The artist walking Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in Salt Lake, UT in 2013

A Pilgrim

In Art and Science

An Introduction

I’ve now spent nearly 20 years on this journey in art and science. Indeed, I think of my path through these two fields as an ongoing pilgrimage. The trail through art and science has included early waymarks, wrong turns, pivotal moments, ongoing discovery, and recent directions. The story is an inner and outer journey and a snapshot of the larger story that Art and Science poke and prod at in their own ways: Art as a game of mystery and questions, Science as a game of precision and necessarily incomplete answers.

It’s a pleasure to have your company,
NS

A Pilgrim in Art and Science © 2020 Natalie Settles

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Chapter 19 - The Holy Grail
Chapter 20 - Many Ways to Walk One Path
Chapter 21 - The Way Out
Chapter 22 - Adventures Among Scientists
Chapter 23 - Codeswitching
Chapter 24 - The Dive Into Code
Chapter 25 - Retreating Into Science
Chapter 26 - The Evolving Wallpaper
Chapter 27 - Finding A Life's Work New
Chapter 28 - Coming July 15
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Acknowledgements

Late August, 2015

7 days before the pilgrimage
We’re leaving soon for what amounts to an accidental pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Accidental because Burr has wanted to walk the trail for years – both of us are keen hikers – yet neither he nor I knew anything of its history. I ordered the only English guidebook that exists for this less traveled Camino Portugués. (The more common and heavily trafficked route is the Camino Frances.) When I cracked it open a month before the trip, I discovered that this walk was entirely different from what I’d expected. The classic guide lists a set of personal reflection questions that begins, “What is the difference between a pilgrimage and a long-distance hike?” As best I understand it, it is both an inward and outward journey where the process is as much (or more) the point than the destination.

2 days before the pilgrimage
One of the things a pilgrim is encouraged to do is to bring something on the pilgrimage. It may be an object (Louise gave me a small glass ornament to carry for her) or it may be immaterial, something carried in the heart and mind. I’ve decided to carry the project that has emerged from my time in the lab. This seems like the culmination of a long interdisciplinary journey, and one for which the way ahead appears rough and unknown.

Chapter 1 - Early Waymarks

<em>Swiss Army Dog, 2002</em>
Natalie Settles, Swiss Army Dog, 2002, wood, resin, acrylic, hardware

The formal start to my journey in art and science perhaps best begins with the Swiss Army Dog, 2002. My interests had been interdisciplinary for years before this as I dragged in conceptual material from many fields. I had been notoriously distractible throughout my undergraduate years – in the best sense of a liberal arts education, I like to think – and had rounded on my major in art because in my mind it meant all roads were open. However, it was with the Swiss Army Dog that I hit a winsome combination of both imagery and ideas that seemed to catalyze — and then run smack into — a difficult and formative question.

The idea for the Swiss Army Dog emerged a year after I started the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. At the time (and likely still), the UW Madison was home to 52 libraries dedicated to as many and more subjects, and remains a powerhouse of scientific research. In that first year at UW I made it my business to visit as many of the libraries on campus as possible, and to take in the range of fields that lived at this school. The Swiss Army Dog emerged from my time stalking the halls of the Veterinary School and the Medical Sciences Library. I had discovered comparative anatomy, which maps relationships between the body parts of disparate organisms, noting their similarities and differences. In the Swiss Army Dog, I began to think more broadly — and playfully — about physical mappings.

The work’s merger between dog and pocket knife came from thinking about the myriad roles the dog plays in human life and our often deeply affectionate relationship with an animal that lives so closely intertwined with us. At the time (in the seemingly more innocent days before 9/11), I carried a pocketknife with me everywhere and noticed how the suite of tools in any one person’s knife reflected something about the person in whose pocket it lived. I saw this reflective relationship in the diverse cultural roles the dog slips into in our lives.

This introduced an uncomfortable question as people in my graduate art program asked what the work might be saying about animal welfare and our willingness to make an animal a tool to our own ends. I was troubled by these implications. Although they were not what I had intended with the work, I needed to follow the trail.

Dr. Patricia McConnell and her dogs
Dr. Patricia McConnell and her dogs

I did, and it landed me in a seat in the popular course of a beloved UW professor named Dr. Patricia McConnell. The course on the Biology and Philosophy of Human-Animal Relationships ranged broadly over the science that surrounds the animals with whom we share space. She introduced me to a branch of research which demonstrated that although we might imagine ourselves to have imposed our will on domesticated animals, reality was much more nuanced. Domestication was an evolved symbiotic relationship. For instance, perhaps we might have wanted to domesticate zebras instead of horses. They are much flashier after all. However, either they lack the genetic palette to co-evolve a closer relationship with us, or there was not enough selective pressure in the environment to shape their genetics accordingly. But for horses, both they and we seemed to have the necessary pieces in the game.

Robert Morris's exhibition in the Green Gallery in 1964
Robert Morris' 1964 Green Gallery exhibition

With the realization of this mutual shaping, my mind snapped back to the art world, and specifically to the Minimalist work of Robert Morris. Morris’ installation in the Green Gallery in 1964 was about breaking up and shaping space. The feature of the show was not the objects in the space, but the broken space itself. Indeed, viewers walking into the space were implicated as well, as now their bodies further shaped the space inside the gallery. Now, looking at the rectilinear white gallery, I saw a constructed human space and saw the dog as both shaping and being shaped by the human space.

This was perhaps one of the first times I’d seen a specific parallel between a scientific inquiry and an artistic inquiry. Here were two fields thinking about what shapes and is shaped by humans and human constructed environments, and even that we are shaped in return.

It seemed natural to attempt a body of work that addressed how both Minimalism and the phenomenon of domestication addressed these ideas. The exhibition that emerged was my MFA thesis exhibition: Domestication: A Tale of Two Species. I chose the dog and the rat as subjects. Although dog and rat could be understood as the Two Species, it remained the viewer in the constructed human environment of the gallery who provided the implicit pairing.

Come and Go in Domestication: A Tale of Two Species
Come and Go in Domestication: A Tale of Two Species, 2003

Large, spare relief sculptures of rats and dogs arced up and around and through the space, shifting form in response to the architecture. The print series in the exhibition echoed the sculptural elements, as the images slipped off the page or found themselves shaped and bounded by embossed elements. Rather than an arbitrary substrate, the paper became a distinctive player in the work – a rectilinear space the images inhabit.

1 day before the pilgrimage
Today, we each acquired a “credential” that we will carry with us. It is a passport of a sort, and each day we must get two “sellos" (stamps) along the way. We can get them at cathedrals, chapels, shops, albergues (pilgrim hostels), inns, restaurants, bars, city halls, and police stations — indeed, almost anywhere. When we reach the end of the pilgrimage, we can show these completed credentials to receive the Compostela certificate of our journey.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
Today, we saw an impressive, ornate building on the edge of the village. Thinking to get today's first sello, we approached and pulled the large wooden door open. We poked our heads through and started to step in when a man standing behind a high wooden counter halfway down the cavernous entrance hall looked at us, saw our packs and with dawning concern began to shake his head. He pointed to a large sign by the desk. The only word we could discern was “Sanatorio.” With hasty apologies to the attendant, who we now realized was dressed in scrubs, we took our leave. It turns out one of the few places that does not offer a sello is a mental hospital.

Chapter 2 - Early Guides

Nancy Graves, Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–1969, wood, steel, burlap, polyurethane, animal skin, wax, oil paint, 228.6 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm (approx.)
Nancy Graves, Camel VI, VII, and VIII, 1969, 96 x 126 x 48in each

While making the Domestication Series, I was spending a great deal of time looking at the work of Nancy Graves, a contemporary of Robert Morris also working during the 1960s. Her terse camel sculptures were featured in her solo show at the Whitney Museum in 1969. (The first solo show by a woman at the Whitney.) At a time when other well-known artists were making geometric, planar, pared down constructions or scatter pieces out of industrial materials, Graves’ camels were a maximal minimalism — so detailed as to appear like elements of a natural history exhibition mistakenly transposed into the art museum. With three standing camels, Graves demonstrated another way our spaces affect the things that inhabit them. Place creates meaning: In the natural history museum, these objects would be self-evident illustrations of camels; in the art museum, they seem out of place or cut adrift from a larger context. Just as domesticates are shaped by our spaces and desires, a person’s perception of Graves’ camels is affected by the space in which they appear.

What also lured me to Graves’ work was her deliberate, direct contact with people in the sciences. Her work, Bones and Their Containers (to Martin Cassidy), 1970 was dedicated to a researcher from the American Museum of Natural History in New York with whom Graves worked as she researched her camel series. Indeed, Graves was the first artist that I, as a young student, came across who sought specific contact with the sciences and a scientist. What struck me, and would come to deeply influence my own interdisciplinary practice, was that through her immersion in the work and ideas she found at the museum she came out the other side able to speak to direct concerns of art at the time in new ways. I was interested in this alchemy of ideas.

Graves’ Alchemy of ideas from science to art:

Graves' work Bones and Their Containers relates to other the scatter pieces of the Minimalist period (examples include works by Robert Morris, Barry LeVa, and Carl Andre) and plays with the larger sense of what it means for an object to be in or out of place. Bones and Their Containers appears to reference the plaster "jackets" often built up around fossil specimens in order to ship them from the field site to the preparator’s lab in the museum. This work, like the three camel sculptures, is a study about place and placement. For a fossil, where it is found in the rock is a surrogate indicator of its place in time and geography. Yet, in the rock the bones are likely to some degree 'out of place' in the sense of where they belong in relation to the other bones of the fossilized creature’s body. As a follow-on, her work Inside-Outside, 1970, plays with the bones’ place inside the body, yet also how that body is shaped by its contents. Looking at her work, I found myself circling back around to what it means for an object to both shape its space and be shaped by that space.

Owing to my immersion in Graves’ work, my own work on the Domestication Series, and inspired by behavioral zoologist, Patricia McConnell, the next logical step seemed to be to follow in Graves’ cross-disciplinary steps. For me, that meant applying to intern at the Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central (OEC), which served all 17 (now 20-some) museums of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, while I was there I had the opportunity to create objects for the National Museums of Natural History, American History, and the then soon-to-open Museum of the American Indian.

Rows of grey wooden wet-lab benches where the model makers worked lined two sides of the Smithsonian OEC model shop. As I sat at my bench carving, filing, gluing, and painting, a staggering depth and diversity of discussion floated around me. Working at the OEC was like working inside a living Wikipedia, long before Wikipedia was a thing. Whatever anyone asked or whatever subject someone mentioned, someone else at one of the benches had done a related project and knew detail and nuance that could keep us engaged for hours. Curators from diverse fields visited to discuss current projects, request exhibit revisions, or offer new findings. Even with deadlines bearing down, it was an endlessly stimulating environment.

The people of the Smithsonian Museums told stories in materials. For instance, with a large Southern Giraffe bull that we stuffed for redesign of the Mammal Hall, the individual animal whose hide we used had an exceptionally large and unusually shaped ‘median lump’ on its forehead. These lumps are normal in males, and calcium builds up on the skull in various places over the animal’s lifetime, thus enlarging and transforming the lump. This particular bull was quite distinctive. The trouble is, when one tells the story of life on earth in the broadest sense, the materials one uses need to speak broadly. The peculiarities that distinguish an individual become a distraction when that individual is meant to stand for a group as a whole.

Natalie stitching the leg of a Southern Giraffe
A young Natalie interning at the Smithsonian Institution and stitching a taxidermy Southern Giraffe. A single leg took a day to sew.
Thus, early on the taxidermy team decided to re-sculpt the median lump of this bull to a shape that was more typical. I remember recounting this story to several artist friends who were mortified at the intentional modification. The distinctiveness of the bull was interesting to them, and alteration seemed tantamount to a lie.

As my path passed through the OEC, I was immersed in a way that forked into an early dual sensibility in which I could look out on the world as an artist or as a scientist, holding with early curiosity the tension of these two positions.

3 months after the pilgrimage
It’s been three months now since our journey on the Camino, and I have been leafing through my credential and remembering each of the stops, each of the people we met, and those who served us along the way. Each of the individually inked and colored or embossed stamps is a map of the journey: who I was, who I would become, and how I would understand and appreciate the places we went and the people we met better now than I did then. I am now less inclined to frame the Compostela certificates for the wall and more inclined to frame these credentials with their sellos. They seem to be the truer and dearer record of the journey.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
As an artist, I’m finding myself quickly warm to the notion of a pilgrimage. It is simply a journey that is inward and outward. It is a sacred practice of both soul and body in which the process is as significant as the end point. What I did not immediately expect was what the company along the way would be like. The people we meet are varied and frequently local to the trail. It seems that the Camino Portugues is more often traveled by people who are relatively proximal to it with fewer international visitors. Many people have told us that we are the only Americans they have seen on the trail. Some of our fellow pilgrims have walked all or a portion of the trail yearly for much of their lives.

Chapter 3 - A Church Full of Scientists

Natalie stitching the leg of a Southern Giraffe with a colleague
Dr. Cal DeWitt leading and annual church tour of a wetland land trust

One of the reasons it is easy for me to picture my life in art and science as a pilgrimage is that part of my intellectual upbringing happened in a church full of scientists. As I said in a previous chapter, life in Madison, Wisconsin, is a life immersed in the sciences. It’s the ambient discussion the floats up and down the sidewalks, in the restaurants, and in the parks. In my case, it was even in the prayers and hymns. When I sing, 'This is My Father’s World', I sing it with a mindfulness born of singing alongside physicists, chemists, and biologists for nearly ten years. Among my most endearing memories of Madison are of Dr. Cal DeWitt during congregational prayer time. He often thanked God for the passing migrations: the male red-winged blackbirds who were singing in the marshes, staking their territories before the arrival of the females in a few weeks.

Even on my return to the church in July of 2017 for the congregation’s 50th anniversary, I found myself drawn to the microphone to say thank you to my sisters and brothers who were scientists. Their prayers, liturgy, conversation, and acts of service were fragranced with their faith, love, and intellectual acuity — each of which challenged me, set me straight, and stoked my love of the book of the word and the book of the world. I choked as I told them they had given me the work I had by then enjoyed 15 years. Afterward, scientists young and old — student and professor alike — came to say thank you. Others not in the sciences approached me to say that my experience mirrored theirs. One even told me that the previous week a professor of botany at the UW had given the confession and was holding a species of wildflower he’d picked on his way over to the church from his office. He based his mediations around it, and the woman who related this said she now walked around seeing these flowers where she had never seen them before, remembering his reflections that day.

However, in the beginning, being an artist among scientists was frustrating. Here was an entire city swarming with people whose work, ideas, and processes were built on very different assumptions than my life in the studio, and whose way of measuring the outcome of what they did was entirely different. When asked flat out why I did what I did, they accepted my motivations, but then asked if I had any empirical measurement of the effectiveness of my work. Wouldn’t I want to know if it was “effective,” if it was achieving my desired results? Yes. And no. I have reflected on this question for years now and have discovered that one of the chief differences that stymies understanding between the arts and sciences is our very different understandings of rigor and what makes for a successful work.

Some thoughts on Art and Empiricism:
Robert Gober, detail of Untitled, 1994. Graphite on white Lenox 100 paper (100% rag, neutral PH), 6ft 8in x 11ft 6 3/4in.
Robert Gober, Untitled [cellar door], 1994. Graphite on paper, 6ft 8in x 11ft 6.75in.

There is a work I saw by the artist Robert Gober in a retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 1998 that made me very angry (Untitled [cellar door], 1994, pencil on paper, if you must know). It left me steaming for 10 years until I made a piece in response and realized my anger had turned to a peculiar gratitude. I now love that piece by Gober. A similar slow burn has been Annie Dillard’s book Holy the Firm (the longest little book you’ll ever read) that has been an inner bellwether for me since I started reading it every year beginning at the age of 17. At age 34, when a tumultuous shift happened in my life, I ran to the shelf, realizing this book, which felt like an inner milestone toward which I was walking, was now a point I had reached. As I reread it afresh, I felt the distinct inner shapes of Dillard and myself. She no longer overwhelmed me. We each stood whole in a new way, blinking and astonished, both knowing the world in its beauty, damage, vastness, and intricacy.

