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 1 - Early Waymarks
Chapter 2 - Early Guides
Chapter 3 - A Church Full of Scientists
Chapter 4 - A Wrong Turn - and a Launch Point
Chapter 5 - A Pivotal Question: a Direction Crystalizes
Chapter 6 - Discoveries: Evolutionary Biology and Victorian Design
Chapter 7 - A Bend in the Path - a Chance to Reframe the Question
Chapter 8 - An Inquiry in Two Fields
Chapter 9 - Looking Evoution in the Face
Chapter 10 - Social Sculpture
Chapter 11 - Life in the Lab
Chapter 12 - Wall Drawings
Chapter 13 - Lab Meetings New
Chapter 14 - Coming April 8
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
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.

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