where art and science intersect

The title to this post is the direction I plan to take a 7-minute talk yesterday.  I discuss both art and science, but I never do say they intersect in my studio – every single day. It’s true. They do.

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I am among 4 people Michelle Dock invites to take part in a STEAM themed panel for the annual AZ SciTech conference, held at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. The general focus for the conference is STEM. I am there to bring ART into the conversation.

Michelle makes introductions. I walk center stage and greet the audience ready to begin -and the only person in my mind, at that moment, is Leonard Da Vinci. I let go of my opening line and talk about him. He designed a tank, a submarine, a flying machine and he brings perspective into the picture plane. He covers all the areas of STEM before STEM even exists. And he certainly covers STEAM. He is the archetypal Renaissance man, I say to the audience.

I don’t plan to begin my talk with Leonardo, but it feels right. Truth is, along with old and new medical illustration books, microscopic photographs and videos – his anatomy study is always somewhere on my drawing table.

From Leonardo I return to the 21st century and introduce my Cell/Map of Phoenix (no photo) and naturally follow with the recently completed Portrait of Sophie, a Study of Trisomy 21. Cell structure, the nucleus, chromosomes, DNA and genes are the connecting threads. I look at her for a good while before I can say anything. I’m struck by how large and bright the form stands on the screen in front of me.

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And because I have two minutes to spare, I gather my thoughts and end with my work on mylar,  Anatomy of the Thorax (anterior and posterior view),  influenced by a Gunther von Hagens’ dissection. I refer to him as the Body World’s guy. I can tell by their reaction, the audience knows who he is.  Do they know he’s influenced by Rembrandt? Gunther always appears in public with a fedora, in honor of the painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicloaes Tulip.

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Can someone tell me why it isn’t STEAM all the time? Art is a powerful language communicating via line, color, texture, form, repetition and all the other elements of design. It enters into all the other fields. If Leonardo was alive today, it would be no other way. Maybe that’s why he takes over my brain…

So … Where do art and science intersect? In my studio, on my drawing table, on my paper and canvas – each and everyday!

Also on the panel:
Michelle Dock, Tempe Center for the Arts (Moderator)
Catyana Falsetti (Forensic Artist)
Dianne Hansford, PhD (Special Modeling)
Konrad Rykaczewski, PhD (Biomimicry)


You have a few more days to catch STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) at the Tempe Center for the Arts. It closes this Saturday, Sept 17th.

“now, what the hell is a chromosome again?”

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
– Aristotle


The post title is a line I pull from page 8 of My Heart Can’t Even Believe It, A Story of Science Love and Down Syndrome,  Amy Silverman’s recently published book.  I appreciate the inquisitive and amusing attitude throughout the book. It’s honest.

IMG_9219When I talk with her about my interest in drawing Sophie, her daughter, I explain I want the work to serve as education. First I have to educate myself and in the process (mustering up all the elements of design I can) maybe I educate you. I should say the only confidence I feel on this day, is in my drawing skills. About the study of living organisms – I’m no expert and it appears to get more complicated as I go. (Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy comes to mind…I’m an artist, not a scientist!)

Some conclusions I’ve drawn:  I know more about balance when I look at an imbalance, I recognize the typical when I try to understand the atypical, and I look for order when I observe disorder. And I really dislike labels.

Genetic order – Genetic disorder

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Sophie’s Karyotype

Here is a copy of Sophie’s Karyotype ↑. Doesn’t it resembles a beautiful ancient alphabet? Trisomy 21 is a genetic disorder, describing three chromosome twenty-one’s instead of the usual two. Note Sophie’s ↑ are numbered and twenty-one is high-lighted.

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My drawing of Sophie’s karyotype (not numbered / not highlighted)

A Karyotype is a picture of genetic arrangement. It represents an individual’s complete set of chromosomes. Twenty-three inherited from each parent pair to set up a typical forty-six (total). Chromosomes are found in the nucleus of every cell in the body (except in the egg and sperm). Again, in Sophie’s case there are forty-seven chromosomes (3 twenty-one’s).

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Here is my version of a Sophie ↑ cell. All the regular parts are visible: the cell membrane dances the edge of the cell itself, mitochondria (red and package-like), golgi (bubbly and bright blue), endoplasmic reticulum (labyrinth-like green with red dots) and the larger round form to the right, enveloped in its own membrane, is the nucleus (the control center).  This entire structure is what we understand as the basic unit of life. I’ve detailed several large-scale cells and believe me – based on what I understand now – I will approach the next cell I map differently.

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Sophie’s chromosomes in the nucleus of a cell. I carefully place in the first ten.