When I think of the empirical results of art, it’s stories like these that come to mind. The author George Saunders once said that, 'Prose, when it’s done right, is like empathy training wheels.' And each of us has a book, or movie, or song, or work of art (likely several, or many) that has shaped us irrevocably. Whether the work that taught us was brutal or gentle, sly or direct, blunt or nuanced, probably depends on a blend of our character with its nature.

Today, many thoughtful empirical studies are picking apart the way art works upon us psychologically, physically, chemically. Yet, Reductionism and Logical Positivism are not likely, certainly in our lifetimes, to reduce the whole of art to all of its parts. Even then, all those parts must still be experienced on a creaturely level. Whether a loved one, or a beloved book, analysis at the atomic level is nothing compared to the pain and passion of lived experience.

And yet, one of the chief benefits of my life in a church among scientists is that we shared a rare advantage. We could not escape one another. Whatever one’s views on organized religion (they are justifiably mixed, and not infrequently painful), done well it connects people individually and collectively to Something larger than themselves. In that way, it gives them a shared fundamental connection to the other. We need the steady company of others on this journey to keep us honest and growing. I rather like pastor and writer Eugene Peterson’s advice to go to the smallest and closest church you can find, give it six months and if you find you can’t stay, pick the next closest, smallest church and go there. The closeness and smallness guarantees that you’ll have to deal with people as they are, and you'll have to learn to love them when they’re not loveable — and be immersed in what you don’t know.

Indeed, on the subject of unknowns, I owe the beginnings of my understanding of the evolutionary process that now informs a great deal of my work to a three-hour car ride to a wedding with three fellow graduate students from my Bible study: a physicist, a research and clinical psychologist, and a Hebrew and Semitics scholar. I started out life with some rather traditional ideas about Creationism, the dregs of which were still holding on, but by the end of that excruciating car ride, my brothers and sister had lovingly raked me over the coals.

In turn, I began to shift and shape them as well. One of my favorite moments was during a scholarly forum by the church; I noticed that the work of an artist we’d invited to speak conceptually mirrored the work of the scientist Cal DeWitt, whom I mentioned before. At a dinner that evening, I made sure to arrange for Cal and the artist to sit together, saying privately to both that it appeared to me that their work was similarly motivated, though very different on the surface. By the end of the night, they were talking excitedly and exchanging information to continue the conversation and have since invited each other to various professional engagements. Cal even wrote an article about the experience and their later work together.

By the end of my time in Madison, one of the greatest gifts my church gave me was a training ground for beginning to detect the fundamental connections between inquiries in seemingly disparate fields. I could begin to see where the conceptual motivations of someone in the arts and someone in the sciences overlapped or diverged based on the work itself. It was hard-won skill and a gift from my time in a church full of scientists.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
Today, we walked for a half hour along a rural, tree-lined road without seeing a waymark. This kind of unmarked stretch isn’t unusual, but it has certainly been a cue for us to tune our attention. After 45 minutes, we grew concerned until the road emerged from the trees, growing round and wide with space for cars to pause at an overlook before turning right and continuing around the bend. As we stepped toward the overlook, the road dipped down and there fanned out before us on the ground were 15 to 20 hand-painted, yellow waymark arrows, scrawled by many obliging guides and fellow pilgrims, all of which were vehemently pointing back. We had gone the wrong way. We were not alone even if we were not in the right place. We burst out laughing and talked animatedly as we retraced our steps to regain the trail. All told, we lost an hour and a half before finally spotting a subtle turn off the broad and leafy road onto a slim, gravel trail to the side.

6 months after the pilgrimage
Curiously, one of the stories we recount most frequently and remember most fondly is that wrong turn with the army of arrows pointing back as evidence that in its own way it, too, was a nearly obligatory part of the trail.

Chapter 4 - A Wrong Turn – and a Launch Point

Adhere, 2006, Linoleum cut and mixed media on paper, 12 x 12in
Adhere, 2006, Linoleum cut and mixed media on paper, 12 x 12in

In 2006, I made my least successful, yet, arguably, most important work. This is a type of work I watch for from students when I teach. It is a work that forces you into territory where your current skillset — whether physical or conceptual — breaks down. To some extent it is an artist’s continual job to tread into new territory, but some works force you deep into uncharted areas in a way that is harrowing yet suggests the shape of things not yet grown into.

Adhere, 2006 was a collaborative work with a friend Dr. Theresa Grana. Our collaboration grew from our friendship and mutual intellectual curiosity while attending church together. She was a post-doc in a lab, run by a professor, who also came to church with us, Dr. Jeff Hardin, professor in the Department of Integrative Biology. Hardin along with a chemist in the church even gave the sermons from time to time. When I first took a stab at direct collaboration with someone in the sciences, I knew it would need to be someone with whom I already shared a mutual trust and respect. This would mean that we could take risks sooner, ask questions, and make comments more freely. The work itself was a halting early effort and a proving ground that taught me many lessons that would inform my work for years to come. For her part, Theresa immediately reached out to artists and began attending shows at the university where she took a position after her time in Madison. Art and a life among artists remain a part of her life to this day.

Dr. Theresa Grana sorts through a box of petri dishes containing C. elegans worms
Dr. Theresa Grana in the Hardin lab at UW-Madison in 2006

Our work together came about as a part of a print portfolio project of artist-scientist collaborations. I approached Theresa to work with me on the print because I had begun to notice that the conceptual conversations of the lab and of the studio had interesting parallels. Sometimes these would emerge in casual conversation at a party or over dinner with friends weeks or months later. I was also beginning to see how each of the specializations of my friends’ work fit together into a larger story.

Theresa invited me to the lab and showed me her work. She was studying a process of cell-adhesion that occurred during normal development in C. elegans nematode worms. This same adhesion process is involved in the uncontrolled growth of cancer tumors, so Theresa’s better understanding of this process might help to characterize natural developmental processes and abnormal development, such as cancerous growths. The particular snapshot of the process that she was focused on happens when the young embryonic worm is only a flat pancake of cells in its egg. These cells begin to gather around the edges like a shower cap. As it gathers tighter and tighter, the edges touch — in that moment adhesion happens. The hole quickly zips together, and the newly sealed pouch begins to elongate into a recognizable worm. Theresa was characterizing the genetics and proteins involved in that first moment of adhesion. In the cases where some component of the adhesion process was broken or missing the shower cap of cells would pull together, touch, and — failing to stick — explode. In other contexts, that same lack of sticking would be a good thing — as in thwarting stick-happy cancerous growths.

Dr. Theresa Grana sorts through a box of petri dishes containing C. elegans worms
One of the flourescently tagged developing C.elegans embryos in the Hardin Lab's work

I spent a month talking with Theresa about her work, looking at the lab’s microscopic videos and otherwise sketching how I might approach this project. At one point while watching a particular image (see image, right), I called to ask Theresa about the structure I was seeing. They use special proteins to fluorescently tag, or highlight, parts of the organism. I wanted to know if the fluorescent structure I saw was interior or exterior to the otherwise translucent worm. She said it was funny I should ask, as they had just been discussing that in their lab meeting. Small as this parallel of deductions may seem, it was the first time I saw that my perceptual skills as an artist had some traction in this other world of scientific investigation.

In the end, the work Adhere was not particularly interesting or groundbreaking. However, what I knew now was that to have a work of any depth arise from an interaction between an artist and scientist, it would take more time to better understand the relationship between the work of the two and the sort of work that could or should emerge. That conclusion alone would have a deep impact on my practice in the future.

Chapter 5 - A Pivotal Question: A Direction Crystalizes

Buildings of Churchill College, Cambridge, UK
Buildings of Churchill College, Cambridge, UK

In Cambridge, England, 2007, I found myself compelled to put a finger on the relationship between art and science. I was sitting in the Senior Fellows Common Room at the invitation of Barry Phipps, one of the fellows of Cambridge University’s Churchill College. I have to set the stage a bit because Churchill is a curious architectural experience. It is built in the Brutalist style, crossed with Glass House and because Churchill College is well off, it is lined with mahogany (or perhaps teak?). If you’re having a hard time mentally picturing how all this would fit together, that’s quite understandable, so I’ve included a picture of one of the buildings. Indeed, I was sitting just inside the window on the corner of the second floor drinking a cup of tea when Phipps posed a question that would propel the next few years of my practice.

What is the relationship of art and science? It was a question he had wrangled with in his curating and writing and which I wrangled with in my art practice. Perhaps until that moment, however, I had not heard it or said it aloud explicitly. He suggested what he saw as the three canonical solutions:

  1. Art is science’s and the broader culture’s conscience.
  2. Art communicates the urgent messages, wondrous ideas, and images of science.
  3. Art and science are essentially the same, both appreciating and apprehending the beauty and complexity around us.

I almost blurted, “None of them!” I realized in that moment that I had lived through each of those answers in my own work and found them passable but not fully satisfying. For answer number one, I faced the matter of animal welfare with the Swiss Army Dog and realized although it was an important concern and valid content, it was not the focus I was after. For the second answer, my work at the Smithsonian had been an intoxicating ride as we worked to convey the ideas of science, history, and broader culture. In the end, however, I concluded this work, too, stopped short of where I sensed interdisciplinary work could go. Finally, as to premise number three, I perhaps agree most with the notion that art and science both appreciate and apprehend the world around us, but I knew from ten years among scientists in Madison that we were far from the same in our approach and goals, often in a way that rendered science cryptic or limited to those in the arts, and art seemingly useless to those the sciences. I remained convinced, that there was another answer missing from the list. Likely that answer reflected the distinctive natures of the two fields, making neither instrumental to the other, and reaching something that neither could access alone.

Day 1 of the pilgrimage
We’ve turned off our phones. On trips past, we’ve written postcards, kept blogs, or emailed family and friends with updates as we’ve traveled. A couple family members asked if we would post updates to social media. No. We’ve barely told anyone about this trip. It seems important in light of what we’ve been learning about the nature of a pilgrimage to yield ourselves to the singular storyline of this moment and let it say its piece.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
The Camino de Santiago is waymarked by yellow arrows and scallop shells, though here on the Portugese way we frequently see blue arrows pointed in the opposite direction toward Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Often on the trail, there are exceptionally long stretches without a waymark. I remember the last point of reference, a hand-painted yellow arrow on a stone, a tile scallop on a milestone, and believe I’m headed in the right direction, but this remains an open question until the next waymark appears. At these moments, it’s a welcome sign to spot a blue waymark to Fatima and simply head in the opposite direction.

Chapter 6 - Discoveries: Evolutionary Biology and Victorian Design

You may remember from Chapter 1 that I spent time looking at the work of the artist Robert Morris, particularly the way he shaped space in his 1964 Green Gallery exhibition. I was still thinking a lot about this work when I visited both the local and university libraries in Cambridge, UK, where I was living in 2007. On my first visit, I was thrilled to see so many 'Morris' books, however, the books that packed the shelves were about a very different British Morris — William Morris (1834-1896), the Victorian designer. In the spirit of exploring the old country, I plucked several selections from the shelves.

The artist Robert Morris in 1974
The designer William Morris (1834-1896)
The artist Robert Morris in 1974, and the designer William Morris (1834-1896)

I biked home through 'the Backs’ along the canals to my home away from home in Churchill College’s Sheppard Flats. Cracking the first book open and flipping through to look at the plates, I noticed the caption beneath a photo of an ornate room. It was the Queens College dining hall, down in central Cambridge. I snapped the book shut, ran back outside, dropped it in my bicycle basket, and biked back the way I had come and down to Queens.

It was amazing. Here was a room not papered with Victorian pattern, but painted motif by motif. The patterning responded to the slightest shift in the architecture. However, before exploring Victorian design further, I need to point out another kind of patterning that rose to prominence in Cambridge.

The iconic round blue plaque above the Eagle Pub commemorating the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson, Crick, and Franklin (uncredited)
The iconic round blue plaque above the Eagle Pub commemorating the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick (and Rosalind Franklin, uncredited)

As I biked through the streets of Cambridge everyday, I rode through a city pockmarked with bright blue plaques commemorating notable people and events. These are placed all over Britain, but Cambridge has such a strong case of them, that you often find several per block. One that stood out to me resonated with the work of my science colleagues back home. It was the blue plaque outside the Eagle Pub. There, at the pub where they regularly retired in the evenings, James Watson and Frances Crick announced to their colleagues in 1953 that they (and the often uncredited Rosalind Franklin) had discovered the structure of DNA, the genetic code of all life. I loved that they did this in a pub, likely with rounds of ale and bitters to celebrate. It was that discovery that paved the way for what my friends back home now studied, and, indeed, what many of the scientists who still meet at the Eagle investigate today. There it was — pattern, twice over: Victorian design and DNA. And they were more closely related than I suspected at the time.

When I met with my former graduate school adviser, Glenn Adamson, at his new post as Deputy Head of Research at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, I mentioned my recent observations about pattern. Walking through the doors of the V&A on our return from lunch, he said, “You need to see this!” and dashed through the entrance hall and up a marble staircase. Rounding a corner into a quiet, high-ceilinged exhibition hall, we stood facing a tall glass case.

Looking at the array of pots, metalwork, textiles, and wallpapers, I exclaimed, “This work looks like it’s from the 50s!” Glenn said, “Yes — the 1850s!” We stood looking at the futuristic work of the botanist and designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904).

Dresser's botanical refererence plate from Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament
Decorative motifs by Dresser
Dresser's botanical refererence plate from Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament, and a catalogue page of decorative motifs by Dresser

Dresser was a contemporary of William Morris and was a scientist and designer. Through his life in two fields, he embodied a curious dialogue that arose in the 19th Century. At the time, Victorian design and the young science of evolutionary biology were in dialogue about all they knew and suspected about the structure and variety of natural forms.

New material and ideas for both fields were then plentiful as a byproduct of Britain and Europe’s dubious zest for colonization and penchant for hauling back anything and everything, living or inert, nailed down or not. In design, both modern and ancient decorative pattern from around the world were being seen for the first time in Britain and on the continent. Owen Jones published his famous Grammar of Ornament as a record of decorative pattern from around the world, and each of these patterns frequently featured motifs abstracted from the flora and fauna endemic to the point of origin. At the same time, voyages were bringing back samples of the flora and fauna themselves, including Darwin’s famous exploration to the Galapagos aboard the Beagle from 1831 to 1836.

The dialogue between design and evolutionary biology was sparked off because the young science of evolutionary biology was facing a challenge. How could they demonstrate a compelling relationship between forms that were both similar and varied? Natural selection was just then being characterized, yet genetics and a clear sense of taxonomy via genetics was suspected but yet unknown. German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) even came within spitting distance of the notion of the interaction between genetics and environment 50 years before Watson and Crick’s announcement of the structure of DNA in the Eagle pub. Although they could try to show reasonable guesses at relationships between broad kingdoms or phyla via a genealogical tree of sorts, on the level of species, no one knew whose branch connected to whom as we do today. It was Ernst Haeckel, known as “The Darwin of the Continent” who noticed how the designers of the day were solving precisely the problem of showing relatedness among variation.

The pages of designer’s catalogues of wares showed objects that were related, yet different — variations on theme. Whether in an offering of Sussex rush-seated chairs by William Morris or a sampling of available wallpaper motifs by Christopher Dresser, or in a world-wide compendium of patterns like Owen Jones’ Grammar, Ernst Haeckel noticed that the pages from designer’s catalogues presented just the visual launch point for biologists to begin to layout their suspicions about the underlying relationships between the variety of living things in the natural world. When Haeckel published his sensual and perhaps slightly surreal, Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), 1904, it looked like a catalogue of a designer’s wares, only where Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament would have shown the motifs of Egypt, Turkey, and Polynesia, Heackel’s showed rotifers, jelly fish, and fish.

Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa) from his book of plates, Kunstformen der Natur
Rene Binet's entrance to the 1900 Paris World's fair which quotes structurally from Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa)
Rene Binet's entrance to the 1900 Paris World's fair which quotes structurally from Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa)
Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa) from his book of plates, Kunstformen der Natur
Rene Binet's entrance to the 1900 Paris World's fair which quotes structurally from Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa)
Rene Binet's entrance to the 1900 Paris World's fair which quotes structurally from Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa)
(first three) Plates from the Grammar of Ornament featuring Egyptian, Turkish, and Polynesian ornament, (second three) plates from Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur showing rotifers, jelly fish, and fish

This move was not lost on the designers, who noticed Haeckel’s biological ‘catalogue.’ In turn, it began to influence the work they produced. The most notable of these was René Binet’s entrance to the 1900s Paris World’s Fair, which quoted significantly from Haeckel’s Radiolarian (amoeboid protozoa) plates.

Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa) from his book of plates, Kunstformen der Natur
Rene Binet's entrance to the 1900 Paris World's fair which quotes structurally from Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa)
Ernst Haeckel's drawings of Radiolaria (amoeboid protozoa) informed Rene Binet's entrance to the 1900 Paris World's Fair

Feeling that I’d found a historical touchstone to my ongoing time among scientists. I began to make drawings that grafted together excerpts from Victorian design with botanical specimens from trees in Cambridge and later back in Madison. I had been a gardener all my life. I worked myself through college as a private gardener and corrective tree pruner, and later worked for three years at a landscape firm often identifying plants for clients with new property or overgrown gardens. I grew to respect the designers of the Victorian period who often kept gardens and had strong field identification skills themselves. Their work was a rich source to quote.

As I drew, I enjoyed living with the forms and ideas of this moment when the worlds of art and science had touched and then intertwined. This type of interaction in which each learned to engage a broader vision of their times through what they learned from the other, gave me hope of find a similar new ground in the present.

The Natural Motif series of drawings became my way of living with these ideas even as I mulled over modern considerations in my own field and the work of my scientist colleagues. Works like Fractionate, Valence, Imprint, Embed, and others owe their names and inspiration both to modern phenomena in the sciences as well as other broader cultural ideas. In quoting the Victorians, it was always with an eye on my own time. It was with the work, Transcribe, 2009, that a further notion learned from both biology and the Victorians entered my work.

Ernst Haeckel's drawings varying species of fungi suited to different environments
Queens College dining hall at Cambridge University, UK, painted in patterns by William Morris and his team
Ernst Haeckel's drawings varying species of mosses suited to differing environments and Queens College dining hall at Cambridge University, UK, painted in patterns by William Morris and his team

Victorian design and evolutionary biology share a sense that pattern changes as the structure of a space changes. Subtle shifts in a landscape (see Haeckel's drawing of mosses above) can cause certain individuals to fair better, worse, or not at all, resulting in subtle shifts in the inherited structures and habits of plants or animals. Similarly, the patterns I met in Queens College dining hall (see image of Queens above) responded not only to subtle shifts in the room’s architecture, but also to their relative proximity to the viewer. Ornamentation that was closer to the viewer’s eye level, such as around the hearth, appeared more ornate and detailed, while pattern that occurred further from eye level, such as on the ceiling, was larger, more simplified, and graphic.

Transcribe (2009), a large scale wall drawing by Natalie Settles installed in the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences James Watrous Gallery
Transcribe (2009), a large scale wall drawing by Natalie Settles installed in the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences James Watrous Gallery

My work began to respond to the landscape of the gallery when, having been named a Wisconsin Arts Board Fellow for my work in art and science, I was given a large, yet curiously shaped, wall in the gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences for the fellows exhibition. Taking a leaf from the Queens dining hall and the current understanding of genetic and environmental interactions, I proposed Transcribe, a work drawn directly on the wall, interacting with its unusual shape. That would set off works to follow that similarly responded to the architecture they inhabited.

The trail through Victorian design and evolutionary biology was an historical teacher. It became a rich way to examine my own time, especially as I continued my search for a new form of interaction between art and science.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
More than our immediate companions accompany us on our way. We pass ancient graves of those who walked this way in medieval times and now waymark our path. Many more have successfully made the trip, and I can feel the way their feet and their fervor have warmed the path and firmed the ground before us. Our guidebook says this path has long been a sacred site, first to the Celts and, now, in its most recent 1,000 years as a Catholic rite.

Day 5 of the pilgrimage
A journey on the Camino is not meant to be a once-and-done experience. The author of our guidebook provides us a short series of reflection questions that we are to complete once before the journey, immediately after the journey, and, once again, three months later. Perspective will change, and it is this inward journey that is being shaped by the outward one. Each time I answer them, I will answer them as pilgrim who has been further shaped by the way. If I have the fortune to return to the Camino again, as many make a point to do, each experience will lead me as a pilgrim in new ways. Time and again, I am brought back to the same questions, the same trail, but newly shaped by life and experience, and newly invited to embrace what the trail now has to offer.

Chapter 7 – A Bend in the Path – A Chance to Reframe the Question

Transcribe (2009), a large scale wall drawing by Natalie Settles installed in the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences James Watrous Gallery
Madison, Wisconsin, US

I was coming to the conclusion that I needed to take new steps in my contemporary contact with the sciences. Until then, I had had nearly ten years of informal contact with people in a range of the sciences, as the stuff fairly hung in the ether of Madison, Wisconsin. Additionally, time in direct collaboration with Dr. Theresa Grana had shown me that there were limits to what informal contact or short-term collaboration could yield. I had begun to realize that more prolonged contact and likely a formal collaborative relationship would be necessary for both parties to substantively understand each other’s work and process. Only then could significant and rigorous work happen.

There needed to be a more formal, embedded or intentional contact between artist and scientist. One of the questions on my mind about how this should happen was whether a museum or lab environment was most appropriate or effective for me to engage people and their work in the sciences. My history with the Smithsonian had many of my friends suggesting the museum route. In some ways, this seemed quite natural as there was an immediate visual and material vocabulary to a museum that I could begin working with. However, even as so much recommended museums, and I loved them and had studied and worked in them, my current interest lay with the gritty life in the university lab trenches. Lab work was about current open questions, difficult and messy answers, and the bleeding edge of what we understand about life and the universe. Museums largely curated the past; labs lead the charge in the present.

However, my interest in the 19th Century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel lead me to a best-of-both-worlds approach. As I fell further down the rabbit hole of the Victorians and evolutionary biology, it seemed as though my next stop should be some time with his work. Haeckel had the most obvious contact with design and the arts and seemed like a perfect balance to my time with Dresser. Further, I had discovered that two museums now existed because of the work of Haeckel. One was his house, the Ernst Haeckel Haus Museum, which was embellished floor to ceiling with design riffs from his seminal Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), 1904. The other museum, also in Haeckel’s hometown of Jena, Germany, is the Phyletisches Museum (Phyletic Museum) dedicated to exhibiting and exploring the fundamental evolutionary connections between all forms of life. In its modern incarnation, it continues to be a museum of working collections for scientific research and a point of connection for the realms of science and art.

Queens College dining hall at Cambridge University, UK, painted in patterns by William Morris and his team
Queens College dining hall at Cambridge University, UK, painted in patterns by William Morris and his team
Dr. Dr. Olaf Breidbach (yes, two is intentional) and Dr. Rolf Beutel

The Haeckel Haus and Phyletisches Museum were both now a part of the Fredrich Schiller Universität in Jena, Germany. This university houses many labs doing current research in evolutionary biology. I began working on a grant proposal to spend time with both the work of Ernst Haeckel and the work of one of the labs at Fredrich Schiller Universität. I reached out to Olaf Breidbach, Fredrich Schiller University Chair of the History of Science, Director of the Ernst Haeckel Haus Museum, and Editor in Chief of Theory in Biosciences. I also reached out to Rolf Beutel, professor of entomology, evolutionary biology, and systematics at Fredrich Schiller University. Both were pleased to support my coming to Jena and wrote letters of invitation. As I worked and crafted my grant proposal to live in Jena for a year, a twist presented itself when my potential collaborators mentioned that the year I proposed to come was the Darwin Year – 100 years from the birth of Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary theory. Much of the Haeckel Haus collection and some objects from the Phyletisches museum would be on loan for the occasion. Aside from Darwin, and arguably more so, Ernst Haeckel had done the most to both characterize and forward evolutionary theory in its early days. This sudden dispersion of the collection jeopardized my application as much of what I might hope to see could be missing from the museums. However, the timing for a year abroad was ripe and might be harder to find after my husband had secured his Ph.D. and both of us looked for work outside Madison.

I submitted my application. One risk shared in common between the arts and sciences is the ups and downs of the granting process. Whether because of the complications of the Darwin Year, lack of quality, taste of the panelists, or a bad pot of coffee, my application was rejected. Anyone in art or science who applies for grants knows that rejection is part of the process, however, there are some losses that sting a little more than others. It stung to lose the time in Jena.

Yet, the experience of drafting the proposal to go to Jena was not a loss. Now I had a framework. I had been forced to put specifics to what my next step should be in crafting a new kind of inquiry between art and science. It was with that new framework in the back of my mind that I took the next bend in the road.

The rejection to fund my year in Jena came just as my husband and I would need to make choices about our work for the coming year. At this point, our path took a twist away from Jena and toward a city that until the prior year we had known nothing about: Pittsburgh.

Transcribe (2009), a large scale wall drawing by Natalie Settles installed in the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences James Watrous Gallery
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US

The previous year, we’d visited old friends who had recently moved to Pittsburgh. We took in the Carnegie International, the longest-running series of contemporary art exhibitions in North America. We’d even remarked on leaving the city that if we ever had an opportunity to live in Pittsburgh for some time, we would take the chance. The city had cultural resources beyond what one might expect for a city its size. We would also soon find that there was a gritty, affordable, patient, hardworking, understated character about the Pittsburgh culture that makes it possible to try new things that would be too risky, crazy, or expensive elsewhere.

As soon as we arrived, I began to visit the museums, galleries, and events in the city’s art scene. Curiously, though, I began to notice another habit that developed alongside my mingling in the arts: I began to follow the work of the university biology labs in the city. In Madison, it would have been unrealistic to follow the work of even a small fraction of the labs that filled the university. In Pittsburgh, however, this was a much more manageable task. On this smaller scale, I noticed that I no longer moved in an ambient culture of science. After so many years of living in the seemingly inescapable ether of science, I was now out but experiencing a curious withdrawal. I found myself perusing and attending talks in the lecture series of the university art and biology departments. With science no longer ambient around me, I began to seek it out as much as my time with people in the arts.

This was an odd thing to observe. It quickly became apparent that I should either drop this strange habit and refocus or reframe it more intentionally. Contact with the sciences here took far more effort, and, therefore, far more intention. Additionally, I realized that this sudden change of context would be an opportune time, if I chose to intentionally engage the sciences here in Pittsburgh, to reframe my work in light of what I now knew.

A little over a year into my time in Pittsburgh, I’d reached the moment when all my investigations of the universities’ science communities had given me a lay of the land. It was time to make some new leap or set this whole business aside. One night, I was walking with friend and artist Lenka Clayton on the icy steps of the Polish Hill neighborhood. We were talking about studio life and such. I was cantankerous that evening, feeling my studio work had grown stale. Lenka was quite generous about the whole thing.

At one point I blurted out, “Sometimes I just want to chuck this whole thing, and sometimes I want to do something crazy!”
Lenka gamely replied, “Well, what’s the crazy thing?”
“I want to be an artist in residence in a lab.”
“There have to be labs around here,” she said.
“There are. I researched them all. I even know which one.”
“Well, there has to be contact information somewhere.”
“Yes, I have an email address.”
Exasperated, she said, “Then why don’t you get in touch?”
“I need an introduction.”
“No, you don’t. It’s simple. Tell the person you like their work and ask them to coffee. Do this tomorrow morning. Give yourself five minutes to write the email. Then press send.”

The next morning I woke up, walked across to the studio, and typed out the message. As the mouse hovered over the send button, I thought to myself about whether this scientist might judge me for emailing them early on a Sunday – a day of rest. In retrospect, I imagine my unusual history in a church full of scientists set me up for concerns that few others alive have. I shut the computer without hitting send, walked back across the hall to lie down and read. I picked up a book of daily mediations and read a passage that said something about how when a call comes upon us it often comes despite old limits. I got up, walked back over to the studio, opened my computer, and pressed send.

I went out to church for the morning. When I returned, I found a cheery answer, asking if a coffee that Tuesday would work for me.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
Each day on the pilgrimage the guidebook begins the day’s journey with a brief phrase or passage to meditate on as I walk, though the primary task is simply to put one foot in front of another and be present to whatever the moment holds. However, the meditations and moments of this journey are seemingly gathering to retell the story of my recent work in the lab.

Chapter 8 – An Inquiry in Two Fields

In 2011, when I met Dr. Stephen Tonsor for coffee near the University of Pittsburgh, I had been an artist casually steeped in the sciences for 10 years. Over the latter half of that time, I’d begun to see points of resonance between what motivated certain questions in the lab and certain questions in the studio. Often the work on the surface of a studio practice or lab practice appeared strikingly different, however, in the abstract there was a common, conceptual germ the two practices shared across disciplines. I approached Steve because in his scientific inquiry I noticed a potential resonance with the questions and ideas that motivate my work in the studio.

Parallel questions

The Tonsor lab studied a small weedy plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, a tiny relative of mustard and cabbage that grows in hedgerows and in dry, rocky places. Its specialty is growing where nothing else will. Remarkably, Arabidopsis was the first plant to ever have its genome sequenced. It has been called the lab rat of the plant world, as it was, and is, one of the most widely used model organisms in the plant kingdom. Whereas many labs studied Arabidopsis exclusively in lab conditions, Steve and his lab conducted parallel studies of wild populations of this plant in native field sites throughout the Spanish Pyrenees and in climate-controlled growth chambers in the lab.

One of the Tonsor Lab's field sites in Spain
An excerpt from Marginal, one of my large scale wall drawings
Interaction in the wilds: One of the Tonsor Lab's field sites in Spain, and an excerpt from one of my wall drawings entitled Marginal.

They used the controlled lab conditions to disentangle the various adaptations this plant evolved over the millennia in answer to the harsh limits of its native territories. What I saw when I looked at their work was an examination of the shaping influence of limits and damage. I also saw the parallel worlds of the Pyrenees and the lab. The field sites in the Pyrenees were a contingent snarl of forces that made a whole picture. The lab was idealized, pared-down, an elegant simplification. In the parallel of field sites and the lab, I saw alignment between my grafting particular plant matter — often broken or damaged, and bearing the marks of a life lived — to the ideal and pared-down elegance of Victorian designs. [photo – Insertion] I also saw in the lab’s examination of the genetics of these wild populations, an examination of pattern playing out over the contingencies of time and space, paralleling veins in my own work.

Arabidopsis plants in the lab growth chambers
An archetypal decorative pattern by Christopher Dresser
Controlled pattern: Arabidopsis plants in the growth chambers, a very archetypal pattern by Christopher Dresser

These parallels were mere starting points. It would take further consideration to determine whether these points of connection were real and substantial. By the end of an hour-and-a-half conversation over coffee, he asked what he could do for me.

“I’d like to be an artist in residence in your lab.”
“Great. How do we proceed?”

Steve and I agreed to an exploratory year during which we would focus on better understanding each other’s practices. In the year following, we would explore what kind of project might emerge.

Transcribe (2009), a large scale wall drawing by Natalie Settles installed in the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences James Watrous Gallery

Day 1 of the pilgrimage
This first day posed an enormous challenge. We were entirely out of sync without realizing it.

We rose late, embracing a vacation. We left late meaning to hit the shops for some food to carry with us and eat as needed. We were too early for the shops and waited until they opened, stopping for lunch in a place that overlooked the Miño River before heading out. We saw scarcely saw any other pilgrims. The journey was pleasant. When we reached the end of our first stage at 5:00 in the afternoon in Porriño we found the albergue already booked. There was some possibility that they might be able to rustle up a couple of mattresses on the floor, but we decided to push on to the next town with the same result. Eventually, after a first day of 26 kilometers, we found a private accommodation. We had only meant to walk 17 kilometers.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
It’s taken a day or two for us to discover the rhythm of life on the pilgrimage and join in. In the meantime, the first day gave me an unusually large crop of blisters, something that’s never happened to me on a hike before. I’ve found myself in remarkable pain. I’ve never doubted my endurance before but I have begun to wonder here.

Chapter 9 – Looking Evolution in the Face

One of the things I didn’t immediately recognize from the outside was that Steve’s lab was an evolutionary biology lab. To anyone in the sciences, this would have been immediately apparent. Although I had developed a sense for detecting conceptual connections between and lab and studio practice, I was still not yet adept at identifying biology’s various subdisciplines or subcultures. I had been lured by the nature of the questions and experiments and the shape of the conceptual space they inhabited. It turned out that my studio questions when translated to the biological realm were evolutionary.

