Drawing Science

Bethann Garramon Merkle, MFA, is a multi-disciplinary science communicator and artist who specializes in sharing science through depictions of the natural world. In particular, her work explores the role stories play in shaping public perspectives of science and ecology topics. She is currently on staff with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, a research and outreach group within the Department of Zoology and Physiology, at the University of Wyoming. There, she directs the University of Wyoming Science Communication Initiative, conducts research on art-science integration and science communication, and helps researchers with outreach initiatives, offers trainings on sharing science, and creates images, text, social media content, and other outreach materials that convey research results.

Bethann Garramon Merkle

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Bethann Garramon Merkle: I have an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction, University of Wyoming, 2017) and a BA in Environmental Studies (sustainable food and agriculture; minors in wilderness studies and studio fine arts, University of Montana, 2007). I am a first-generation college student, and before going to college, I didn’t know about any of the professional activities that I do today. I started out as an environmental engineering major, in fact, and when I transferred schools, it was because the engineering school I was at did not have any arts or music curriculum, and only enough literature to meet state requirements. I didn’t know what I was going to do instead, but I couldn’t fathom four years of training for forty years of a career that excluded (or at least I understood that they did) disciplines I loved as much as I did science. I then declared a major in wildlife biology, about which I knew nothing, except that I wanted to learn more about raptors. In my sophomore year, I discovered field journaling, thanks to a one-year, immersive program from the Wilderness Institute (University of Montana): Wilderness and Civilization. Thus began my love affair with natural history and the integration of art and science.

My career in science illustration, science communication and art-science integration launched while I was still in undergrad. I was commissioned to create a series of freshwater invertebrate illustrations for an educational non-profit organization for whom I also developed a natural history/field journal curriculum. I was flying by the seat of my pants at that stage, but it was a seminal experience and I have worked at the nexus of these disciplines ever since. I have done, and continue to do, science journalism, creative writing, illustration and teaching about natural history and science.

More recently, in the past 5 or so years, I have been concentrating primarily on developing and leading professional development trainings for scientists to enhance their abilities to share their own science. Through the science of science communication, the science of teaching and learning, and art-science integration best practices, I teach and consult on developing skills, capacity and designing, implementing and assessing science communication and public engagement efforts. Through it all, I continue to illustrate and write, both for collaborators and as a freelancer.

Pronghorn sketches, 2017

Pronghorn prints, hand coloring, 2018

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

BGM: Ever since I was introduced to art history – likely in elementary school, but certainly by high school – I have been fascinated by the study sketches that precede or underly major paintings. For example, when I visit art museums, my first question is whether they have any drawings, or better yet, sketches and sketchbooks, on display. As striking as Da Vinci’s paintings are, it is his drawings that I am most drawn to.

Later, as I became more interested in natural history and historical synergies between art and science, I discovered Maria Sybilla Merian, Beatrix Potter (as a science illustrator), and numerous other naturalists whose process of discovery was deeply reliant upon drawing. I point to them as examples and I try to follow their example in my own work. While I do make polished, technical illustration on occasion, many of my illustrations today look like sketches, or excerpts from field notebooks. I favour expressiveness and spontaneity that a sketch-like illustration conveys.

Studio sketches of limber pine specimens, 2015

RB: Can you say something about the variety of strategies you employ from the arts and humanities and how they inform one another?

BGM: Continuing the line of thought from the previous question, I look to examples where people are working at the raw edge of more than one discipline. My own writing, for example, draws on techniques of memoir, transcendental nature essays, science journalism, and even modern fiction to create narratives that provoke readers to reflect on their own experiences with the ecosystems they best know. Likewise, I use watercolor, pen and ink, plein air, and digital techniques to create illustrations that have a visceral impact on viewers. In each illustration, I work to create an image that helps viewers imagine they were there – not in the sense that the image is photo-realistic, but that they can see the artist’s hand, can imagine watching the image unfold in situ. Fundamentally, in any medium, I explore how stories shape how we understand the world around us, and how stories can better enable us to share that understanding with others.

Spread from an article and illustrations on amphibian monitoring via citizen science, 2017

 

Toad illustration in progress, 2017

RB: As well as the obvious practice of drawing in the creative sectors, it is also an important element in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. How do you see the crossovers of drawing practice between the arts and sciences?