I fill the nucleus with Sophie’s 47 Chromosomes. Remember, the nucleus is the control center.  It governs the work performed by the cell including growth, repair and reproduction.

Sophie has
forty-seven (one too many)…
chromosomes…
in every nucleus…
in every cell…
in her body.
Like a meditation I let it sink in.

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Nucleus complete with all 47 chromosomes set in.

Chromosomes, long strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, hold unique genetic information (think blueprint). DNA, the complex molecule shaped like a spiraling ladder, holds many (many) genes. There are thousands of genes within each nucleus. Genes act as code that direct and maintain the entire body. Every cell in our body holds the same code but uses it differently depending on the cell.

I wonder about all of this as I detail 3 chromosomes and direct the DNA (in the composition).

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I love drawing DNA. You’ll find the double helix spirals moving across all my anatomy study of the last few years. Somewhere I read that genes express (produce). I understand the word express in the context of art. Naturally I wonder about Trisomy 21, do the extra set of genes leads to over expression – over production? I don’t know.

So…what the hell is a chromosome?
Chromosomes are long strands of DNA. DNA, known as the code of life, houses for each one of us our unique genetic make-up.

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Sigh…this was hard to break down and understand enough so I can write about it.
#NotKidding.


A highlight : The Willamette Week, an alt-weekly in Portland Oregon, ran my profile drawing of Sophie on their cover.

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a profile

Profile –
: the shape of a head or face that is seen or drawn from the side
: the shape of something that is seen against a background
: a brief written description that provides information about someone or something


My mind wonders: Is this portrait a profile of Sophie or is this a profile of Trisomy 21? Both, all of it, I remind myself. I map Sophie, a real person.  I map Trisomy 21, a genetic disorder. I talk a lot about the science behind my work. Today I hope to give some attention to Sophie and to some drawing elements as well.

A profile of Sophie
I study photos of Sophie all summer. I ask lots of questions and read more information than I can recall. I have a niece named Sofia, I know the name means wisdom. I meet Sophie days after her 13th birthday. Summer break is ending and this week she begins middle school. Every time I come to the work on paper, I recall one of the last things she indicates at our initial visit. She’s a teenage girl and she wants to be just like every other teenager. She wishes she didn’t have Down syndrome. I can’t help but think about this every time I come to my drawing table.

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Portrait of Sophie, Side view

About drawing
When I begin, I can’t know how much I will enjoy working out this composition.  I practice everything I teach my students. I look closely and consider how to express best everything about Sophie: the defining contour and variety of texture within her complex structure. BTW, all structure in its uniqueness is complex. I don’t add anatomy to these portraits for a good while because I like how the simpler sketch expresses some personality. I photograph the process to hold these aspects of Sophie.

I work on paper. These details are in pencil – graphite and color, regular and water-soluble. I like this part so much that for a moment I consider teaching only pencil drawing. I laugh at the thought because anyone who’s studied with me knows they never see any kind of pencil in my class, much less draw with one.

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Profile of Trisomy 21
Down syndrome is a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability. I plan to include a brain from the start. An interesting find is the connection between DS and Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know early onset of 
dementia may be a factor in DS. I ask an MD friend to tell me the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia. None, he responds. They basically mean the same thing. 

I am most familiar with the facial characteristics of DS. I observe some of the common traits of a smaller and flatter nose (bridge) and forehead. I am not convinced there is much of an upward slant to Sophie’s eyes, at least not in the photos I shoot. I don’t see epicanthal folds nor do I note smaller ears. I have to wonder if some people outgrow some qualities. Individuals are unique, I hold steady to this thought.

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Portrait of Sophie

Sophie shows me her fissured tongue (and I love drawing it). I don’t find this as a common characteristic but I learn big sister Annabelle researches the condition and in this case, it is DS related. Looking at drawings of a skull, I learn the mouth and jaw bone are smaller and palette narrower which cause the tongue to appear large. As I lightly lay in anatomy, I consider the smaller than average nasal passage ways which can make breathing difficult.

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Because Sophie mentions 2 heart surgeries, I initially consider 2 hearts in the composition. I reconsider when I find an EKG related to Endocardial-Cushion Defect. I already have the heart in the drawing, this element refers to that and is not only an expressive life-line but informative of DS as well.

All of my work is education based, this drawing is no different. I have a new respect for Science and all that it provides for us. But I do not let go of my respect of the Subtle Body and its energy, you know…the part about spirit and its fulfillment. I clean up at the end of each drawing session and leave my studio for the day and I can’t help but wonder if Sophie will live the life of a typical teenager. Each individual is unique. Hold steady that thought.