I put the pieces together two weeks in and realized where I had landed. I had some soul searching to do. Ten years earlier in graduate school, one of my committee members had leveled with me about featuring animals in my work. The professor had said that I should take care as there could be easy, yet unfortunate, commentary about women making work about cute animals. Although he said he did not think this was an immediate issue in my imagery, he advised that I should remain conscious of it as it was a factor that could easily drown out the more thoughtful components of the work. Though he saw nothing wrong with continuing in this vein, he suggested if the subject matter of animals could be swapped for something that did not carry this association, I should strongly consider it.

Transfer, 2007, graphite and watercolor on paper

He taught me that artists should consciously take on their challenges and shed any distractions. Taking this to heart, I examined my practice, tried some new things, and then made the switch to plants – for which I shared an equal passion and even more experience. Curiously, the plants in my work have always appeared fleshy and corporeal. The work never lost creaturely sensibility, and the sideways move into plants made it more interesting.

I detected that this moment in the face of evolutionary biology was much the same. I was conscious that by engaging evolution, albeit accidentally, I was engaging not just a natural phenomenon but also a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, I had grown up in a conservative environment in which I was taught Creationism: the belief that God created the world from nothing, complete with a full suite of current-day life forms roving the sea, earth, and sky. I was only lately wrested from those ideas by fellow Christians while attending graduate school.

It was one thing to have been brought round to the ideas of evolution. It was quite another to have “joined the team.” It could prove difficult to engage the shared ideas between my studio and the lab if one kept running into the culture war that also inhabited this realm. Was this worth it? My goal was examining a connection between fields, not becoming engaged in a culture war. Was this a distraction?

On a personal level, if I intended to probe connections between my studio and this lab, I needed to confront other matters I had left unresolved. One was the matter that I imagine stands in the way of the change of heart and mind of many Creationists: What does it mean to look evolution in the face and see God? This is a consideration that many evolutionary biologists and advocates overlook in their efforts to engage Creationists. The assumption is if people could only have the facts, then the matter would be settled. However, these facts are merely the opening gambits for those inclined toward theism or any notion of divinity. What does it mean for evolution to be the divine method of ongoing creation? Furthermore, evolution’s extravagant use of death as a creative force begs the question, what is the theology of death? Certainly not just the Apostle Paul’s "wages of sin” when seen within the evolutionary creative process.

A simple sketch of Fr. Occam done in ink on an old paper manuscript
Fr. Occam (spelling variable) in a sketch labelled 'frater Occham iste' from a manuscipt of Ockham's Summa Logicae, MS Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 464/571, fol. 69.

And at this point, science’s favorite tool, Occam’s Razor, cuts to the chase: Why God at all? And many choose atheism or agnosticism, either for simplicity or because evolution paints too grim a god. Occam himself was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian; even he found room for this complexity.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
Something we hear frequently is that everything is part of the story. Blisters? Part of the story. Wrong turn? Part of the story. Beautiful vista? Part of the story. Good company? Part of the story. A difficult road? Part of the story. An unexpected discovery? Part of the story. There is a quiet openness among the pilgrims to see what each day holds, whatever it might be.

Chapter 10 – Social Sculpture

Slowly over the coming months, I spent more and more time in the lab, eventually moving as much of my studio operation there as was feasible. As I had realized that I was now immersed in evolutionary theory, the model of Joseph BeuysSocial Sculpture became particularly informative. Beuys surmised that if you put two social practices in close contact, they would likely reshape each other’s trajectory. The social contact and reshaping was a social form of sculpture, and Beuys based these ideas on evolutionary theory. Within the evolutionary process, the trajectory of any one species is formed by other surrounding species and environmental factors. If a species’ neighbors or environmental factors change, the species will almost certainly change over time in response as well.

The artist Joseph Beuys
The artist Joseph Beuys (1921 - 1986), originator of "social sculpture"

Beuys’ ideas crystalized several things for me: First, they immediately resonated with my context, establishing the interaction itself (the scientists and me) as a work of art quite apart from any physical project or product we might develop. Second, they created a sense of co-ownership with the scientists, because they brought a great deal to the table in understanding the theory that informed Beuys’ Social Sculpture. Steve recognized this and began to imagine the ways it might play out.

Several things he said out of the gate that seemed informative were that mutations are rare and most are neutral, fatal, or incur a loss of function. In this case, mutations would be changes in our work, thinking, or processes as artist and scientists. Going by the logic of nature, most of these changes would be damaging or have little to no effect. Very rarely a mutation or change might arise that was beneficial to one or both of our practices. Rarer still would be the case that a beneficial change would perpetuate beyond our individual practices.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
Along with the rest of our fellow pilgrims, we’ve gradually settled into the same routine, rising before dawn, quietly packing, and decamping in darkness from the specially designated albergues to house pilgrims along the way. The trail wends through vineyards and villages, suburbs and industrial areas, and even along highways before ducking into moist woods cobbled with old Roman roads. We all pause the journey at 2:30 or 3:00 before the full heat of the day descends in southern Spain.

Chapter 11 – Life in the Lab

The lab itself was on the first floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Crawford Hall. Already a 1960s sarcophagus of a building, Crawford Hall’s first floor was actually underground, not an uncommon configuration in hilly Pittsburgh. This meant that the lab had no windows and during power outages would be plunged into complete darkness. Still, the bunker of a lab was a surprisingly inviting, albeit, idiosyncratic space. It had a patchwork of fish posters, photos, and signage that appeared to have accreted there over the sixteen years Steve and his changing cast of lab members had inhabited it. The shelves were lined with books, logs, instruments, and equipment. Though not untidy, no space went unused.

Transcribe (2009), a large scale wall drawing by Natalie Settles installed in the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters & Sciences James Watrous Gallery
The main room of the lab

The lack of windows meant that we often took natural light breaks the way some people take smoke breaks. Venturing out for lunch or home at the end of the day was to encounter the unexpected as we often went for hours without seeing the outdoors and had no idea what Pittsburgh’s variable climate might be offering. When we did happen on a moment of sun, arresting rain, or a luxuriant snowfall, we’d often report back to the group to come and see for themselves.

The other climatic encounters of the lab were the growth chambers. Sealed behind locked doors, the four chambers appeared like large commercial refrigerators colored a deep sea green. Inside, they could simulate the hot dry valleys of the Iberian Peninsula or the cool wet peaks of the Pyrenees. By the last two years of my time, Steve and his technician had even found a way to simulate winter snowpack with the help of a snow cone machine. Anything for science. The daylight cycles of the chambers could simulate long summer days, short winter days, or the middling days of spring or fall. Sometimes in mid-winter, I beat a path to take in a fresh spring morning in one of the chambers.

Eventually, for my own sanity, I brought a small aquarium full of live plants and a single algae-eating shrimp to my studio as a “window.” We could not otherwise keep plants or other live materials in the lab as they could potentially spread disease or pests to the plants in the studies. This posed significant challenges for my ongoing work as it often was drawn from plants. Underwater plants and ecosystems were allowed, however, as they do not share pests and pathogens in common with land plants.

The rooms of the lab flanked a public hallway that led to one of the department’s main lecture halls. Doors all along the lab could open out on this hallway, and as often as I could, I tried to leave a door near my desk open. It invited conversation with the range of passing professors, guests, and students. Indeed, before and after department lectures, clots of people would often gather at the main lab door to swap news and gossip, discuss recent experimental results, dissect the finer points of a lecture’s argument, discuss related work, or tell old stories from the trenches. I often joined these scrums, reveling in the wit and intellectual fun. Sometimes these discussions became dour under departmental or funding pressures or the fickle winds of the tenure process. Nevertheless, you could still sense the passion of people who love what they study, even in the face of stiff challenge.

* * *

Daily life consisted of members conducting work, attending weekly lab meetings, attending twice-weekly departmental talks, and a one-on-one meeting with Steve. I fell in step, beginning to integrate as many of these activities as possible within my own practice. Graduate and undergraduate students filtered in and out to their classes throughout the day. Steve encouraged them to use the lab as their home base to do homework or eat their lunch or simply land for conversation or a nap on the lab’s dilapidated couch. Steve ricocheted in and out to meetings and teaching, shutting the door that adjoined his office to the lab for stretches during meetings and phone calls. Otherwise, he left it open to join the flow of conversation in the main lab or invite people’s questions or conversation.

Other days the atmosphere would turn tense or forbidding in the face of mistakes, challenges, or deadlines. To blow off steam, we sometimes gathered around the main lab’s desktop computer in mid-morning to tag team on a daily crossword puzzle. With the grad students from the sciences, I from the arts, and the undergrads from a smattering of majors, we usually did pretty well.

Often physical set-up for portions of ongoing experiments were in prep in parts of the lab. The main lab itself had a MacGyver-esque feel as Steve’s approach to experimental set-ups used anything from expensive specialty equipment to soda bottles, PVC pipe, and window screen. One particular instrument in the corner of the room often caught the eye of my art world visitors as it looked like three one-liter soda bottles on life support, with an array of tubes, wires, and lights hooked up to them. It was a tool of Steve’s own devising for measuring whole-plant gas exchange, essentially assessing what and how much a plant is “breathing” in and out.

Other times, I would return from teaching in the Carnegie Mellon School of Art to find a team of undergrads pounding handfuls of the small gravel that covers baseball diamonds into long conically shaped pots called rocket pots. Arabidopsis grows in poor, rocky, compacted soils, so proper soil conditions needed to be prepared for the experiments in the growth chambers. On such days the steady, forceful rhythms of two, three, even four people pounding would fill the lab and resonate up and down the hallway. These were some of the few days that we shut the doors throughout the lab.

Chapter 12 – Wall Drawings

While based in the lab that first year, I continued my practice as I had been. I was primarily focused on large-scale works on walls done in graphite. They reshaped the viewer’s movement through the space and, in some cases, overtly shifted their internal pace and perception over time. A particular example of this was Ornament and Architecture, 2011. As with all such works, I spent a lot of preparatory time modeling the work in the space.

Model Maker

When I was an undergraduate, an artist came to make an installation in the school’s gallery, a space that was an odd and dramatic polygon shape with twenty-foot high walls. On the first day when he arrived to set up, I saw him bring in a perfectly proportioned scale model of the gallery complete with a model of his installation, which he could remove, examine, and check for measurements.

Immediately, I saw the most enchanting and inexpensive way to create seemingly endless iterations of shows and large or complex work all while spending less than ten dollars a pop. The world opened out to me and granted me a kind of fearless abandon to try many things and get an immediate ground view of them in miniature.

An image of artist Natalie Settles in her wall drawing installation Ornament and Architecture with its model
Ornament and Architecture (2011) and its model

The models I make for my work are complete with outlets, thermostats, fire alarms, and the like. Each element must be included, whether I design the work to perceptually erase them, or to interact with them, they cannot be ignored.

I build a scale model of the space and proceed to line it with layers of semi-translucent parchment paper. I change the paper again and again to try many different designs. I test each by peering through the doors, looking from various views and approach points. Sticking my head up in the model without the floor places me in the position of viewers where I can have an intimate understanding of their experience and test-drive designs, tightly iterating on the ones that begin to hit the mark.

In the case of Ornament and Architecture, there was a large, open doorway that led into the gallery. The work had to speak powerfully from across the room to draw in the viewer. The far corner was high contrast and bold. As viewers moved in, they were enveloped among ten-foot-high, drawn figures of plant matter grafted to a repeated Victorian motif. The motif was a design by Christopher Dresser, the Victorian botanist and designer whose work I had been introduced to during my time in the UK. Each of these motifs, repeated about the room, was composed of idealized, essentialized plant structures: buds, a flower, a lobed bulbous form, leaves, and stems.

Dresser’s work seemed to seek an underlying ideal beneath the many and varied forms of the natural world. In the motif I used here, many of these forms were fused into a single structure. I then grafted into each form a drawing of actual plant material, a plant that lived in a particular time and place under the vagaries of weather and geography. As a result, they were damaged, gnarled, and less than ideal yet held a particularity of character from a life lived. Indeed, I am fond of writer Annie Dillard whose work often impresses that damage is the default position and is the embodiment of experience.

And so the gnarled leaves of Arabidopsis unfurl and spread across the wall in place of the idealized leaves of one motif, a pine cone takes the place of the lobed bulbous form and unfolds from the corner of the room, a sensuous spray of Pyrus flowers issue from where the idealized flower would stand. Around the room, the pattern repeats, each with an element replaced by some part of an individual plant.

The forms themselves were masked and then indicated by rich and reflective clouds of powdered graphite rubbed onto the wall. The individual plant material was hand-drawn into place. And in this work, as I had noticed in an earlier work entitled Transcribe (2009) visitors repaid my time in drawing with their consideration. After being drawn into the room they would come in close and examine the detail of the hand-drawn areas one by one. Moving from the detailing in one figure to the next, they moved about the space often as though processing through the Stations of the Cross. This was something for which I had expected and planned. What I did not expect was that they would do this again and again.

By the time they turned to leave, a shift had occurred. They often saw something they had missed on the way in. Misted in gloss white lacquer on the wall that has been behind them is the motif in a smaller repeated pattern as it would have been in its original context as a wallpaper. It has been a backdrop to their experience this whole time. With their acuity honed, they see this pattern in the hazy sheen. And to their right, next to the door, the same ten-foot size as the larger motifs they have just seen is a gloss white lacquer image of the full and unbroken motif on the flat white wall. It stands like an ethereal Platonic ideal that underlies the particularity of all they have just experienced.

For my final move, I included a stripe with corner ornaments on the ceiling around the room. It was slight and mirrored the material of the pattern below, graphite where there was graphite and lacquer where there was lacquer. It was a gesture intended to have a slow burn. Indeed, most people saw it only after viewing the work several times. Astria Suparak, a curator I deeply admire rushed up to me after her fourth viewing. “The stripe!” she said. “I saw it on my last visit, and it was as if the whole work just locked down into place — chung! — and fully occupied the space!”

However, at some point during viewers’ visits, they would realize that this work couldn’t last. Drawn on the walls, it would have a discrete lifespan: In a few months or weeks, it would be painted over. Sometimes, people asked if a venue intended to keep a wall drawing, if it would be permanent. No. It was important that these works had a lifespan, indeed, a lifespan often similar to that of a small, annual plant. One day soon, it would be painted over and die. Visitors relished the experience all the more, taking another lap, often returning for another look, savoring something they could not keep. The works are like Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, extravagant gestures that are there and then gone.

I have offered to de-install these works in the sites where they have lived, but no one has taken up my offer. All have felt that I should not be the one to destroy what I have created. Regardless, I do offer a practical and contemplative ritual to follow when the day comes. The first step is: Stop. Look. You are the last to see this. One curator and several visitors have told me that long after the work has come down, they think of it when they enter the space, still lying under the paint.

The 360 degree wall drawing Ornament and Architecture
Two walls of the full room wall drawing, Ornament and Architecture, 2011

While making Ornament and Architecture and other wall drawings, I received my first nudge toward the nature of the project that would emerge from my time in the lab. One day, at lab meeting, one of the lab members noted how my works shaped the perception and behavior of the viewer. The person asked if there was a way to create a work that, instead, changed in response to the viewer.

Day 6 of the pilgrimage
Our guide book says that the journey will end in the Cathedral where pilgrims process up inside a small stair passage within the altar where we are welcome to walk up behind and touch the effigy of St. James. The tradition is to whisper something into his ear.

I find this intimate and tactile relationship with works of art in the Catholic Church to be utterly beguiling. I am accustomed to the sanctum of museums, where one is forbidden to touch or even get particularly close to venerated objects. Having grown up in the sensory-deprived Protestant tradition where faith seemed primarily about Scripture memorization and correct arrangement of constructs in one’s head, the heady scents, sights, and sounds of Catholicism seem a sensual embrace.

All along this pilgrimage, we’ve encountered statues whose feet have been kissed away by centuries of contact, thresholds rutted by many visitors, staircases dished by the repeated passage of pilgrims, bronze buffed to a shine by the touch of many hands. The stories of these saints have shaped the lives of those who retell them again and again, or visit them to leave a candle, a flower, a soft caress. The effigies in turn have been reshaped by the love, the tears, the prayers of many people. Feet, noses, and fingers rubbed smooth and away.

