The science of art

Chanel Taylor works on the watercolours she is creating as part of the Art and Genetics Exhibition. Photos: Supplied
Chanel Taylor works on the watercolours she is creating as part of the Art and Genetics Exhibition. Photos: Supplied
Iranga Tukunga Iho, 2017, by Pam McKinlay and Jesse-James Rehu Pickery.
Iranga Tukunga Iho, 2017, by Pam McKinlay and Jesse-James Rehu Pickery.

Art and science might be two different  areas but a group of Dunedin artists and scientists have proved there can be a meeting of minds even on complicated concepts such as genetics. Rebecca Fox talks to some artists involved in the Art and Genetics Exhibition.

Chanel Taylor
Chanel Taylor
Chanel Taylor dispels the notion that you are either an arts person or a science one.

A neuroscientist by trade, she is now studying art at the Southern Institute of Technology.

What might seem a huge turnaround by some is not so strange for Taylor.

She has always been interested in art, taking both science and art at school, but when it came to thinking about tertiary study she needed to choose - she chose science.

While studying science - a degree in psychology at the University of Otago followed by a PhD in neuroscience and the post-doctorate studies at Oxford University in England and in Queensland, Australia - she continued to play around with art in her spare time.

''It was a hobby.''

It was while in Brisbane that her artistic side began ''pulling again'' and she became more immersed in the arts.

She began to seriously think about changing her career focus.

''It was difficult initially to make the decision. I was heavily into science and had spent a long time studying.''

Taylor took a leap of faith and returned to New Zealand to study for a bachelor of visual arts degree at the Southern Institute of Technology.

''It's not that I gave up on the science aspect. I thought I'd give it a go. But from day one I loved it. I felt like it was a really good direction to go in.''

It turns out she has been able to incorporate her science into her art.

She is one of 24 artists to pair with scientists in this year's arts and science exhibition.

Otago School of Art senior lecturer Peter Stupples said this year's exhibition was linked to the Conference of the Genetics Society of Australasia being hosted at the University of Otago.

For the past seven years, art school students, staff and other artists had joined with scientists to create artworks during an about eight-month period.

This year the artists were working with those in the genetics and biochemistry fields.

''The idea is not to illustrate science but mainly to bring science to the public, to show people who come to the show an idea of science.''

The works that emerge cover all sorts of media - sometimes paintings but also drawings, video, sculpture and printmaking.

''The most spectacular are 3-D. We have had some amazing pieces.''

Artists involved this year include Josephine Warring, Marion Wassenaar and Victoria McIntosh.

As part of her degree, Taylor is required to complete an internship, so when she heard about the art and science exhibition she approached Stupples to see if she could take part.

So as well as producing art for the exhibition, Taylor has been putting together the catalogue for it.

''I felt my science background should really help me. I've got that perspective from both sides.''

Being inspired by science is not that uncommon and there is a growing field of art-science blended works.

''Back in high school I had to choose between the two but now you can integrate the two a lot easier.''

As the degree has exposed her to many different mediums, she is still to find her niche, but then again, more and more artists work in a variety of mediums today.

''There is a trend toward mixed media rather than just one pure medium. I think I'm more in that camp.''

For the art and science exhibition she has produced a series of water colour paintings which she plans to digitally scan on to perspex.

Her inspiration came from discussions with Prof David Hutchinson, a quantum physicist with whom she has talked a lot about quantum biology and processes in photosynthesis.

''It's been wonderful. Such an excellent experience.''

She planned to base her third-year project on quantum physics, and found the exhibition an ideal time to learn more about the subject.

''We've had some great discussions. I got to visit his lab, which was mind-blowing.''

She has also enjoyed putting together the catalogue and learning the skills involved in that as well as meeting the artists involved.

Fellow artists Pam McKinlay and Jesse-James Rehu Pickery took their inspiration from Dr Julia Horsfield, a developmental geneticist in the University of Otago's pathology department.

Horsfield's laboratory looks at components of DNA strands at a molecular level through the lens of bio-chemical processes capturing chromosome's contours and topological behaviour.

''We imagined an unfolding chromosome, the unravelling of DNA, bound into a rigid shape, at the moment of stasis - some sections closed in the twist of the double helix and sections with free roaming loops in space and time.''

To create it McKinlay used muehlenbeckia, vine which was then curved and twisted to evoke the double helix.

So in looking at DNA architecture they ''put a face on the science and a story into the data as a nod to quantum biology and the field of biophysics'', she said.

McKinlay also worked with Christine Keller to create a hand-woven piece out of merino wool which used a counterbalance loom also inspired by Horsfield's research.

''Quite simply, art and science is my happy place,'' she said.

It is her third year of involvement with the exhibition and has found her background in textile science probably influences her work.

''I love ideas involving cutting edge science and being able to visualise it.''

The scientists who take part are ''incredibly generous'' with their time as they explained to the artists their work.

''This is stuff which will change everyday lives and the way we interact with each other.''

To see
Art and Genetics Exhibition on Tuesday July 4-16 at the HD Skinner Annex, Otago Museum

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