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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
All images copyright and courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle
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