Chapter 13 – Lab Meetings

Lab meetings were a chance for each member of the lab to present what they were working on and get feedback from the group. We’d often discuss an experimental set-up, how to analyze some new data, or parse a result. Sometimes, a lab member would preview and solicit feedback on an upcoming talk. The only meeting requirement was for each person to bring one PowerPoint slide to share.

As I puzzled through how to best participate, I chose various solutions to what to bring as my lab slide. I sometimes brought objects or riddles, or simplified versions of what I was thinking about in the realm of art. Often this was the first time people around the table had considered the array of conceptual and material considerations that informed an artwork and art-making. Frequently, they were taken aback by the cultural implications that entered the practice: It was not only the materials and immediate subject matter active in the work but the prevailing or subverted cultural tones that came into play as well. The artist was responsible for how this interaction played out. Overall, I found that I needed to back up and present some context for my lab mates to begin thinking about art and culture.

Arabidopsis plants in the lab growth chambers
An archetypal decorative pattern by Christopher Dresser
Arabidopsis plants in the lab growth chambers
An archetypal decorative pattern by Christopher Dresser
The camel riddle: I often used riddles to invite my colleagues in the sciences into new modes of thinking through art. These are four images from the camel riddle that I presented one day in lab meeting. Try your wits at the camel riddle here.

It was challenging to present ideas that were often foreign. I was an outlier among them, whereas their ideas and culture surrounded me. I seized on inviting guests to lab meetings to introduce them to other people from the world of art. People who at once shared a lot in common with me and lived in the same soup of ideas and practice, and yet, just as often held alternate views or approached their work differently. I wanted to be open that as different as the world of art was in its approach to form and ideas, there were many different approaches within it as well.

* * *

This immersion in science was a part of my job. I made a point to be flexible and available for discussions with the other members of the lab and people in the department. I think this level of intentional flexibility looked like a heck of a lot of free time to my science colleagues. It was hard not to be a little self-conscious, as busyness and a jam-packed schedule is something of a badge of honor in many fields. However, I could only meet and learn whom and what I made myself available to. This was the way to detect what work could emerge.

My scientist colleagues began to ask questions and seek me out. The way I thought and the kind of work I did became a presence in their day. As time passed, even some visiting graduate candidates told me that they were in part allured to study at Pitt because they had heard there was an artist in residence.

Several of my colleagues in art asked if I planned to record my interactions with the scientists. I said no. The relationships with my science colleagues were real and demanded the respect to develop and play out away from the public eye.

Day 5 of the pilgrimage
I think in the abstract it’s easy to imagine the Camino as wending through the types of idyllic countryside one often sees in religious pastoral scenes. True, there are stretches alongside Gallician vineyards, centuries-old granaries, stone houses, churches, fields of sunflowers, and corkscrew turns and ascents through stony medieval city staircases. Other sections follow old Roman stone roads rutted by the wagon wheels of a vanished, ancient army and now flowing with streams. All are beautiful and contemplative.

Yet, just as often and more, the Camino runs along the narrow shoulders of highways, is waymarked by spray paint and yellow duct tape, and passes through industrial areas. Sometimes, it diverts through construction zones. These stretches along highways, in suburbs, past factories, and through besuited crowds in urban centers are as much a part of the experience as any soothing swath of countryside. One must follow wherever the path leads.

Chapter 14 – An Artist Like a Monk

Something that surprised me was that basing my studio in the lab would invite near-strangers into the cloistered space of my practice. I’ve always known that my studio and my practice were intimate; however, somehow I just didn’t add these calculations into my zest for cross-disciplinary practice.

Early in my undergraduate career, I had learned to take care whom I allowed into my studio and what I showed them. This was less an issue of self-consciousness and more a respect for the tender stages of the creative process. Good work can be ruined by exposure to too-early or thoughtless commentary. That would seem to cast the creative process in a fragile light, and it is quite fragile at stages. Indeed, my undergraduate professors waited to invite us to their studios until we were seniors and had grown to respect what such an invitation meant. Only respectful peers get invitations, even as the invitation may be for the purpose of pointed critique — but only when the artist deems the work ready. It’s easy to get talked out of good ideas in the nascent stages or damage the development of a project that still needs to incubate. One professor told me to take care and hide away pieces or preliminary work that were not yet ready for outside eyes. He impressed on me that one must respect the work’s needs and act accordingly. I think one may only learn this by the direct experience of violating it a few times. Even as I realized this risk in the lab, I chose to stay, though I insisted my workspace not be on display in the main lab.

Chapter 15 – Art Talks to Science

Initially, Steve Tonsor and I didn’t have regular one-on-one meetings together, but as we found that our scraps of conversation throughout the day were productive, intriguing, and often cut short, we set aside time to discuss ideas more fully during a 90-minute meeting each week, something he was accustomed to doing with other members of the lab and current collaborators. I would come to his office, or he to mine.

There was a moment during our first group lab meeting or two when Steve left the room to intercept a pizza delivery. One of the other lab members rounded on me and asked, “How did you know to ask the only person in the department who would say yes to such a crazy idea?” The person meant having an artist based in the lab. I replied that I didn’t, but that our work seemed to share a common sensibility, and that there was a poem on the front page of his lab’s website. Here, I thought, was someone who could engage the world in at least a couple different ways, maybe this is someone I could work with.

The poem that appeared on the Tonsor lab’s website and was taped outside the main lab door:

No trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.


- David Wagoner, based on a story of the Pacific Northwest tribes

Indeed, Steve was quite game. He said his mother often marveled that he went into the sciences when he had seemed to her to be an artist. This sensibility was apparent to more than just his mother as he had a history of attracting artists to his practice, something I had not known at the start.

Yet, art-wise, he was still a work in progress. When we first met, he was proud of discussions he had had with a poet who spent time in his lab. One of his favorite deep thoughts from that time was discussing whether something is art if no one sees it. Striving to remain patient, I said let’s assume someone sees it, and it’s art. Ask the most interesting questions from there.

I know I could be taxing, too. He struggled to follow my line of thought as I’m notoriously non-linear in my way of thinking and speaking, swiftly losing people as I follow rabbit trail after rabbit trail, often ending up lost in the woods of my own thought. Things are just so fascinatingly interconnected. It takes tremendous discipline for me to communicate in a straight line and arrive at an appointed destination. This takes even greater effort when I get excited — and I get very excited about the subjects I enjoy.

In the early stages, my unbounded, scatter-shot communication was compounded by my learning a nearly whole new language as I delved into the tools and terms of evolutionary biology. For example, I cannot remember how long it took me to correctly use the term epistasis, and it was not for lack of trying.

“Nope.”
“No.”
“That’s not it.”
“Nope.”
“No.”
“No.”

Looking back, it’s hard to see why I found it so difficult, but it is evidence of how much I have learned and how native it has become. In the early days, Steve would field an excited barrage of misused terminology and interconnected ideas that left him impatient for clarity. Still, he seemed to enjoy this enough to look forward to our next conversation and challenging range of new ideas.

Almost from the get-go, he warmed to the notion of social sculpture, based as it was on evolutionary theory. Steve is deeply social by nature; this was his kind of art. He also enjoyed the idea of craft as a conceptual player in any endeavor, a notion I owe to my graduate advisor, Glenn Adamson. In this sense, craft is a calibrated sense of making — whether shoddy, fine, or anywhere in-between — that informs the conceptual life of the work at hand. It is the sense that how something is made plays as great a role in the life of an object as what it is. Steve enjoyed this new-to-him conceptual life of materials and making.

One thing that both plagued and spiced our conversations was how our respective fields used words and materials. Science tends toward precision; art tends toward slipperiness. In science, it is common practice that a person defines their terms at the outset of a talk or paper.

In the arts, which share deep roots with philosophy and religion and are close kin to literature, there is a craft in creating a tension between multiple ideas, conventions, or cultural constructs. You’re trying to capture the ineffable. When an artist uses a certain word, or material, image, or form, they are often purposefully drawing out multiple meanings and associated relationships, for which they are then responsible. Some works may incite a brute-force train wreck; others may unfold subtly or slowly over time or over multiple encounters. Artists rarely discuss these layers and interactions upfront (or at least avoid discussing all of them) as in some ways it undermines the power of direct experience – like having a gourmet meal chewed for you. They may talk about the work’s influences, or the process of making it or even discuss a parallel narrative that relates to the work without explaining it directly. Scientists can find this infuriating.

After a few weeks, the conversations became too hypothetical and ungrounded. There was much pointless arm wrestling with words, especially when it came to art. With a very good art museum just a couple of blocks away, I proposed we take a few of our meetings there. As the Carnegie Museum of Art adjoined the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, it was possible to move back and forth between the two, linking ideas and discussion across the fields. Sometimes, the discussion could become fraught as Steve struggled to see the sense in some of the work in the art museum. However, he did remain game, especially as he thought a good fight was all part of the fun. I never fully warmed to this combative approach.

Arabidopsis plants in the lab growth chambers
An archetypal decorative pattern by Christopher Dresser
A conveniently adjoined pair: The Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Over time, a pattern emerged in our discussions. It was a kind of spiraling. We would find a point of overlap and common ground, only to discover it would disintegrate into fundamental difference and even heated debate. When pushed further, it would reemerge as a new form of overlap or relatedness. By the end of our time together, this pattern seemed almost infinite. It seems to mirror the pattern of deep inquiry into almost anything: Complexity and confusion, followed by simplification and clarity, and then plunging further into new forms of complexity and confusion.

* * *

There was a telling moment when Steve and I were working on a co-written talk for the National Academy of Science’s DC Area Art Science Rendezvous, and he became frustrated while saving one of our drafts to his computer. “It won’t let me move it,” he exclaimed, pointing at a folder. I told him that in the save interface he could move the document he was saving but not the folder he was pointing at. He said, “But I’ve put it in the wrong place! I just realized you’re a person, not a subject.” I said that seemed astute but had no idea what was behind his thinking. I watched.

He pointed to a folder on his desktop called “Art Talks to Science.” Opening it, there was a single folder with my name on it. He said, “You don’t belong here.” He opened a second finder window and navigated to a folder called “Collaborators.” It listed a folder each for all his scientific collaborators — some were very big names, some he had been working with for decades. He said, “You belong here.” Although I had been in his lab for months, in that moment, I materialized into his world. I sat there speechless.

4 days before the pilgrimage
I’m not the most intuitive candidate to embark on a Catholic pilgrimage. I grew up Protestant in a vein quite far from any liturgical tradition, primed to be suspicious of ritual as rote and mindless, and suspicious that anyone outside my tradition could possess a substantive faith.

As I grew older I began to appreciate the Catholic Church because it was a place to feel foreign within my own faith. In mass, I never know when to sit and stand at the right times, and while I know a couple of creeds and can recite along, I am frequently lost on any number of other responses that the people around me know when and where to invoke. Frequently, people look askance. I’m clearly an outsider, a heathen, who doesn’t know what she’s doing. This only seems confirmed when I remain in the pews for the Eucharist as everyone else processes forward. Non-Catholics are not welcome at the table. Even as my Protestant roots have imparted to me a curiously cerebral faith of systematic theology replete with a head full of scripture, it is in the Catholic Church where I find the humble experience of being lost in something bigger than myself and beyond my reach.

Chapter 16 – Loggerheads

One of the most distinctive things about our working relationship was how often Steve and I fought. Another professor in the department noted that we seemed to be able to hold the peace only for about six months. Sometimes less.

Steve used what he once told me was a jester-like quality in the face of things he did not understand. He reasoned that when he could not bring the same level of nuance or experience to the table as others, he aimed to be a disruptive force. This was a tack he had employed to great effect on boards or in organizations where he was the outlier, or where he sensed there might be too much groupthink or rooted tradition.

This approach involved watching for emotional response. If there was excitement, he seemed to doubt and question the rationality of an idea. If he saw anger, fear, or frustration, he would poke repeatedly at it, unearthing what he called people’s “conceits.” He seemed accepting of sadness or weakness, though this felt dismissive and diminishing.

He often employed this jester approach on the ideas of art. This was painful and wearing but also catalytic in demolishing the too-small aspects of my perspective that needed to fall away. Steve’s approach did a lot to clear the ground for new ideas. Yet, it had its limits. At some point, demolition is finished. I learned to mask my emotions to keep the conversation moving forward, something it took me some time to unlearn after we stopped working together.

I was used to a finer-edged, subtle form of argument that felt more like chess with ideas. I was used to quick-witted arguments with people in my own or closely related fields who understood the fine detail, nuance, and implications of the assertions they made. Arguing with Steve often left me flummoxed as I was simultaneously educating as I argued and doing it under a barrage of seemingly random or intentionally provocative input.

I was also native to the quiet, almost monastic environment of the studio. To feel someone was lobbing cannonballs around me, grabbing and ripping at every inch of the framework in which I operated, left me shell-shocked.

If there was something I could have done better, it might have been to calmly, and even at times forcefully stand up for my own perspective. On reflection, I realize that I feared the collaboration might collapse if I pushed back too hard. I know now that I should have accepted that outcome might happen and had been willing to move on. However, after so much time and effort invested and good work almost within reach, I was loath to let things fall apart.

Work over years had led to this time in the lab. I had definite ideas of next moves and things to try. I did my best to communicate these and convey the reasons why, but I often had to teach basic concepts first. I desperately wanted to move forward and puzzle through the real challenges that lay ahead, but progress came slowly.

I had to remind myself regularly that Steve’s combativeness reflected a commitment and investment in the work. Often, many art-science collaborations have fizzled or never launched on account of the scientist’s apathy, inattention, or even tepid good nature.

* * *

One begrudged lesson I learned was whereas my focus was largely taken up with this interdisciplinary work, Steve’s focus could not be similarly engaged. Scientists wear diverse hats. This really came home to me as I noticed a scientist often filled five or six of the roles that several people in the art world would fill. In art, most people have perhaps two or three roles. An artist might also teach and curate; a curator might also be a historian, theorist, or critic. A critic might teach, an artist might write. There are of course people in the arts who do everything from making to curating to history, criticism, theorizing, teaching, and public outreach, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. However, academic scientists typically write their own grant applications (same as we in the arts), design and oversee the execution of experiments (like an artist making art), then will write up the work (like a critic), write reviews within their field (like a historian), edit for a journal (like an editor or curator), serve a rotation as a program officer for a government granting agency (a grantor), teach regular classes at their university base, and finally perform some kind of public outreach to adults or children. This is all done by a single person, and it is incredibly common.

It is de rigueur for most academic scientists to fulfill most if not all of these roles. If the number alone isn’t staggering, its combination with sheer breadth is: from executing cutting edge work to making it accessible to children. WIRED magazine has even made a game of showing off this mad skill among scientists.

CRISPR as explained in 5 levels of difficulty (child, teen, college student, grad student, expert) by Dr. Neville Sanjana

The correlate is a mad life with little margin. For some scientists, this is a thrill or even a drug. For others or during certain periods, as with young families, it is inhumane — especially when combined with the tremendous pressures to publish. Steve’s time and ability to focus on this interdisciplinary work was limited, even as he made many offers of time and thought. However, this would spur me to think about a future change of terms in which, I would find resources to bring a scientist to the studio.

Day 6 of the pilgrimage
Something that strikes me time and again is the great gift it is to be here – the pain, the tiredness, the people, the landscape, the industrial stretches, the laughter, the quiet, the dailiness.

Chapter 17 – Two Points of View

How often Steve and I came to loggerheads or even agreed on things but for different reasons became important to represent in any public presentation of our work and ideas. The first opportunity to capture this came nine months into our work together in a talk at the DC Area Art-Science Rendezvous (DASER) at the National Academy of Sciences. When J.D. Talasek invited me to speak about this new undertaking that had brought me to a lab, I said that if he wanted the full story, he should invite my scientific collaborator as well.

It remained true from the first year of our work together to the last that Steve and I were awful at reading each other’s minds and predicting what the other would say. Writing or speaking about the other’s views was impossible. Instead, I suggested for the NAS talk that we each write out a series of ten questions, combine these lists, and then distill that list of 20 to a mix of what we thought were the 10 most mutually interesting questions. From there we took time to answer the questions on our own and then came together to prep the talk as an interwoven response.