A side note
Title of artwork. A Profile of. A Portrait of. One more thing to show itself in time.

freedom in what is

I have a rocking chair in the studio. I sit and look at the days work. Last night I feel good about my current study. I enhance, highlight and pull the form together. Now the rest of the story can get organized into a grounded picture plane.

I draw 13-year-old Sophie, who has Down Syndrome or Trisomy 21. I research carefully to be accurate on details. It’s challenging because I think I understand but I don’t know that I really do. I also know at some point the science has to get set aside so I can paint with freedom.

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I find it interesting that Sophie hangs on the wall with studies of my mother and father. They both retired from the El Paso Public School District – my father was a Special Education counselor for the west area of the city and my mother was a Speech and Hearing therapist.

Mom spent over 32 years working in education. She worked in Special Ed with both the moderate to severe disabled as well as with regular education that included speech problems, hard of hearing, and articulation deficiencies.

I call her while I work and ask if she is a very patient person. I use the word very but what I really mean is more than I can know, cause frankly Mom’s not known for her patience. And she doesn’t pretend to be … patient.

How did you do it, working in special education for all those years (I also want to ask how she raised 6 children)? She pauses for a good long time and then tells me she’s a realist. I just deal with what is Monica. I don’t make more of it or less of it. People are who they are. I could do it and I did it well. Not everyone can.

Mom takes care of dad these days. And I admire what appears to be her patience.  I admire her practical nature and her ability to deal with what is.


On another note…
As I sit in the rocker I decide I love the freedom this open armed posture holds. It’s not my idea for Sophie to take this stand, it’s hers. I remember when we were starting out her mom saying something like … yes, that’s Sophie.

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I recall a small, playful print from a few years back and I have to say, it feels more than natural to be pulling this composition together now.

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the feet and hands, and some trisomy 21 markers

Steeped in the study of Trisomy 21, I lay in general structure for my drawing of Sophie. I learn the spacing between the first and second toe is one of the characteristics of Down syndrome as well as are flat feet (pes planovalgus). Other markers may include smaller hands and fingers. And sometimes a deep, single crease across the palm of the hand.

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Feet
I have to admit when I see Sophie’s feet, I can not wait to draw them.  As a Yogi, the feet are one of the parts of the body I am particularly aware of in every standing pose. You press the mounds of the feet, leveled and firm, into the earth – you root to rise. But what if pressing firmly into the ground (rooting) isn’t so simple. Low muscle tone (hypotonia) and loose ligaments  are contributing factors to a list of orthopedic problems associated with Down syndrome.

I’ve been in classes where Yogi’s spread their toes, an ability only hormonal change has made easier for me. Yes my toes have become more flexible as I age. In general, much of me is more flexible, but I know hyper-mobility is not a good thing. It may be caused (as in the case of DS) by low muscle tone and ligamentous laxity, and can be painful and lead to joint instability if not dealt with properly. A counterbalance to the musculoskeletal related condition is strength training (body awareness and directed effort).

Physical therapy is a regular part of Sophie’s life, her mom explains the afternoon we meet. No Yoga, she adds. Along with her big sister, Sophie also studies ballet. I’m surprised and have to smile when very spontaneously,  she grande jete’s across the studio and into another area of my house and then back again.

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Hands
I sketch the hands. The arms, in general, are not easy. I erase at least 3 (way more) rounds.  This one element in the image is deceiving as Sophie angles her hands back, giving me one more expression to figure out.

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Though her hands are on the smaller end, I don’t easily note other markers of DS. In Sophie’s case there is no single palmer crease. And if the 5th finger (pinky) curves inward, as it might in some cases, its subtle. Sophie’s thumbs are wider and flatter than average though the cause does not directly relate to DS.

I approach this study with the eyes of someone who is learning. I look more slowly and carefully than usual. I work to resolve nuance. In my Yoga practice yesterday, the teacher says attention is medicine. It is.

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Other stuff I learn…
The great toe, the first digit of the foot is called the hallux. The thumb of the hand is called the pollex.

About the red highlight on the toe(nails)…
In general I bring red into the area of the feet associating them to grounding energy. In particular, the red toenails tell the viewer Sophie regularly enjoys a fine pedicure (p. 23 of My Heart Can’t Even Believe it).

a heart in situ

Amy Silverman contacts me in February. She wants to have coffee and talk about our work and how it intersects. Our work intersects? Amy is managing editor of the Phoenix New Times.

We never meet for coffee though we keep in contact and on May 1st she comes to my studio.  Do you mind if I record our conversation? I’m impressed. Why don’t I think to do that when I want to remember things? Clearly we are trained different. We do a little catch up and then she tells me she’s written a book. She says it has science in it. We talk about my drawings and about how I write about my work. She refers to what I do as reporting. One thing leads to another and I make a plan to attend the upcoming book launch.