BGM: Well, in my work, the cross-overs are what I do. To clarify, and perhaps continue, what I’ve said already, drawing for me is both a means of self expression and an invaluable means of conveying ideas between people who may not often interact. Drawing, in my own experience, has been a fundamental tool for learning to understand the ecosystems in which I live. Drawing has been a powerful way for me to bring people along with me to places in the world which warrant some attention (remotely or in person). As I have honed my own use of drawing as a tool for learning and sharing, I have developed a professional practice of teaching others to use drawing in these ways.

Through the workshops and courses I teach, I show students, faculty, teachers, and nature aficionados how to use drawing as a process for focusing their attention, compelling them to look more closely (even at familiar things), to explore their own curiosity and honor their own questions, and how drawing can be used as a tool for assessing what they (or someone else) understand and learn. Underlying all this is the fundamental reality that only very recently did Western society begin to compartmentalize drawing/art and the sciences. Historically, since the first prehistoric illustrations, our species has used artforms to both document and communicate observations, understanding, questions. To see drawing and other art practices and disciplines as entirely distinct from the sciences is to deeply misunderstand their inter-dependent origins.

A caveat here that I am speaking to how people create and access images when they are fully sighted. My training and professional experience are largely focused on that. However, we should all be considering more consistently how our assumptions (about what works, why it works, etc.) are complicated when viewers do not have full access to visuals for any number of reasons.

Phoenepephla field sketches, 2016

RB: Do you consider drawing a language? And, if so, is this language sometimes non-transferable to other languages, for example, the written or verbal language?

BGM: Certainly drawing is a language. Long before we refined alphabets, humans were using drawings and then pictographs for documentation and communication, and even discovery and self-expression. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that drawing is a rather universal language, too – unless annotated, a drawing can be understood regardless of what verbal languages one speaks.

Whether the communicative capacity of drawing is so rich and complex that it cannot be translated into text or speech is not as straightforward.

One of the invaluable contributions that drawing, and the arts more broadly, make to science (conservation in particular), is that drawings can more immediately be synthesized by a viewer’s mind. (Again, though, the caveat that this assumes one is fully sighted. When that is not the case, the way drawings function as self-expressive tools, as techniques for sharing complex ideas, or for demonstrating knowledge, is substantially complicated, and we don’t see much consideration of that. I myself have only recently become aware of this nuance and have barely scratched the surface of its implications.) That being said, for fully sighted individuals, the majority of our neural receptors are cued to visual stimuli. We tend to understand images faster, and remember them longer, than words. Studies of how people read content such as webpages, including news, indicate that people look at the pictures first, captions next, and then maybe read the text. Often, illustrations, including figures in scientific publications, are redundant or reinforcement, restating or refiguring information that is also included in the accompanying text.

Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare exhibition poster, 2017-2018

RB: What role can stories play in shaping public perspectives of science?

BGM: When drawing becomes transcendent, it synthesizes or makes tangible in ways that text alone cannot. For example, Thomas Moran’s illustrations (made on location) and finished paintings (based on his masterful sketches) of the region known today as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, played a key role in helping lawmakers in the United States understand why conservationists were calling for the region to be preserved as a national park. The implications of preservation, and of expelling indigenous cultures who have actively shaped and inhabited that landscape, are extensive and should not be overlooked. Together, the role Moran and his artwork played in shaping the conservation priorities and mistreatment of indigenous people serves as a powerful example of what drawing can do to. That is, it can –

  1. a) inform public policy and imagination
  2. b) facilitate the pursuit of specific scientific interests while overlooking their implications for marginalized demographics.

Moran’s artwork, to me, epitomizes the conundrum of art used on behalf of a cause. Who does this art and science benefit? What responsibility do we, as artists working in science, have to ask both ourselves and our collaborators and clients these questions? In my mind, our responsibility is great, considering the great capacity of our art.

Tortoise sketch, 2016

Tortoise sketches, full sheet, 2016

More examples of how visual stories have influenced public perceptions of science, or science-informed/interested, include Maria Sybilla Merian, who I mentioned above. In an era when women had little financial, intellectual, or physical autonomy, she was self-sufficient thanks to her phenomenal science illustration abilities. She and her daughter ultimately traveled to Suriname, where Merian pursued a curiosity developed out of her long career as an insect illustrator – for example, how do insects reproduce? In illustrations of moths, butterflies, and other insects she observed on that voyage, Merian transformed our collective understanding of insect reproduction by documenting metamorphosis. She also created some of the early drawings depicting what we know today as ecological relationships. She drew butterflies in the same scene as their caterpillars, eggs, chrysalis, predators, and food plants.