This process was new to both of us. Also, Steve had spent far less time thinking about the relationship of these two fields than I had, so his first pass at the answers was jester-like and comically naïve. To some extent, this worked, but when we arrived at NAS, he realized that a group of earnest and intelligent people were coming to hear us talk about the relationship of art and science. He became concerned that he had overbalanced his approach and wanted to revise some areas to be more thoughtful. He didn’t want to be flippantly disrespectful.

In the hours before we gave the talk, we speedily reworked sections at lunch in the cafeteria of the National Museum of the American Indian. Revising a dual talk for us involved a lot of banter and rabbit trails. It was at turns playful and adventurous and heated and argumentative. Sometimes, it required one or both of us to shepherd the other’s understanding of our own field. Where we agreed to disagree or found there was not an equivalent notion from one field to the other, we tried to preserve the distinctions. This was difficult and passions ran high.

The talk in three parts at the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences. Continue with Part 2 and Part 3.

Although the talk at NAS occurred only nine months into our work together, it already began to capture the gaps and overlaps in our thinking as individual practitioners in science and in art. It was certainly an enlightening process and seemed to be for the audience and host as well. Later in 2015, a University of Pittsburgh Anthropology class discovered the YouTube videos of our DASER talk at NAS and invited us to rewrite the talk four years later as the lab-based collaboration came to an end. Indeed, over time you could hear places where we adopted the other field’s or person’s language. There were subtle shifts in thought, adopted ideas, yet also places where stark difference still remained.

Day 6 of the pilgrimage
There is a quiet openness among the pilgrims to see what each day holds, whatever it might be. We share advice and stories through broken approximations of each other’s language. The longer we spend on the trail, the fewer words we need.

Chapter 18 – Life Beyond the Lab

My entry badge to the University of Pittsburgh biology department

For the first year, I stayed relatively close to home, keeping the lab as my base of operations. It seemed important to start small and focused, connecting with the people immediately around me, better understanding their work, and having them better understand mine. Aside from departmental talks, I kept my focus narrow, yet fully immersed.

With the second year, I began to branch out, having coffee and lunch with professors, post-docs, and grads in the department. I fielded visits to my studio by the undergrads. Often times, I initiated a coffee meet-up to pick a person’s brain and better understand their work. At first, these connections were slow. I often explained to friends that if a conversation is a little like tossing a ball back and forth, these early conversations felt like two people on opposite sides of a high glass wall lobbing a tennis ball to each other with great effort. I would say something and the confused, blank, or questioning look on the other person’s face would immediately communicate that they had no idea what I had just said or asked. My tennis ball of an idea had smacked the glass and ricocheted back. Then, the same might happen in reverse. These conversations were trying and tiring for both parties. The more I learned, the easier it got. The glass wall slid down inches at a time. It reminded me of early conversations with a friend only recently arrived to the U.S. from Colombia. He and I would meet for coffee so he could practice his English. These early conversations were slow with a lot of misfires, but patience paid off for both of us in the end.

Soon, I was branching out to meet with guest speakers to the department, meeting them for breakfast, having them into the lab studio, going with a group from the department to lunch. The way guests traveled through the department was to be walked by the person they previously met with to the office of the next person they were meeting. Some of the people who met with the speaker before me would give the person a heads up that they would be meeting with an artist based in the department, others would not. This played out in interesting ways. Early on as people could hear the foreignness in my terminology, they would often diplomatically ask (almost verbatim to a person), “What is your background in biology?” Over time, as my strength in the field and ideas grew, people stopped asking about my background and obliquely tried to infer my role in the department. A gem of a moment came when a researcher I deeply admired mistook me a for a staff scientist until the conversation took a turn she had not expected, and she realized I was an artist. She admitted to me her first impressions. I was pleased and gratified. Our conversation from there opened out in many interesting directions.

After a while, I hit a stride where I was fluent in the ideas and terminology of the field, picking up and digesting new ideas quickly. Because of my idiosyncratic arrival, there were always surprising holes in my understanding that would show up from time to time. Things that a systematic education would have covered but things that might go accidentally missed if one was learning on the ground and on the fly.

Chapter 19 – The Holy Grail

From the beginning, we agreed the first year in the lab together would be exploratory: a time to better understand one another’s fundamental work and thinking in the lab and studio. The second year was the earliest point at which a formal project might begin.

The Holy Grail in the back of my mind was a work that had a life in both fields. It was this alternate approach that I had suspected in my discussion six years previous with Barry Phipps at Cambridge about the relationship of art and science. I was convinced that it was possible to push the edge of both art and science in a single form, and then to observe the life it lived in both those spheres, which I imagined would be distinct, both asking and addressing different questions. I was curious to see the shape of the conceptual space it would trace inbetween, the gaps and the overlaps, synergies, and contradictions.

However, I had realized it might take several iterations to get there. In the beginning, I simply carried on with wall drawings and public art works in my own oeuvre, paid a lot of close attention to the work of the lab and my other colleagues in the department, and all I was reading and learning. I was looking for something that would form a touchstone between these two worlds, had no sense of what it might look like, but was keen to recognize it when I saw it.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
Chimera (detail), 2010, graphite on paper, 24 x 44in

In my mind, I sometimes referred to this work as an Aleph, a reference to a short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Borges. Some years before I joined the lab, Felipe Castelblanco, a Colombian artist and friend of mine, had introduced me to the writing of Borges. Felipe said that when he looked at my work it was as though I examined one thing with such particularity that a universe unfolded from it. It was this quality that he said I held in common with one of Borge’s stories entitled, "Funes, His Memory." In the story, a young man suffers a traumatic injury leaving him unable to selectively filter his mental and visual focus on the world around him. He seems both mystically powered and cursed by this newfound state such that even his small, plain room seems overwhelmingly rich and fathomless.

I immediately connected with Borges’ work and read on, falling in love with the fraught story, "The Aleph." The Aleph is a point in the universe from which you could view all things and all times. In his story, this point was located in the basement of an ordinary house under the stairwell. When you stuck your head in this omnipresent pocket, the whole universe of time and space unfolded. Much like the Tower of Babel, the story was a cautionary tale, yet this one point from which many things unfold, as well as the story of Funes seeing worlds upon worlds in the smallest of things, captivated me.

Attempting to make work that lived in two fields, my thought was that if one struck the right tone, created the right object, it would have Aleph-like characteristics, a gestalt, a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts. This seemed a tall order, but it also built on something my work was already doing and might keep me well occupied for a lifetime.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
The Camino doesn’t feel the same as a hike. It’s certainly a lot of physical effort and an immersion in the landscape. However, a sense of collective intent – of those who’ve gone before, our fellows today and us, and those who will come after – never lets the bigger picture fade. For one, as soon as we pass anyone on the trail – whether walking or resting – the greeting is the same and automatic, “Buen Camino!” Locals wish us “Buen Camino!” Signs wish us “Buen Camino!” Shopkeepers wish us “Buen Camino!” No matter who we meet or what language we speak, we greet one another with “Buen Camino!” and a smile of goodwill. There is always something to say to each person you encounter, always a sense of why we are all here.

Generally, we all walk the same direction. Most trails I’ve hiked have been omnidirectional, but in this case, it’s curious to have a collective goal, but also for that goal to be a collective openness to the story of the way. There is a persistent sense of participating in a far bigger story in which we are all taking part.

Chapter 20 – Many Ways to Walk One Path

In the middle of my time with the lab, an interesting opportunity arose. I had been in conversation with Eric Shiner, then curator of the Andy Warhol Museum, as he and I shared interest in interdisciplinary work. We’d kept in touch, and he mentioned a project on the horizon in which I might be interested in participating. Eventually, he shared that it was the next installment in a serial exhibition called Factory Direct. It had already been held in Troy, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut. The Warhol planned to host the next installment as an ode to Warhol’s fluid movement across the lines of art and industry.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
The poster for Factory Direct: Pittsburgh

Each installment of Factory Direct invited a group of national and international artists to collaborate with industry partners based in the host city. The exhibition drew on the resources of a city that was once, or perhaps even still, an industrial giant, even as manufacturing operations shuttered, shrank, or moved overseas. Into these shifting sands, the exhibition invited artists to collaborate with the industrial partners as a snapshot of that moment and the soup of materials and ideas present.

Eric asked me to join the project as Assistant Curator to shepherd the artist and industry partnerships. He was transitioning to the role of director of the museum and wanted me to step into the curatorial role.

To this day, inside the Andy Warhol Museum, Factory Direct: Pittsburgh is known as the “dragon.” It was a massive, multi-headed, and wily project. Fourteen collaborative pairings of nationally and internationally known artists and Pittsburgh-based industries each took their own dynamic form. The day-to-day events of my life quickly became surreal, whether I was washing bird poop off my 1997 Ford Escort before picking up the artist ORLAN, whom I had studied in art history courses, or fielding a brainstorming session with the artist Ann Hamilton, who amazingly sought my feedback as I paced about the parking lot outside my lab studio. I called industry partners to check in and run interference when projects stalled, communications misfired, or they simply needed a nudge to form new connections they had not yet detected. I felt like a foreign language translator though most of the process, translating goals, aims, ideas, points of overlap, and conflict.

Eric Shiner had also invited me to write the main essay for the exhibition catalogue, and I drafted the piece through the show’s development and straight up until the opening. Some of my favorite moments were after ten o’clock at night as I sat drafting in my studio at home and texting and emailing with Eric some of my latest ideas. He and I volleyed back and forth both, suggesting various interpretations and context, each poking holes in the other’s ideas. To sit quietly in the dark studio writing, hashing ideas into the night was such a pleasure.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
Ann Hamilton with a member of the Bayer Chemical staff

Curating and shepherding the exhibition became a chance to see fourteen flavors of interdisciplinary collaboration take shape. Each, in turn, informed and was informed by my own work and process. One of the most formative observations I made was to note a continuum from fabricator to manufacturer, what that meant for the dynamic of the relationship, and where other factors could or would tweak the outcome.

In general, an artist collaborating with a manufacturer yielded a more artist-supplier or artist-subject relationship. Manufacturers were bigger, less agile ships that couldn’t necessarily respond and collaborate directly with an artist. An artist could use materials made by the manufacturer and/or their brand, process, or presence as the subject of their work. Several artists did still create meaningful connection and buy-in from the workforce of the corporation with which they partnered — most memorably Ann Hamilton and Bayer, Fabrizio Gerbino and Calgon Carbon, along with a more subversive relationship between Jeanette Doyle and Ansaldo SDS.

Meanwhile, artists paired with fabricators often had a much more agile relationship that seemed closer to direct collaboration. This was admittedly a more natural pairing for both and yielded some of the smoothest working relationships. Although the artist-fabricator relationships were not particularly revolutionary in their working process, the show made more visible the often-invisible industry partners of the art world.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
Body Media Bioinformatician, Jonny Farringdon, with the artist ORLAN

There were a couple outliers that were interesting to observe. The one pairing of artist and university seemed to mirror most closely the pairing of artist and manufacturer, with the university being much less agile and able to respond to the artist as a collaborator. The other was a tech start-up called Body Media, paired with ORLAN. The start-up had tremendous buy-in from their marketing manager and their bioinformatician, who effectively became a direct and fully invested collaborator with ORLAN. In this pairing, the tech start-up and the artist seemed much more evenly power-balanced as the tech company was new and going places, yet the artist had been active since 1968 and was well-known and established.

All the while I curated this exhibition, I continued my own interdisciplinary work often hanging up the phone after hashing through a difficult impasse in one of the artist-industry pairings, only to walk into a scientist’s office at the university and face a negotiation in my own interdisciplinary world. I had a continual sense of déjà vu, taking so much from my own world into my work for the exhibition and vice versa. I felt tremendous empathy and interest in the role of each partner and yet endeavored to step back and observe the process and result.

In a moment of curious vulnerability at the after party, I admitted to the photographer Todd Eberle that sometimes I didn’t feel I belonged in the art world. I often felt as much akin to the industry partners as the artists and even slightly foreign to both. He responded directly, “You are the only one who could have done this work. You are the only one who knows the conceptual realm of art and us — the art world — so well, and takes the industry partners seriously.”

The 360 degree wall drawing Ornament and Architecture
My studio in the lab during the time I also curated Factory Direct

Perhaps about three quarters of the way through the time with Factory Direct at the Warhol, a grant came through to support my work in the lab, and after a year of exploration, the project was well-funded and gaining momentum.

A couple years later, the program director for one of the funding agencies told me that often when the bureaucracy of her job overwhelmed her and she wondered if she was really making a difference, she told me that she would remember that out there somewhere was an artist among scientists, and that would give her warm fuzzies and a sense that she could keep going.

Later, as the work slogged on and became steadily more challenging, I would remember that she carried on because of me, and that gave me a boost to doggedly walk my own path.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
When we pass through urban centers, it’s easy to lose the way as waymarks are often embedded in the walls above shops, in the pavement at street corners, and, once, as a relief pattern on a highway barricade. This staggering variety amid the hubbub of a city can render them surprisingly invisible. But just as often, and right when you need it, a window in a modern apartment complex slides open and a woman dressed for work would look down at us on a street corner with our packs and point the way.

Chapter 21 – The Way Out

After the opening of Factory Direct and the editing and launch of the exhibition catalogue, I took a vacation. It remains one of the most memorably enjoyable and restful times I’ve experienced. I lay on the couch for a whole week, letting wrappers and mugs, plates, and all else pile up around me while reading James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. I was exhausted from the marathon and subsequent sprint leading up to the show and had been looking forward to this book for months. I read and slept alternately throughout the day and night. I lost myself in the captivating story of the people, discoveries, and events that led to the rise of the Information Age. Rarely since childhood have I had a chance to lose myself non-stop in a story to the point that it became my daily reality. I was in heaven.

Although I can no longer remember how I came to hear about the book, I was eager to read it because I love multi-threaded, tightly woven narratives and because I now found myself in a bit of a bind and hoped it would show me the way out.

I was now in my second year with the lab and waded up to my waist in what looked like a promising, if elusive, project. The germ was what a lab member had said in my first year there: Up until then, my work had shaped the internal and external movements of my audience. Could the audience now shape it? I began to think about how such work might evolve in response to the way viewers paid it attention.

I was a person who made drawings and could draw richly, quickly, and prolifically. So the initial plan was to hang drawings with sensors in front of them to tell how long someone stood before them. An interesting aspect of the work even at this early stage was that what caught a person’s eye could be almost anything, and there was no guarantee that the works people paid attention to were particularly beautiful or inviting. After all, we’re as likely or more to stare at a car wreck as a mountain vista. If the attention-grabbing traits of a work could be successfully assessed and carried forward — inherited — there is no guarantee what they might look like, and what may have motivated people’s attention in the first place.

Around this time, visual wrecks were on my mind for a couple of reasons. One was that Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign used data-driven design and found that tersely casual email subject lines like “Hey” or elements like garish yellow text highlighting actually contributed to a significant uptick in volunteer and donor sign-ups. They marveled at this but eventually found most of these effects wore off: Novelty had driven the attention.

Also during this time, Google was using data-driven approaches to design across all their platforms, leading to a visual jumble, blown on the fickle winds of data. It began to draw ridicule both within and without. In one well-known instance, it iterated more than 41 shades of blue in a design via A/B tests. Finally, co-founder and CEO Larry Page stepped in and unified the design teams across Google, allowing the designers to talk and unify their approach across the board.

Both the Obama campaign and Google found the most enduring results of data-driven testing were best compelled by a solid design hypothesis. Here was something to remember.

A start: the early microcontroller and sonar system I built for the project
A start: the early microcontroller and sonar system I built for the project

I availed myself of the growing DIY electronics resources online and taught myself to design and solder together a sensor system hooked up to an Arduino mini-controller. In the earliest days, I did not yet know how to program so I commissioned a local software developer for the creative industries to write a short script to run them and log the data. Then, in a final clandestine effort, we conspired with one of the Pitt tradesmen to install the sensors through the ceiling tiles in front of a long-neglected display case. I then hung some of my existing works from the Natural Motif series in the cases and let the sensors run for a while before retrieving the memory card and analyzing the data. In this way, I hoped to get a log of how long people spent in front of each work.

