The Art of Science

I met Nick Mayer when ordering a gorgeous Blue Lobster print of his.  I have this thing about Blue Lobsters, seeing them in Maine and as a metaphor for innovation in that this rare phenotype results from serendipity and random collisions of genes. Nick's art is an amazing and beautiful integration of art and biology in watercolor.  Here is Nick's powerful story of how Science is Art and Art is Science.
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Art and science have played an analogous, ever-present role in my evolution as a person, like two arms of a chromosome swinging in a cell’s cytoplasm during metaphase, at times distant then colliding and exchanging information. 

As a child I always was interested in nature. I remember summer days catching frogs and turtles that in my nostalgia appear as a deep uninterrupted trance.  I recall hours studying the illustrations of deep-sea fish in my Time Life Series book The Sea.  Between the turtles, the illustrations in The Sea, and the romance of Treasure Island, I was launched on a trajectory that needed to seek out adventure, The Seaanalyze the world through intense observation, and then make sense of it through drawing. 

I rejected the status quo for a while seeking adventure aboard commercial fishing boats in Alaska and elsewhere, but eventually that adventure seeking turned inward.  After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, I spent two decades working as a scientist.  I wore the hat of fisheries biologist, science teacher, environmental scientist, and even worked on an extraordinary robotics project, but in the end while the science jobs paid the bills, what I was really passionate about was painting.  A year and a half ago I simply could not hold the cork on my 24/7 geyser of creativity any longer and took the plunge into working for myself as a full time artist.  All of my experiences as a scientist have given me the background to be the artist I am today.  The transition to being an artist was a natural progression. 

In my mind art and science are so similar—the cornerstone skill of each is astute and reflective observation.  Both science and art are ways of making sense of the world, physics could not exist without 3D modeling, anatomy could not exist without illustration.  In early days science WAS art and pretty much that was it.  Look at the painstakingly scientific, yet beautiful art of Ernst Haeckel. The work of the naturalist in Darwin’s time was to be an illustrator.  Biology was the study of form and function and its resulting taxonomy.  In Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle Part IV: Fish, the entirety of the text is a description of W Hawkins’ illustrations, “There are no scales on the snout or jaws, or between the eyes, or on the anterior portion of the suborbital  . . .” (pg 4). The entirety of Grey’s Anatomy is the same, painstakingly astute descriptions of observations and the associated engravings. 

All this connectivity makes me scratch my head and wonder why STEM wasn’t always STEAM and why such aHaeckel Crinoid distinction is made between science, stereotypically left brained/ logical/ necessary and art, seen as right brained/ touchy feely/ optional.  My twenty years of work as a scientist has lead me to the conviction that science is subjective, based on context, and completely dynamic.

At first glance it is obvious that my work is highly influenced by science.  It is influenced by the master pioneers in this genre like Haeckel, Hawkins, & Audubon, who inspire my work.  While I am not the first person to have observed, painted, and classified a blue lobster, painting is the process by which I understand the blue lobster.  Once I’ve stared at a seemingly random pattern on a fish’s back for hours and hours, there is always a point at which I realize that it is not random; there is a pattern here, its just a very complicated one.  And then I paint it.

My most recent commissioned painting, a coelacanth, is a great example of this.  The coelacanth is essentially a living dinosaur—based upon the fossil record it was thought to have gone extinct 80 million years ago and then a live specimen was caught in the Indian Ocean in 1938.  They are the closest link between fish and the first amphibians, which made the transition from sea to land in the Devonian period. There is no other fish that looks remotely like a Coelacanth with their large head of bony plates, missing backbone, triangle-shaped spots, and small arms with hand-like fins on the ends.  Since sightings are relatively rare, especially of live, unstressed specimens, I had a real struggle trying to find some accurate reference photos for the color of these creatures. 

Nick Mayer: Pencil of CoelacanthOddly enough upon discussing the dilemma with my good friend Jon Council, the scientific consultant for a book I recently completed illustrating (Catalina Dive Buddies by Mike Rivkin), I learned that a friend of his, Laurent Ballesta, had just completed the world’s most extensive coelacanth expedition (speaking of serendipity and random collisions).  Jon made the introduction. The coelacanth is a slow-growing deep water fish, inhabiting depths from 300 ft-1,000 ft.  I was shocked to hear that Laurent Ballesta et al. as part of his Projet Gombessa dove to these depths with his team to gently capture the coelacanth in its natural habitat on film. Laurent shared his observations about the coelacanth’s color as well as some of his soon to be released photos of the coelacanth.  These photos are without a doubt the best images of the species the world will have ever seen when they are released in his upcoming book on the expedition in 2014.  The interplay of serendipity, science, and art resulted in the finished painting here.  Nick Mayer: Coelacanth

Of course, as with most rare species discovered these days, the current status is not a pretty one.  Despite the creation of a Marine Protected Area, the coelacanth are now being dredged from the depths by Japanese deep trawlers and the Tanzanian Port Authority has plans to create a deepwater port in the vicinity the sanctuary.  I will be donating a portion of my entire Coelacanth print sales to Oceana, one of the most solid organizations dedicated to protecting the worlds oceans.