Likewise, John James Audubon had a valuable influence on the European science establishment’s perceptions of the ecological significance of North American wildlife. Prior to Audubon’s life-size illustrations of the birds of North America, European scientists dismissed “New World” wildlife as primitive and of no intellectual interest. Certainly, Audubon’s bird and mammal portfolios demonstrate his skill with both paintbrush and shotgun, but they also were his way of throwing down the gauntlet and demanding that European science take seriously the ecological richness of the North American continent.

Two examples from a more modern era:

  1. Ding Darling’s conservation-focused comics helped generate national support in the U.S. for conservation policies such as the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuges system.
  2. Eve Mosher’s performance art-drawing project High Water Line. Since 2007, she has been mapping out where flooding due to climate change will occur in New York, Boston, and cities around the globe. After developing these maps, she fills a device used to draw chalk lines on sporting fields, and then draws chalk lines demarcating exactly where neighborhoods will be underwater. Her work has generated exactly the kinds of conversations that are urgent and necessary – whose homes will be under water? How will this affect social stability? Who will have access to support systems? What can we do to plan ahead, to mitigate and or prevent, these losses?

Display in Tortoise and Hare exhibit, 2017-2018

RB: Does drawing need to be a curriculum essential?

BGM: In a word, yes. The world urgently needs citizens who know how to think creatively, synthesize best practices from numerous disciplines, and share what they know and learn with others. Arts integration is a powerful mechanism for encouraging people to take risks, to not feel they always have to have answers, and to have more than one means of sharing what they are trying to communicate. I wrote about this in more detail in Nature last fall.

Student sketches, from workshop for youth from several reservations in WY, CO, and MT – part of UWyo summer program, 2018

RB: How has your drawing process changed in the past years?

BGM: One thing that has changed – and likely not for the better – is that I do not keep a field journal or sketchbook as faithfully or regularly (and certainly not daily) as I used to. In particular, since many of my commissioned illustrations these days are hybrids of analog and digital techniques and materials, my sketches are often subsumed by the layers and iterations of a Photoshop file.

Another major shift is toward plein air work. When I learned to draw and create watercolors, I learned it in a studio classroom (middle and high school). We rarely drew from real life. Instead, my teacher instructed us to learn in the classical way, by studying how images had been made and trying to recreate them. It was not until I discovered field journaling that I began learning how to draw from direct observation. My early sketchbooks are evidence that one can learn, and improve, drawing skills. While I knew how to use art media such as graphite and watercolors, I did not know how to employ them to capture what I saw in very convincing fashion. I have been working on that for over a decade, and sometimes, these days, I am satisfied that a particular sketch has succeeded. Likewise, early on, I didn’t understand the value of keeping all my sketches, of drawing on top of ‘failed’ sketches – of learning from my own eyes and hand. Now, I have dozens of sketchbooks and notebooks full of the record of my own process of learning, with every drawing – how to achieve a particular effect, how to mix a particular color, or how to frame a scene so that the elements I want to include all fit on the page.

Illustrations in book about wildlife migration 2018

 

Salamander illustration in progress, 2017

RB: What projects are you currently working on?

BGM: I have recently finished a data-driven, interactive infographic project with two collaborators. The illustration and the article we wrote to accompany it explore population trends of several species in Louisiana coastal marshes. This ecosystem is undergoing rapid, radical change due to coastal erosion and land subsidence, both of which were complicated by the Deep Water Horizons oil spill in 2010. Our piece was published in the March-April 2019 issue of American Scientist, where I have previously published illustrations and/or articles on topics including how we define biodiversity and using drawing to more effectively study indigenous knowledge of caribou biodiversity.

I have an on-going project researching places in the world where tortoises and hares co-exist. The Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare uses illustration and storytelling to connect viewers of my multimedia exhibit to the conservation and cultural complexities of these places where the well-known fable plays out in real life.

I lead courses on science communication and art-science integration at the University of Wyoming, as well as through the Ecological Society of America’s Communication and Engagement Section, which I co-founded a few years ago. And, I recently became the founding editor of a Communicating Science section in The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, ESA’s oldest journal. In all of these roles, I welcome collaborators and invitations, and for The Bulletin, I encourage readers to submit pitches for consideration in the Communicating Science section of the journal.

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www.ecologicallytruestory.org

All images copyright and courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle

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