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,

A Pilgrim in Art and Science © 2020 Natalie Settles

Follow along for new chapter releases weekly on Wednesdays.


Chapter 1 - Early Waymarks
Chapter 2 - Early Guides
Chapter 3 - A Church Full of Scientists New
Chapter 4 - Coming Jan 29
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18

Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35

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, Dr. Ken Sytsma, 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. Photo credit: D. James Dee, Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery
Robert Gober, detail of Untitled, 1994. Graphite on paper, 6ft 8in x 11ft 6.75in. credit: D. James Dee

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.

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