Result of a #RCUS? Libyian & California Kids Sharing Art

Have you just started grinning when reading something? This post by Tomas Quinonez-Riegos will do just that! While being the international program director for iTeach, using video to teach English to kids all over the world (e.g., Cambodia, Panama, etc.) and spending his first semester junior year in Japan, Tomas has started yet another new venture, which he shares with us here.  How did this come about? By Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects #RCUS!  Read on, revel in his excitement and in the impact it can have.
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Just over two months ago as I wrapped up my preparations for a semester abroad in Kyoto, Japan, I decided to take a quick look at the TED activity in the area.  I am an unashamed fanboy and was curious to see how I could get involved in the TED community of Japan.  To my utter delight, I discovered that there was to be a TEDxKyoto conference during my second weekend in the city.  I applied immediately, held my breath, and let out a shout of joy and excitement a few days later when I was accepted.  On the day of the conference I arrived nearly an hour before the doors even opened to make sure that there was absolutely nothing I would miss, nothing I didn’t experience.  I had to make sure that I was able to soak up every last drop of TED that was offered.  I was not disappointed.  My twelve hours at the conference was an unbelievably stimulating torrent of inspiration, passion, and elegance that began with the gorgeous piece by a 13th generation Noh performer and continued with a series of Japanese and foreign speakers giving talks on their incredibly innovative work and honest personal stories.  From the artist who sat next to me to the people I met during the intermittent break periods, I found only openness and warm hearts.  One particular encounter, however, has carried on well beyond the conference.

During the lunch period we were served small, boxed meals and encouraged, in the collaborative spirit of TED, to sit and converse with other attendees we had not met or did not know.  After I received my lunch box, the man "Introduce Yourself" Drawing by California kid to Libyian Kidwho happened to be behind me in line met my eye and he complimented me on my bowtie.  I thanked him and as we started to walk toward the dining tables he asked me if I was sitting with anyone.  I told him that I was recently arrived into Kyoto and knew almost nobody, so I suggested that we sit together.  As we made light conversation I learned he was a 30-year old salary-man working at a pharmaceutical company in nearby Osaka.  When I asked him why he came to the conference, what he hoped to gain, he completely lit up.  He told me that although he is more or less satisfied with his day-job, he is a staunch believer the idea of art as a means of universal communication and dreamed about somehow connecting communities of children around the world through their artwork.  I was absolutely thrilled by the idea and could hardly contain my excitement as we bounced ideas off of each other, and furiously brainstormed the potential of the concept until the end of the lunch period.  The remainder of the conference fanned the spark we had ignited such that before we parted ways, we had decided on a follow-up meeting in Osaka a few days later.

From that meeting, the organization He(ART) Exchange was born.  The concept behind the project is that dialogue between communities that share neither cultural, geographical, nor linguistic commonalities is not only"Introduce Yourself" Drawing by a California kid to a Libyian kid possible, but critical to developing well-rounded understandings of today’s world.  By using weekly art projects as the “language” of this dialogue, students have a “conversation” with their partners abroad and in so doing are not only exposed to the lived reality of other cultures and peoples, but also develop an understanding of art as a valid and powerful tool of self-expression.  This, I believe, will have lasting effects as participants will perhaps one day be able to use their art to deal with and confront the various obstacles they will face throughout the remainder of their life.  From this idea, we developed a rough organizational model, and as my partner worked on developing the website and the legal documents, I began reaching out to schools, teachers, and educational non-profits in my network.  After three weeks we had finalized our first partnership between two middle schools in California and Libya, with schools in Panamá, Argentina, Indonesia, and Japan also interested in the project.  At this point we are still not sure what the impact of the project will be, yet based on the enthusiasm thus far from the teachers and students, we will try it out regardless.  I, for one, look forward to observing what eventually will sprout from the program.  I expect we may be pleasantly surprised. 

Innovation in the Hopper

Edward Hopper is one of my favorite artists, so I was excited to see all his Maine works on exhibit at the Bowdoin Museum of Art.  A lot of his time in Maine was on Monhegan Island, a noted artists’ colony for over 150 years, close to us in Pemaquid. Hopper’s experimentation and evolution of style and technique remind me a lot of how we innovate.  I’ll explain in a minute.Monhegan Rocks and Seals (1916-19)

Hopper’s paintings became more realistic and less impressionistic over time.  His early paintings (1916-19’s) were very impressionist with deep texture and detail in the brushstrokes, such as Monhegan Rocks and Seals (1916-19).

And yet, Hopper goes back and forth between realism as in Captain Upton’s House Captain Upton's House (1927)(1927) and a bit of impressionism in my favorite of all his works, Pemaquid Light (1929), as he experiments and integrates the various styles and techniques (you can see the influence of Manet and Degas).  After this several year experimentation with impressionism, Hopper returns to his comfort zone: darker colors and more realistic representation – as in his very famous painting of a bar in Greenwich Village, Nighthawks (1942).    I get lost inPemaquid Light (1929) these paintings – I hear the men at the Pemaquid Light discussing their latest catch, where the stripers are running; I eavesdrop on the couple’s conversation at the bar.