Massive challenge remained. In order for evolution to occur, three things need to be present, and I was already in a bind by the time I reached number two. The first thing that needs to be present in a population is variation. Check. Second, the variation needs to be heritable. This was more challenging. I could certainly draw a work that looked like it was the descendent of two other works: This was no problem. However, from a scientific point of view, the things my works inherited from their parents were hard to quantify or compare. Artistically speaking, this is not an issue. However, if my sights were firmly set on the Holy Grail of a work that lived in both these worlds, I was going to have to find a way to address this.

The question stood: How could I standardize the way the works evolved, based on the combination of the parents. And how to do this predictably in a way that would satisfy the constraints of science? There are any number of rigid solutions to this problem, but I was interested in retaining a certain level of grit and character in the nature of the drawings. Time would tell if this was possible.

Every day I showed up to the lab with new tools or materials or ideas in another attempt to fling spaghetti at the wall of this issue. Again and again, one approach after another wouldn’t stick or would show faint hope before finally slipping away. Again and again, more ideas would come. Again and again, in conversation with my colleagues, the tires would deflate. Again and again, I returned to the drawing board. I filled sketchbooks and documents and piles of paper and other materials with candidate ideas. It still staggers me to look back on that period and its byproducts, many of which still live in my files. I wonder how I kept at it. Yet it was so clear in my mind that there could be an object that straddled these worlds that I was willing to hammer away for as long as it took.

Colleagues in computer graphics and computer science proposed many digitized solutions — training AI models on my drawings and outputting something that I would then copy or interpret. This fell flat on two scores: I was uninterested in copying computer output and found that few of these approaches had much if any significant relationship to the biological means of inheritance. In essence, I would lose both fields.

Karl Sims 1994 evolved box creatures

Of course, many works such as those of Scott Draves and Karl Simms were produced through computational genetic algorithms. However, the visual results of Scott Draves' Electric Sheep often seemed wholly unrelated to their parents, and the work of Simms was the movements of rigid boxes. Both algorithms again had little relationship to underlying biological mechanisms as far as I could tell.

Finding myself buried in piles of drawings and at an impasse, I held out hope that James Gleick’s book, The Information, might shine a light forward. Nearing the end of that glorious week, lost in the intricate story, it did. For thousands of years, we have sought ways to transmit our thoughts and ideas — some more successfully than others. Some originate at far earlier dates than I had expected only to be lost through the ravages of war and disease. Indeed, Africa enjoyed a rich relay of long-distance communication through elaborate drumming that could pass a message with fidelity and nuance across the continent.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
Samuel F. B. Morse, self portrait in 1812, collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, US

More to the point, it was the ideas of Claude Shannon, the father of the Information Age, that introduced me to the ways that even the most complicated content could be conveyed in the simplest of codes. The pièce de résistance was discovering that Samuel Morse, the father of long-distance communication in the modern age, was an artist. Although now known as the creator of the telegraph and co-developer of Morse code, Morse’s primary vocation for most of his life was as a painter. To this day, his work is in the holdings of major museums around the world, including the Louvre. Shannon’s ideas would light my way forward, but it was the story of the artist Morse that would show me I was in good company.

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
I’m not a gear-head when it comes to hiking, but on this trip we’re sporting a device that has occasionally make us look like aliens, yet also gives us access to what pilgrims centuries before had experienced.

We’d heard that it was likely only a matter of time before something in the water would get us and we’d spend an unpleasant day or two seeking the facilities at every opportunity. The guide advised bringing along meds for such a purpose. I decided on this trip to do one better. Our small device looks a bit like a lightsaber, or perhaps a light dagger. You swirl the UV lit end in water to kill any microorganisms. I’ve never had one of these on any previous hikes as they only work in perfectly clear water. Particulates block the passage of the light and prevent full sterilization. However, here I knew we might be drinking water from taps that would be perfectly clear and might still sideline us.

We did learn early on to hide this new bit of gear. When we used it in the dark, early mornings at the albergues, the bright light attracted a fair amount of quizzical attention, thus breaking the understated atmosphere of dawn. However, old meets new and it has had the unexpected effect of also making accessible to us some of the original springs used by pilgrims centuries before.

Chapter 22 – Adventures Among Scientists

When I think over the things I found most enjoyable in my four years with the lab, the two primary themes were the mental chess games within the science and between the two fields, and the other was the camaraderie.

One of my favorite times was in a graduate student seminar class. Three of my friends who were professors in the department were co-teaching a graduate seminar on current topics in the field of ecology and evolution. They invited me to sit in on the class to get a fast and furious overview of the current lay of the land.

The class of graduate students was split into groups to select current papers on the designated topic for the week and then discuss each paper’s relative merits and shortcomings and present their findings to the class. When the class fell short of even groups, my friends asked if they could throw me into the pot to even things out. I agreed. The rip-snorting discussions that followed were some of the most fun I had.

Not knowing precisely how to critique a work of science, I started by launching my literary criticism arsenal: genre, key definitions, argument structure, key themes, repetition, historical context, literary context, meaning, etc. To my surprise, this approach worked remarkably well and arrived in exciting places more often than the grad students and I might have expected. The approach worked well to stimulate new ideas and directions in the grads’ arsenal of experience. As I liked imagining alternate realities and approaches — this is stock and trade for my own work — I would pepper the group with metaphors and imagined scenarios. Some of the grads found this stimulating; others found it baffling. These imagined scenarios often arrived at other solutions, highlighted strengths a particular study, or let the air out of its tires. Frequently, it suggested new follow-up work.

Soon, I was having the time of my life, helping to draft each presentation and even joining the presenter rotation. The discussions in class were lithe and plucky, a mix of deft strategy and brute persistence. The prevailing sense of fearless fun among professors and students alike made for a fertile atmosphere for new ideas and a willingness to try poking holes in even the most sound-seeming arguments. We laughed hard at all the metaphors, forced and elegant alike, and dragged them to their breaking points.

As for me, my terminology and grasp of the field were growing by leaps and bounds. However, I would still come to points where I didn’t know a term and so would use approximations and metaphors that came as close as I could get to the idea to let someone else pitch in the right word. Sometimes, I would suggest new ideas by asking what would happen if you cut or folded a particular plot or graph in a certain that would reflect a particular change. This was not usually how one asks such a question. To my mind, it was often the clearest. The funnier times were when the entire class would adopt my proposition or invented terminology, and we would play out the argument for the rest of the class. Someone once told me that you do not yet understand something until you can say it in your own words or apply it in novel ways.

I have to say overall that the class and my professor friends were incredibly game, intellectually fun, and strong in their field in ways I deeply enjoyed. In turn, many thanked me for livening up the class and adding a level of challenge and rigor they had not initially expected from an initiate to the field, and an artist.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
The waymarks along the Camino are rich and varied. In general, there are two common types, a spray-painted yellow arrow and a tile sun-compass scallop set into a mile marker. At one time, these scallop shell forms positioned on their sides were used as a way-finding tool for the early pilgrims. The rays pointed in the direction that the sun’s rays would cast as it set, allowing pilgrims to orient their direction.

In addition, to these are the waymarks added by people who live along the Camino and maintain the section that passes their house or field. Often these are as simple as sprayed arrows but can be as varied as the property owner cares to make them. One was made by a homeowner using inlaid shells across the side of the house. Others made or carved wood signs with encouraging messages.

In cities, bronze scallops are often embedded in the pavement. Others are etched in the stone of building foundations or carved from marble. One posh hotel etched their front windows with scallops pointing along the road that carried pilgrims past their establishment. Other markers seemed to be decidedly more ad-hoc, perhaps made by fellow pilgrims wanting to allay confusion. My favorites among these are the scrappy yellow duct tape arrows on the backs of road signs.

Chapter 23 – Codeswitching

code-switching, noun:
Linguistics. The alternating or mixed use of two or more languages, especially within the same discourse.

It was during my time with the lab at the University of Pittsburgh that a characteristic of my artist’s talks and writing finally hit its stride. The first time I can remember this happening was in November 2012 when the graduate students of the ecology and evolution program nominated me to be one of the speakers in the department’s seminar series. It was a great honor and perhaps the most singular challenge I’d received for both writing and speaking.

I love giving talks and I enjoy writing, however, this was the first time I would give a talk about my work and the science that influenced it to top researchers and students in that field. Also, although many people in the humanities read their talks from manuscripts (often because of the richly crafted phrasing and subtle wordplay owed to art’s philosophical roots and literary relations), I knew to have credibility with this audience I would need to memorize my talk and give it unaided. The scientists found people who used notes laughable as I had seen recently after a lecture by an invited literature professor whose specialty was evolutionary themes. I also learned from the foibles of the literature professor to assume what the scientists knew and explain what they didn’t, i.e., what is novel to me about their field, is not as novel to them and what is old-hat to me about mine, may be complete news to them.

I began crafting the talk. Much like a typical artist’s talk, I traced the development of my work through various themes and bodies, introducing themes I would later develop in my reasons for joining and working with a biology lab. I paralleled and contrasted the processes and ideas of art and science. I practiced it (as is de rigueur) in front of the lab members to solicit feedback, which helped me gauge how well I had left the obvious plain while explaining the cryptic in greater detail.

Steep as this dual challenge was, I relished it. I went over and over the talk, expanding where more explanation was needed, trimming the fat in others. I honed the path of the ideas and stole aspects of the traditional scientific talk structure, weaving them with aspects of art talks and even writing in short interludes to expand on a particular comparison of the two fields. It was the most work I had ever put into a talk. When I finished my final practice for my husband in an empty conference room at Carnegie Mellon University, his mouth was open. He said it was a talk worthy of an endowed keynote invitation.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
Darwin's first known sketch of an evolutionary tree from 1837, with the words "I think" written to the top left.

When the day came, I looked out at the audience of familiar faces in my recently adopted field and felt that familiar adrenaline rush as I rose to speak. It went to plan. One of the most interesting aspects of a talk like this is looking around to see whether what I am saying is hitting its mark. It appeared to be. My favorite moment came in a section called “Ideas Shaping Materials” when I was walking through several influential scientific studies as well as influential works of art. I ended the review of scientific works with the famous phylogenetic tree sketched by Darwin. As I turned the corner back into art, I started with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and said that this work was the seminal work to which contemporary art post-1945 traces its roots. I said that for contemporary art, this work was the equivalent of Darwin’s sketch in evolutionary biology.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 art gallery following the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit, with entry tag visible. The backdrop is The Warriors by Marsden Hartley

A look of disbelieving incredulity crossed the face of a young star professor who was clearly not prepared to see a urinal on par with Darwin’s earliest notions. I explained that Duchamp’s work shifted the role of the artist from maker to the one who endows an object or phenomenon with the status of art. In the ordinary case, we avoid touching urinals for hygienic reasons, however, in the case of Duchamp’s Fountain on a plinth in the museum, it is that hallowed quality, or “aura” of an art object, that keeps us at arm’s length. It was alchemy for Duchamp to reveal this quality of art and ability of the modern artist through such a vulgar object. The contrast in this context is most stark.

At once, the young professor’s face cleared, a look of awe and of satisfaction setting in. He’s sharp and known in seminars to give speakers a run for their money in the follow-up questions, so this early result was very pleasurable. This happened repeatedly throughout the talk, even as I went further and began to wield the scientific content. And the questions that followed were excellent. I sensed by the end as I left the lecture hall that I had turned a corner from which I would never look back. This interweaving of the ideas and processes of the two fields was truly finding its feet, and I along with it.

More followed. From there, I gave a talk in the rotations at the department’s retreat — this one on morphologic development and the structure of Victorian wallpaper patterns. I found myself at home among these new colleagues at the Pymatuning Field station.

Many opportunities to speak to a variety of audiences opened out. The thrill of each of these was preparing new material, reorganizing, and shifting the emphasis of the content. As I responded to each new audience and its inherent values, priorities, expertise, and blindspots, I learned something more about my own work and ideas. It was a repeated thrill — with bigger adventures to come.

Day 5 of the pilgrimage
Over the course of our journey we will walk 100 kilometers, from Tui at the edge of Spain to Santiago. It isn’t the full Camino Portugues. It’s only as much as we can walk in a week. However, I sense the inward terrain I am covering is much greater.

Chapter 24 – The Dive into Code

The day after that first speech to my colleagues in science, I began to program. Before that, I had spent ten years designing my own website in straight HTML and knew just the sparest bit of PHP to streamline some of the formatting. As HTML is a mark-up language with no logical processes, and I knew nothing beyond a few snippets of PHP, I could not claim to know how to program. I now threw myself into an online course to learn Python.

In the months since I’d read The Information, I had decided I needed to systematize something near a genetic code for the drawings. After scribbling, drawing, and writing a pile more approaches, I realized that at a minimum it would be good to have a small program to “breed” sets of directions for the drawings.

I’ve been told that likely success with a self-directed course is significantly increased if it is in the interest of a specific, concrete goal. This was definitely the case with me as I blew through the course in under two weeks, coding as much and as often as I could. Along the way, I began writing scraps of what would be my drawing-breeding program. I looked forward to each lesson, eager to see if another critical piece for my program was in the offering. Piece by piece, I put it together. Over the coming weeks and months, I discovered that more code was needed and I cobbled that as well, drawing on books and broader online resources. I reasoned that in the eventuality that I hired someone to complete the project, I would at least need to vet their logic to assure it was hewing the artistic and biological goals.

In three years I taught myself five programming languages, database handling, and programming for both the CPU and GPU — programming for a computer’s graphics card. Even now, I look back staggered to think of all I did in such a short time — and all I have continued to learn since. Early on, I had a couple of friends who would answer questions or occasionally look through a script when I got stuck. They would even give me a leg up setting up a new programming environment, describing the gist of software design patterns, or debugging strategy. By and large, though, I was on my own.

* * *

Once, a year and a half into my programming adventure, one friend scribbled down what he thought was the likely roadmap of languages and structures my program would move through. I tucked this away in my sketchbook. With each major rewrite, I would pull it out and have a look. Sure enough, he was bang on, except for one critical detail. He predicted the arc of this development would occur over three to four years, and I would hire a professional in the second year. In reality, the development occurred over two years, and I did the work myself. My friend later told me, “Every time I cross paths with you, I can barely believe the jump — to new interfaces, environments, languages. And each time you work more fluidly and natively in each.”

I say all this because I have learned it is important to mark the trail for others. As an artist, and as a woman, too many times people have mistakenly assumed that others have done the work of programming and software design for me. Many people have turned to one of my male colleagues in a meeting to ask about some technical aspect of the project, only to hear the answer come from me. Sometimes, they have tried to hide their surprise. From one pilgrim to another, damn the stereotypes. Trust yourself.

* * *

This was a path I took with mixed emotion. I am a person who knows physical materials and has an intuitive sense for how to orient myself in a new material through pushing the boundaries, asking what the material does best, and then what it can do that is perhaps not as immediately obvious. I have often prided myself in making work that is naturally derived, and, if called upon, could easily be added to the compost heap out back and return to the earth from whence it came.

Programming lacked this intuitive physicality, this material knowledge, this bid to the elements of the natural world. Some part of me starved and shriveled without this kind of physical experience. Another frustration was that I was starting out in programming at the beginning having set aside the fluidity and nuance with which I could work in materials. It was as if something within me was backing up like a blocked drain, some fundamental connection to a larger reality was being pinched off and building pressure.

Of course, the intuitive way to address this would be to continue to draw and make physical work alongside my newly minted practice in code. Increasingly, however, I found the mental shift between these two processes to be slow and difficult. The start-up cost from one to the other was so time and energy-consuming that I did not look forward to it. Eventually, I threw myself wholly into programming, thinking that this was the quickest way through these early stages.

* * *

Once when I was preparing for a language placement test I asked a friend who was head of the German Department for the University of Wisconsin-Madison what the various levels in the test meant for the proficiency of a person.

“What is a level one?” I asked.
“You can ask for the bathroom,” he said.
“What is a level two?”
“You can navigate a day on the town.”
“A three then?”
“You’re conversational.”
“Four?”
“You’re fluent.”
“What’s a five then?” I asked, finally.
“You know the thought you have in your mind right now? You can express exactly that in all of its particularity and nuance.”

