don't try for a perfect replica of a species, but I do want to get the right overall look.  Porcupines have a dense coat (including quills). The quills are mostly along the back and sides and stick out a bit more than the rest of the coat, giving the mammal a unique fuzzy and almost soft look. I had tried various options for getting something to stick out and gave up with the leather tubes shown here.  They were too big, chunky, and didn't give the fuzzy look I wanted.

I decided I would have to forgo the whole idea of quills and focus on the overall fuzzy look.  I tried various fabrics, but everything frayed too much, so I settled on brown leather. Many strips were cut into fine fringe and attached to the coat by hand.  I didn't want any fringe on the body of the figure, so to give the appearance of quills on the head, I attached a fringed hood to the coat.

I did want something to provide the idea of quills.  To do this, I cut longer strips of leather and tipped each with a glass bead.  Real porcupine quills have lighter tips and catch the light, giving the animal a bit of a glow.  I hoped the beads would have a similar affect. 

Each of the longer quills was sewn onto the coat by hand.  In the end, they blended into the other leather strips a bit more than I wanted, but the overall look was very 'porcupine.'  He's quite a guy and has a lot of personality.  I haven't decided if he's going off to a gallery or for sale on the website, but I am glad that he is finished.

January 3, 2014

A simple project for more interesting studio photography

A selection from the page proofs - a hooded skunk
In a few weeks, Stampington & Co is publishing an article featuring my work in Art Doll Quarterly.  I worked with some great people to get the article finished and as part of the process (and because I didn't have time), I sent a few figures to CA to have their photography staff take some studio shots.  When I received the proofs a few weeks ago, I  really liked the results. The use of a subtly colored background and some simple, natural props was a nice touch.

I do most of my own photography and it has always been driven by applications for shows.  In these images, one should not have any backgrounds that compete with the artwork and most artists use either a black/grey graded or grey background as these work best with multiple colors and textures.  The upside is that your work is center stage.  The downside is that there isn't much of a chance to add a bit of personality or tell a story.

I've decided to make a few backgrounds to try out.  So far, I've made two: one with old maps that I'll wash with white and a second with old pages of text.  The process was simple, and I'm going to try a few more, perhaps painted.  The goal will be to replace some of my images on the website and other online sites with something a bit more colorful.

January 2, 2014

Happy New Year and Great Artwork For All!

I'm in the studio catching up on some online things and want to wish everyone a great new year.  I'm working on a variety of projects that unfortunately have not been amenable to photography or posting.  I hope to change that in the next few months.  Stay tuned...

September 13, 2013

My Philosopy on Commisioned Work: Less Money, But Better Work

Recently, I received the email below.  Every few months I get a request like this.  I feet bad telling someone, "No, I can't do this for you (even though I know it would make you very happy and you are willing to pay)."   I always explain why.  Some people understand, others don't.

I stopped doing commissions years ago.  Some artists think I'm crazy, but I don't think I make less money.  I was always stressed working with (usually very nice) patrons and I didn't like deadlines.  I ALWAYS spent more time on commissioned works and NEVER received the true cost of the work in return Partly, this is due to the way I work (largely assembly line), but also because I had to go back and make changes. I realized I'm far better off doing what is most efficient and what makes me happy.  So, I have to write responses like the one below:

I am the happy owner of two of your pieces --- a rabbit and a coyote both purchased from a local gallery...  I raise (and love) goats ! Have you ever done a goat and would consider doing one for me ?  Look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks, X

Hi X,

Thanks for your kind words about my work....  As for your question about a goat, well, it's tricky.  The inspiration for my artwork is derived from my previous work as a biologist.  I worked in AZ and NM, and grew up in those two states.  I actually travel to NM every 6 weeks or so to stay at my house in the Gila.  All of the figures I make are based on real species native to the Sonoran or Chihuahuan Deserts.  There are quite a few that have larger distributions, and so there are many figures that are recognizable to people here in the midwest. 

One of my goals is to increase awareness of natives other than wolves, ravens and bears.  Long ago, I made a few small figures of domesticated dogs and cats, but those didn't sell well.  Since then, I haven't done any domesticated animals.  So, goats... the only species native to the West is the Mountain Goat, but since they aren't in AZ or NM, I haven't made one.  I do regularly make bighorn sheep (males) but they look pretty different from goats!

In the past, I did commissions for people, but I discovered something important about the way I create.  When I was working on a project where someone wanted this color, or fabric, or size, I became grumpy.  I realized after many discussions with my patient patrons, that my mental image of the work was competing with theirs.  I felt that I should work hard to produce the artwork he or she wanted, but I realized my mind wasn't in it, and I wasn't ever happy with the final product.  Every single time I've made a figure that someone said that I should ("You really should make a insert name!"), that figure hung around and never sold.  In contrast, all the figures I make where the ideas pop into my head at odd moments, those seem to reach out and touch the public - and sell.  I do my best work, when the ideas and inspirations are mine alone. 

That's a long answer to your question, but I think you deserve a complete answer.  I am honored when someone buys one of my figures.  I realize it's quite a chunk of money to spend on a collection of fabrics, thread and maybe some beads.  Thank you.