Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From the Cells to the stars

I usually don’t explain my paintings too much. Most of them don’t really need it (“these are dividing cells”) and anyway, I want people to experience my work however they want. But the painting I made yesterday is a little different. I want to tell its story in words.

My friend Cathy died this August. In 2005, Cathy was diagnosed with lymphoma, for which she underwent a year of grueling treatment. After her doctors told her that the disease was in remission, she threw a big party for all the friends – and there were many - who had supported her through the ordeal. Then she pretty much went back to life as usual, raising her two kids and being active in local politics.

Then, in 2010, Cathy started noticing worrying symptoms and feared a relapse. But this time it wasn’t lymphoma, it was MDS - myelodysplastic syndrome triggered by her previous chemotherapy. MDS is a disorder of the stem cells in the bone marrow which causes a decline in the body’s ability to produce blood. To vastly oversimplify, patients with MDS can be kept alive for a while by constant infusions of blood products, but the only cure is a bone marrow transplant. So Cathy had one, with bone marrow from one of her brothers. It didn’t take. She was undergoing high-dose chemo to prepare for a second transplant when she contracted an infection and died.

I wanted to paint something, but not a “cancer painting”. Cathy was a fan of my work and had one of my pieces hanging in her home. But when I showed her the painting of cancer cells I had done for my NIH show, she said, “I don’t know why anyone would want a picture of cancer!” I could see her point. But my work focuses on the cells – the cells that carry us around, that let us live and breathe and think – and that sometimes go bad and let us down.

I was reading about astronomer Carl Sagan, who often expressed the idea that humans are made of “star stuff”. That is, that all the basic elements of life on earth derive from “space debris” from the gigantic explosions of massive, ancient stars. This concept is at once so simple and so mind-boggling that it’s a struggle to absorb, much less to express artistically. I started looking around for ideas of how to visually portray the basic elements such as hydrogen, helium and nitrogen. Um. This is difficult, because you can’t see them. If you do a Google image search on Carbon, it comes up with a lot of gray-black cars. But when I thought about how the elements were released, I found supernovas. Not only are supernovas beautiful and awe-inspiring, they bear a strong resemblance to dividing cells, especially explosively dividing cancer cells.

Here’s the other thing. Carl Sagan also had MDS. He underwent three bone marrow transplants before he died in 1996. So this painting, besides celebrating the cosmic connection that all living creatures share, goes out to Cathy and Carl. From the infinitely tiny cells deep in the marrow of their bones, to the billions of stars in the sky.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Upcoming Events

Hey, want to see me and my artwork IRL? If you're in the DC area, you're in luck. I'll be peddling my wares at a bunch of festivals this spring and summer. I don't usually bring too many science paintings to these, though, so if you want to see something in particular, please drop me an email ahead of time to miche (at) so I'll make sure to bring it.

Spring - Summer 2011

March 27- April 16

Very Cherry AdMo Pop-up Shop

April 2

Big Cherry, Silver Spring

April 17

WIS Spring Bazaar, DC

May 7

Alexandria Art Market

May 21

DC Craft Mafia's Spring Thing

May 29

SoWeBo Festival, Baltimore

June 11

Ballston Market, VA

June 18-19

Old Town Arts & Crafts Festival

July 15-17

Artscape, Baltimore

July 31

Big Cherry, Take 2 - Silver Spring, MD

August 13

Ballston Market, VA

Monday, April 4, 2011

Spare One Drop for Dreaming

One of the things I struggle with when I paint scientific pictures is how to straddle the line between illustration and imaginative art. I want to create something recognizable, but not something appropriate for a textbook. When I'm planning a picture, I'm generally focused on how to create a beautiful and meaningful image. But when I get down to the actual painting, I sometimes get more wrapped up in how to make something look like it has a glistening curve, or when to drop in the second color so it blooms just so. So oftentimes I end up with something that is closer in letter than in spirit to my original intent. Today was a nice exception.

I decided to work on some heart and blood-themed pieces. I'm not sure why, but some lines of a a fairly obscure poem kept going through my head the whole time I was painting. Here it is:

Winter Remembered


Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks,
And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,
I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,
Far from my cause, my proper heat and center.

Better to walk forth in the frozen air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing;
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.

And where I walked, the murderous winter blast
Would have this body bowed, these eyeballs streaming,
And though I think this heart’s blood froze not fast
It ran too small to spare one drop for dreaming.

Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch,
And tied our separate forces first together,
Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much,
Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.

The lines "and though I think this heart's blood froze not fast/It ran too small to spare one drop for dreaming" swirled around and around in my head, and they helped me paint. I let myself relax about the technical details and focus on the flow, the dreaming. And a beautiful painting emerged.

It may be a stretch to link a poem about a man trying to forget his love while they are separated to a painting of cells and blood vessels. But it worked for me today. Because I let my heart's blood flow, and spared a drop for dreaming.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Welcome to my blog

Now I have to think of things to say! This never seems to cause me a problem on Twitter (follow me @artologica), so I'm sure I'll manage here, too. In the meantime, I'll be posting up pictures of my latest paintings.