Day 3 of the pilgrimage
Today at the albergue, I left some things behind. As I walk the trail, I’m increasingly aware of how little I need on a daily basis and for the task at hand.

Chapter 25 – Retreating into Science

With a grant in hand to fund the work, I pared down. One by one, I let go of my adjunct teaching post in the Carnegie Mellon School of Art, finished a curatorial stint with the Andy Warhol Museum, and went to fewer shows and lectures in art. I stopped making all other work, except the project emerging from the lab. I slowly disappeared into science. I was beguiled by this framework for examining the world and enjoyed the camaraderie of a field that made teamwork necessary. There was perhaps even a desire to lose track of the familiar pressures and challenges and structures of my own world and lose myself in the seemingly greener — or at least different — pastures of another field.

I also knew that I would only know the connections between this new world and my own if I could understand the new world well enough. Full immersion taught me a lot quickly. By the third year, most visiting scholars thought I was a scientist. Only late, as the conversation encompassed unexpected terrain, did they begin to see I was something else entirely. I never tried to fool people or hide that I was an artist, however, by year three I spoke the language and ideas of the field so fluently that even my mistakes seemed like native ones.

Once, when an artist friend from Madison called me immediately after a lab meeting, she commented on how strange I sounded. The words, logic, and structure of my language were so different. I found I had to wait at least 30 minutes after a lab meeting for my language to slowly shift back toward something that my colleagues in the arts would recognize. The longer I spent in the lab, the more this language and logic permeated my everyday speech and thinking. It was as if I was spending time in a foreign country long enough that I was gaining native fluency and losing the ability to speak freely in my own language. I even began to dream in the terms and framework of the science.

Day 4 of the pilgrimage
Every household in Gallicia, Spain, receives a delivery of its daily bread. Rising early with the rest of the pilgrims to begin the day’s journey, we saw the morning’s fresh bread deliveries outside each house. No matter their station, unless they made it themselves, a plastic bag of fresh loaves hangs on the doorknob or is delivered to their bespoke “pan” box near the postbox. Long before we pilgrims rise in the darkness, the bakers have been at work, and all around us provisions have been made.

Chapter 26 – The Evolving Wallpaper

Even as far as I had immersed myself in science, it was my history in Victorian design that would next come to my aid. In an effort to systematize the way I had constructed the drawings, I turned to the structure of Victorian motifs. I had noticed that many of the Victorian motifs I loved so much and that had influenced my work for so long frequently have a bilateral (symmetrical in one dimension) and modular (can be divided into comparable substructures) body structure like an animal body. They also often displayed variations on a theme within these different modules. This was an immediate touchstone to the underlying biology that needed to be at the core of the work.

Arabidopsis plants in the lab growth chambers
An archetypal decorative pattern by Christopher Dresser
Arabidopsis plants in the lab growth chambers
Here I've taken a sample of motifs by Christopher Dresser and highlighted parallel structures among them. In the first are a range of finial structures, in the second something like a neck piece, and in the third a yoke or wishbone form. Victorian patterns, like biological forms are built from modules that are variations on a theme.
A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
The 15th Century engraving of a Griffin by Martin Schongauer appears on the cover of Modularity, co-edited by Günter Wagner.

I started to break up the drawings into modules, at first on their sides like animals, and then later turning them upright like plants. My rescue by Victorian design had come hand in hand with my introduction to the work of developmental evolutionary biologist Günter Wagner. It was the volume he co-edited entitled Modularity in Development and Evolution that would formally introduce me to the field of Homology (the study of traits with a common genetic decent).

It also caught my attention to see the 15th century German artist Martin Schongauer’s engraving of a griffin on the cover on the book because one of the reasons I found Wagner’s book so compelling was that I’d already had an unusual brush with some related content, and it had made a big impression. As an undergraduate, I had run across Bone for Bone by Margaret Cosgrove, a children’s book on comparative anatomy that was beautifully hand illustrated and showed the parallel structures of animals. Page after page showed the skeletal structure or musculature of parallel body parts compared, for instance, a series of forelimbs from a bat, a bird, and a whale, showing from one to another how slight variations in length, width, and shape of relative structures could produce a striking array of form and function.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
My first introduction to comparative anatomy and homology came through a beautifully drawn children's book by Margaret Cosgrove, entitled Bone for Bone (1968).

From this, I had realized the intuitive grasp that artists had shown through the centuries in composing creatures like griffins, unicorns, minotaurs, centaurs, fauns. All these creatures are recomposed from parallel or modified riffs on homologous forms. For me, this had sparked a near continuous run of work based on spliced plants and creatures. People have often said my splices feel almost inevitable, completely effortless and natural, as in the splicing of individual specimens into the generalized forms of Christopher Dresser’s motif in Ornament and Architecture. It was in comparative anatomy that I saw the logic that underlay these intuitive graftings. Indeed, the Swiss Army Dog from Chapter 1 would be one of the more fanciful manifestations to arise from my dive into comparative anatomy.

Now in the work of Günter Wagner and others, I began to understand that genes act in the context of modules and then variation in that module or cascade of modules. There were even modules in the body plan of multicellular organisms called somites. In the context of each of these somites, various genetic cascades take place in early morphological development that result in the development of any number of structures. Further, it was enchanting to learn that many modules acted again and again in different soma (as in the many legs of a millipede), or might be copied and then modified to act in a new way or context (such as the antennae of a millipede, which co-opts much of the same cascade used in the leg). I was also fascinated to hear in a talk about the work of a researcher who had successfully demonstrated that virtually the same cascade of genetic modules produced the legs of a pigeon as the wings.

All of this — from homology to Victorian design — became fertile ground from which a new vision of the project was born: the Evolving Wallpaper. This version was fully digital, a choice prompted by a hard truth that had nagged around the edges of the project from the beginning — the need for speed.

I have typically enjoyed a speed and ease at producing a lot of drawings, and also enjoy both a canny level of polish in my drawings that owes its roots to my training as a printmaker, yet within that also the warmth of something created by hand in that I have “touched” with my pencil the surface of the object I have drawn. It was a hard choice to move into the digital realm, which often seems visually chilly and remote.

However, for the first time in my life, I could not draw nearly fast enough for the needs of the work. In order for there to be a chance for evolution to occur in any meaningfully adaptive way, I needed many more drawings in the population, and they needed to reproduce faster than I could make them. And so, within a year of beginning to program, I made the leap into a fully digital system.

The Evolving Wallpaper as I imagined it was an interactive digital projection. Designed to be projected on the full height and considerable length of a wall, it first appeared as motifs on alternating, colored stripes. In the beginning, when a person touched a motif in the projection, it would grow large as all the others scattered, and then shrink to normal size as all resumed their place in the grid. Each one that was touched gained a level of “fitness,” and the fittest motifs would eventually breed. At the start, I used rudimentary shapes such as ellipses, circles, squares, and rectangles to stand in for various categories of archetypal forms in Victorian motif design. These would occur in a vertically stacked modular body plan and their size would be determined by a size expression value for that segment.

Switching from Python, where I had developed the first sets of “directions” for my drawings, I ported much of this over to develop the first versions of this fully digital system in Processing – an open-source Java-based graphical library with an integrated developing environment designed especially for non-programmers and visual projects.

You might imagine that with each shift in design and programming structure or language I simply jumped right in and started building the full-blown thing, or that I knew the full nature of the full-blown thing from the get-go. In truth, although I always had a clear direction in mind, the capacity of the medium always influenced its form along the way, and I always did tiny tests of the various behaviors, visuals, and data handling. (I have a very active sketchbook and journaling practice, this felt in effect like a digital version of those habits.) I also remember learning early on, that programmers are admonished to make a brick rather than a cathedral, meaning to test everything on a small and incremental scale and gradually add these things together to reach a larger goal. Another bit of advice that has guided my way is from Brian W. Kernighan, “Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.”

Even as I used geometric stand-ins as I built the program, the ultimate goal was to scan in and use pieces of motifs I had drawn from various sources. There needed to be the warmth of the hand in the images. This light projection still fundamentally remained a drawing, a wall drawing. I had also spent a lot of time around the Arabidopsis thaliana clones in the lab’s growth chambers, paused over the fact that these natural forms that shared the same genetic code were nevertheless distinguishable as individuals. Looking among a set of 15 clones, for example, if I were to draw a single plant, give that drawing to someone and send them into the chamber to find that plant, they could do it. Even under carefully controlled conditions and despite their shared genetic material, there would always be developmental noise and response to environment that gave them a distinct form – even more so in the wild with variable resources, stresses, and damage.

Though to my scientist cohorts, the idea that I would want to add noise and variability to an otherwise fully controlled system was unthinkable and seemingly against my continued push to give the work a scientific nature. I explained the disconnect of the “uncanny valley” in computer generated movies and how things that were a little too regular and a little too perfect retained a disturbing or unrelatable edge. Noise makes things feel natural. Damage is the default position in the natural world. They often argued that people seemed to be drawn to the symmetrical as the most beautiful. However, in nature complete symmetry is quite rare. There is always imperfection. In many ways, symmetry is attractive for its novelty, but in systems where perfect symmetry is the only thing on offer, it is no longer novel and might become boring.

In the end, I rounded on an approach that had featured in works in the Natural Motif series of drawings and copied repeated patterns from Victorian wallpapers and retained their slight hand-drawn imperfections as made by the original designers. This way, in drawing from a pool of near similar images for any segment that had the same image, clones stood a good chance of being slightly varied. Victorian design stood at the precipice and tipping point of the Industrial Revolution when manufacture was beginning to be industrialized yet was still curiously mixed with hand processes. Thus, wallpapers were printed with hand carved blocks. While the block gave the paper a mechanized regularity, the repeated pattern sections within the block still exhibited some hand carved irregularity.

By this point the genetics that drove the work were both epistatic (genes that influence the expression of other genes) and pleiotropic (a single gene could have more than one apparently independent effect). Genes acted with various dominance-based and quantitative expressions. Their action took place within the context of body segments and were significantly based on the actions of Hox (animal) and MADS-box (plant) genes that govern early body plan development in embryos.

The program became complex enough to necessitate moving to full-blown Java. (Processing is a simplified library based on Java.) It now also required a database. And as the program grew, I saw something very encouraging. It began to manifest emergent characteristics and places in the code suggesting simple changes that would mirror an even closer relationship to natural systems. Witnessing a work begin to exhibit emergent features is like alchemy. It takes on a life of its own.

In January 2013 the true alchemy was revealed. Steve had been reading new scientific papers over the winter break. When he ran across one by Draghi and Whitlock in the journal Evolution, he immediately emailed the paper to me. “Take a look. I think this is the genetics of the wallpaper.” I read it the paper in open-mouthed awe. The Holy Grail, a work of art and a system of scientific experimentation seemed entirely possible.

Day 6 of the pilgrimage
Today in Padron, we went looking for a hill from which St. James is supposed to have made his first sermon in Spain. We searched narrow streets in a residential neighborhood to find a narrow staircase we were told led between two houses. For such an auspicious location, it was remarkably hard to find.

Finally, chancing upon a staircase that looked like a likely candidate, we walked up the narrow passage past kitchen and parlor windows and emerged above and behind the houses. There the path led us to an unexpectedly large stone staircase flanked on one side by a high stone wall and on the other by a thick hedge. After a significant climb, we reached the top, which was a rounded hill bordered by trees and topped with a rocky outcrop of a monument, – a curious interleaving of stairs and boulders. Amid these at the top was a small stone figure: St. James, making his first sermon, overlooked by a stone pillar and cross.

No one else was around. It was distinctly quiet. Yet this monument depicts the very event and reason the current version of the Camino exists. Yet must be deliberately sought off the beaten path and encountered in remarkable seclusion.

Chapter 27 – Finding a Life’s Work

By 2013, I was beginning to sense I’d found my life’s work. In 2015 after my time in the lab had ended, I saw a talk by the famous Developmental Evolution researcher Günter Wagner and marveled as I heard him code-switch among the many fields that inform his work. I didn’t immediately recognize what he was doing, but something seemed familiar. When it dawned on me that he was referencing a variety of fields and moreover, translating and adding detail and nuance for various members of the audience from those fields, I saw an example of an interdisciplinary peer from another field, albeit much further down the road. I later read his book overviewing the themes and ideas woven from a variety of disciplines from his decades of work and saw that this was what I wanted to be.

I was part of a lab and a community that had great humor, intellect, and curiosity. I was immersed in challenges and questions I loved. I enjoyed the people I worked with, all collectively thinking about and working on interesting things. I remember walking down the hall of the uninspired 1960s architecture of Crawford Hall and knowing I was home.

In two weeks, much would change.

* * *

Steve, one of the lab’s grad students, other members of the department, and I were headed to the 2013 meetings of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). By that year Steve and I had puzzled through the genetics for the Evolving Wallpaper, and I wanted to present the current version at the meetings for people in the broader field to kick the tires, poke holes, and generally wreak havoc so I could foresee problems and retool as early as possible.

Since the work was not yet launched or published in any way, I decided to draft a short presentation as part of the lightning talk sessions — just enough to start the discussion. This was the shortest and the most important talk I’d given. I spent weeks drafting and perfecting it and the slides, paring it to the essentials while crafting the substance as tightly and clearly as possible. I practiced the timing down to the wire. I had two and a half minutes for the talk, one and a half minutes for questions.

A drawing called Chimera in which a branch organically emerges from a geometric Victorian circle motif
While at the SSE conference I would also finally make a meaningful pilgrimage to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake.

I spent mornings at the conference reciting it in the shower before driving part way up Little Cottonwood Canyon from the room I rented just down the way from the resort that hosted the conference. I was in heaven rushing from talk to talk, taking in the best of the field. Steve and I met with Rich Lenski and Mike Whitlock, two researchers I admired and whose work had deeply informed the development of the wallpaper.

The day of talk Steve and I discovered we had been booked to speak at the same time in different sessions. Traditionally, members of the same lab are not slated opposite one another. In this case, perhaps, it was not immediately apparent to the organizers that I was based in the Tonsor lab. Steve took the remarkable and generous course of declining his slot recommending people attend mine instead.

Meanwhile, I had been named moderator of my session. It was my job to hover just to the side and step toward the speaker at their last 30 second mark, pause them at the end, invite questions, and gently but firmly move them from the stage as I moved the new speaker forward and called the next person to the batter’s box. This role had its funny exchanges as some resolute speakers barely noticed my approach until I was standing in their personal space. The whole session was a rapid-fire exchange of ideas, and a fast changing cast — some more and less graceful than others. I enjoyed the challenge and interaction with each speaker and the crowd.

At last, I ushered my last speaker off stage and now turned to the audience as a speaker. “What if wallpaper could evolve?” I asked, catching everyone off guard. The talk swiftly slalomed from Darwin, to Victorian design, and the interweaving of art and evolutionary biology, to the parallels of my work and Steve’s, to the wallpaper project, its immediate progenitors in science and art, and then to the question: With this system as a model for study, what question would you ask? For a moment they were stunned and slack-jawed, but then they clapped. Hard.

Now, I thought. Show me all the ways this won’t work.

But it never came. They were excited. People wanted to see this. They wanted it to come to their university, their museum. They wanted to see what it could do. When would it be ready? Where would it first go up?

Now, I was stunned: These were scientists. Scientists always seemed ready to poke holes in anything and everything — at least that had been my experience. Now they seemed almost blindly excited. I needed their criticism. I needed their cynicism. It never came. Steve departed that afternoon for a family funeral. I continued to attend talks and walk the poster sessions. Everywhere I went, people looked and pointed. Small groups of well-known figures whom I felt too sheepish to approach sometimes looked over as I passed, speaking quietly to one another. Some approached, mostly grad students. They told me they felt they had had to leave the humanities at the door when they entered science. They said that the wallpaper showed them this was not necessary.

During the conference’s after party, one of Steve’s oldest colleagues who works at the National Science Foundation and whose work I knew well approached me. He is an amazing mind who seems to recognize ideas rather than people — I had met him several times before without registering on his somewhat eccentric radar. This time he strode straight up to me and without preamble said, “You’re the talk of the conference. Everyone’s excited.” Stunned, I stammered my pleasure and thanks as I stood in a haze by the trashcan into which I’d just deposited my plate.

Next chapter released Wednesday, July 15
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