As we innovate over time, our style and technique also evolve and blend.  The ways we interact, write, design and communicate shift as we have more experiences and relationships.   The shift is rarely linear – a few steps forward, a few backward, a few sideways, a few perpendicular.   Why? Because we are experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t work, blending aspects of both into new forms and Nighthawks (1942)techniques.  Think back to how you have approached business and life as you’ve matured.  Our perceptions of the world, of others, of global events have all changed and hence, impacted our view of needs, problems and solutions.

So, how has your perspective changed over time? What have you learned through the varied experiences and relationships of your life that you can apply to when, how, where, why you innovate? How can you turn those learnings into solutions that impact lives as much as paintings impact souls?

Innovation Relies on Hope

Friday, April 15th, was an amazing day for Cleveland, Ohio: the 2nd annual TEDxCLE.  Let’s put this in perspective. The theme was “Guardians of the Evolution: We are the guardians of Cleveland’s future; We are responsible for its evolution; Success is only possible through collaboration.”

The logo was based on the Hope Memorial Bridge’s “Guardians of Traffic” powerful historic sculptures. The metaphor of the Hope Bridge AND Guardians is real and happening now. Let me recap some of my favorites because they highlight the necessity of Hope for Innovation for any community and organization.

The theme was set with Ari Maron, driver of East 4th Street project, on the wonderful future for urban Cleveland. He is one of those that has great dreams and visions for Cleveland AND actually does something about them.

His challenge? The people in the community make a world-class city happen; put your ego aside and go for it. Since Ari has done what he advices, his words are powerfully real and hopeful.

One of my favorite talks was by Matt Hlavin of Thogus, ‘not your father’s injection molding company’, on the New Industrial Revolution.  He’s changed the rules of the game…they are an engineering company that also manufactures, and with some cool (very) rapid prototyping equipment for polymers and metal. As Matt said, “It’s no longer about mass production, it’s about mass customization.”

He wants the next generation to think manufacturing is cool, so he invests in coops and interns, providing housing (all they need is gas and food money). Taking care of his people--giving them the tools, training, and support to succeed--is critical.

One of the many benefits includes innovative health and wellness programs for employees and their families. For Matt, success is the day one of his employees tells him they’re leaving to start a company because of what they learned at Thogus. This ‘little manufacturing’ company in Avon Lake, OH, is so leading edge that internationally renown author Steve Denning cited Thogus in his recent book, Radical Management as leading the way in innovating management.

Next was a series of national to local talks on building community through historic preservation. The panelists (Hannah Belsito,Rhonda SincavageJeff Siegler, and Thomas Starinsky) talked about the connectedness that history provides to community. A Knight Foundation study, The Soul of the Community, stated that aesthetics, openness, social offerings play a greater role in selection of community than just safety.

Historic preservation is an economic driver – it brings in people, art, nature, culture and business. It manifests itself emotionally – in the intangible, which is not easily measured. This is a great example of the difference between 20th century outputs and 21stcentury outcomes. While new businesses are a very important output, the outcome is a thriving community – a virtuous cycle of passionate people that collaborate to make a stronger community.

The Cleveland Art Museum’s new director, Dr. David Franklin, gave a magnificent talk about why museums still matter (not that he had to convince many of us in the audience). He started with a photo of a 5,000 year old sculpture, The Star Gazer, and then brought out this little 5” tall figure – right in his hand. Next, he brought out a 6,000 year old statue of a little woman.  11,000 years of history on stage.

Museums matter because they engage, they tell stories of the past, present and future. Museums provide a ‘place’ for people to engage with art, art with art, to reflect and ponder and see true authenticity – in real life, not virtually. Think about it – in a museum, it’s so easy to strike up a conversation with a total stranger about a piece of art.

Museums inherently connect us – to each other, to the past, present and future and create a sense of joy and wonder. David concluded his talk with, “We’ll be waiting for you; we’re in Cleveland, and we’re free.” And oh, by the way, in 2015, the museum will display ALL of Monet’s Water Lilies – all in one place – talk about utopia!

There were many other great talks, as you can see (and soon watch) on the TEDxCLE site. I don’t know if my friends, Hallie Bramand Eric Kogelschatz, realized the amazing connection between the Guardian statues as a metaphor for re-innovating Cleveland and the Hope in the Hope Memorial Bridge (even though it’s named after Bob Hope).

If it was deliberate or serendipitous, it doesn’t matter – it is the perfect metaphor for Cleveland…and for your city, your business, and your community. Hope looks to the future, rooted in facts, not fantasy, based on experience, learning and application.

So please take a few minutes to share your hopes are for your business, organization, community in the comments below. Think about the talents and treasures around you - I'd bet your hope is based on some real evidence...go for it. The more we share, the more Hope, the more we can make a difference and impact!