My Heart Can’t Even Believe It, A story about science, love, and Down syndrome is a story about her daughter Sophie. It’s actually about all of her family but in particular it’s about her youngest child born with Down syndrome.

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Amy tells the story of how her and her husband handle the birth of Sophie, and the life stuff that follows. She goes through medical details as they present themselves and as she tries to understand Down syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21.

She’s descriptive in a way that catches my attention. She takes what is complex science and makes it easier to understand (not easy, just easier). Her words have a visual impact on me. Every time she describes to the reader a physical symptom and/or procedure, my mind’s eye sees it (wants to see it).

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Amy and I first meet in the studio on May 1 and within a month (June 1st) I layout Sophie. I am working on a painting of my nephews daughter, my niece Pilar, who is 5. Because I have much to learn, I decide they’re good back and forth studies. I don’t have children and all of this is a type of learning for me. What is normal human growth and development? Do I use the word normal?  Will I use the words typical and atypical? Do I even use any of these words when I talk about a drawing?

While Amy writes about the more common features of Down syndrome and notes her daughter looks like other Down syndrome children more than like her own family, I see it different. Sophie is totally unique to my eyes. I look. And I have to look again.  I bookmark many things. As I work I go back to the book, to research material and to my notes. As with all my work – you learn as I learn.

Amy connects me with the Co-Director of the Pediatric Down Syndrome Clinic at Phoenix Children’s Hospital who generously makes herself available to me. I contact a research scientist who knows cell biology well. And I talk to a cardiologist who gifts me a couple of his medical illustration books by Dr. Frank Netter. One is about the thorax in general, while the other is about the heart in particular and includes the Atrioventricular Septal Defect that Amy describes in the early part of her book as a hole in her (daughter’s) heart. The book refers to it as Endocardial-Cushion Defect.

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The chapter’s name (the words above to the right) is where I get the title to this post. I have drawn the contour of Sophie’s complete body (studio shot in post). And as I go from part to part I can’t help but wonder how the 21st chromosome affects each and every one of her organs. Down syndrome associates to DNA (our blueprint) and an extra 21st chromosome, it is also called Trisomy 21. Right now – A portrait of Sophie, studying Trisomy 21 – is the working title.

I know the composition will include 2 hearts because the day I meet Sophie she tells me about her heart surgery – both of them. And she tells me about her feeding tube.

Thanks Amy, for bringing your work to my attention. And thanks Sophie for agreeing to let me map you. And thanks for the blue paintbrush you gifted me (If my memory is correct Sophie’s collection includes at least 300 paintbrushes). I refer to the color of the brush as turquoise (my favorite color) and Sophie corrects me, It’s more like aqua! She takes her mom’s cell phone and pulls up a color swatch. It’s true, the brush is aqua.

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Hey Sophie, do you know energetically, that particular blue is the color of expression and is found in the throat? It is.

For more about Amy and her book → My Heart Can’t Even Believe It.

FIVE15 TO THE POWER OF 5

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Hey Phoenix! It’s that time of the year again. The summer months bring 515’s annual guest artist invitational.  Each of the nine members invite 5 artists. In this case you’ll have over 45 artworks to see.

Yes, this is the 5th annual FIVE15 TO THE POWER OF 5. That’s a lot of five’s!

Member Mary Shindell has invited 5 of us. Her guest list includes:

Mark Fry
Christine Cassano
Carolyn Lavender
Nick Shindell
Monica Aissa Martinez

Here are detail shots of each artist’s work –

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Mary Shindell 
Red Hummingbird 
Laser cut acrylic and paper collage (triptych detail)

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Mark Fry
Looking for Calm Skies 
Encaustic on wood panel

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Christine Cassano
Nanoscales  
Mixed media (detail)

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Carolyn Lavender
Otter-Otter
Graphite on paper (detail)

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Nick Shindell
Patti 
Acrylic and oil on canvas panel (detail)

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Monica Aissa Martinez
 The Little Brain 

Mixed media on mylar (detail)

WHO: Five 15
WHAT: FIFTH ANNUAL FIVE15 TO THE FIFTH (FIVE15 TO THE POWER OF 5) GUEST ARTIST INVITATIONAL
WHEN: July and August
First Friday, July 1st and August 5th (6-10PM)
Reception on Third Friday, July 15th and August 19th (6-10PM)
WHERE: 515 E Roosevelt St, Phoenix, AZ
Every artwork will be available for purchase. Buy it, take it!

See you there!