Saturday 31 March 2007

Life With Diatoms

"Science is spectrum analysis.
Art is photosynthesis".

-Karl Krauss

Diatoms are the tumbling, shining, intricate glass-like algae that make much of the air that we breathe.

There are many different species, and they each make a "skeleton" of sorts close to opal in composition. Victorian men liked to collect different kinds, and lay them out on black paper with the aid of a microscope.

For me, their beauty rests in their shining delicate shapes, and their vital oxygen production that we need to live.

--Glendon Mellow

Wednesday 21 March 2007

The Forever Painting

In my first post, I included a picture of a rough sketch for a piece I call The Forever Painting. Here is an image of the final work itself. The overall dimensions are approximately 32" x 68".
Although I have painted in watercolour in the past, I now paint in oil. I like to work with a dark ground, usually black or burnt umber. I enjoy how the figures seem to step out of the darkness as I paint.
This canvas was originally an acrylic painting I had done for studio class in university. I had rushed it and never liked it. One summer, in a dark mood, I took that acrylic painting, and some ivory black, and just painted over it. I never get rid of artwork, and this act of catharsis felt refreshing and exciting.
I spent the next two and a half years working on The Forever Painting, off and on. This image plays with a bridging of themes for me. It's hard to see in this tiny reproduction, but I painted a few fossils in the stone. During university, I used Rapa Nui (Easter Island) statues as a motif in many of my drawings. Here, they are also topped by candles, and the one on the left is broken. There is a winged trilobite, surrounded by smoke from the right candle. There is also a DNA candle, an image I often use (a candle with a wick made out of a double-helix, as an image of mortality).
The Forever Painting for me is about what lingers. The people of Rapa Nui are gone, the trilobites extinct, DNA telomeres shorten and burn in the candle, beauty can fade; but this painting shows the immortal bits, the fossils, the guardian statues, the double-helix, the echo of beauty.

Thursday 15 March 2007

1st Critique of my Trilobite Drawing

When I was in University, a few years back, science and art were not supposed to be particularly good at intermingling. I was a Fine Arts major at York University in Toronto. There was something unwholesome about the subject of science in artwork.

For some who may not know the difference, a drawing is different from a sketch. A sketch is your rough work. A drawing is a loftier thing, a final work, a finished and grand piece just as valid as a painting or installation. Often, artists have a hard time regaining the "energy" of their sketch...something in the careless hurried strokes can look more appealing than a final drawing where slower, careful strokes have emerged from the process of copying.

I remember the first time I had included a couple of trilobites in a piece of mine, I eventually called Lord Extinction Yawns. I was in a third-year painting studio class, and working on this drawing for myself outside of class. I work mainly with a .3mm pencil, a teeny-tiny lead that snaps whenever you breathe on it. And trilobite exoskeletons have so much detail compared to say, the relatively smooth skin of Diplocaulus (a small boomering-headed marine reptile, now extinct) that these blasted little things had taken me forever to finish.

One day, I was passing my studio professor in the hall, and asked him to take a look. He had taught me in a first-year drawing studio as well, and it is important in university to shove your work under the gaze of each professor as often as possible in the hopes of bettering yourself and maybe (just maybe) being remembered from week to week. This prof was a very friendly fellow and not dismissive, encouraging, and who, like all at York, remained active in his own artwork.

I asked to show him the drawing. I was immensely proud of the quality of my lines and composition, the importance I gave to the shape of the negative space.

He took a look at the trilobites, pointed toward them, and said, "Oooo, I don't want any of those in my soup." And continued on his way.

I was mildy devastated, to the same extent I had felt mildly superior for what I thought were my evidently genius-like skills at rendering extinct creatures. This was the best this noble mind of a practicing artist had to offer?

Let's be fair. Perhaps he was on his way to a late lunch; I was stopping him in the hall after all. Perhaps the soup was clearly framed in his mind, as something he needed to exquisitely focus his attention on no matter what happened or who stopped him so that he would not forget to eat it. He may not have known what triobites were on first glance. Perhaps he knew them intimately and thought mine were appalling. Perhaps he wanted to give me a scathing critique, and felt the middle of the hall on the way to eating soup was not the place to do so.

What I remember, is how this led me to bring more scientific subjects into all of my work, and into the "crit" classes where we all politely disparaged and exalted each other in turns. I wanted to keep bringing it up. The same professor kept encouraging me to move away from this science stuff, and focus on subjects in my own backyard, things I really experience. Like my 90 minute each-way subway ride to class.

I wouldn't do it. The subway ride ate up enough of my life. I had spent the first two years at York doing art I thought they wanted in class and art on the side that pleased me. Well, science is something we all experience, the fruits of testable knowledge, the beauty of discoveries. The trilobite fossils you can unexpectedly pull from the ground, and marvel at how beyond ancient they are.

The 1st critique of my trilobite drawing gave me the focus I had been lacking.

Thursday 8 March 2007

Why the "Flying Trilobite"?

"The brain is a three-pound mass you can hold in your hand that can conceive of a universe a hundred billion light-years across." -Marian C. Diamond

There is true beauty in how the human brain can comprehend the truly strange. All my life I have been fascinated by fossils and evolution. Trilobites became extinct 275 million years ago, and yet, I can hold a fossil trilobite in the palm of my hand, and understand some things about it. They are gone; but understood, remembered, and interesting.
I also paint in oils and draw (love that.3mm mechanical pencil!) Along with reading books on biology and evolution, I have an urge to create paintings, even to the point where the need is stronger than any pleasure I am deriving from painting. Artists out there know what I mean. You just have to do it, or the muscle memory and welling up of ideas starts to make you mentally itchy. This is another amazing aspect of being alive.

On a piece of mine called The Forever Painting I painted a trilobite, free of the water, hovering on delicate wings. Some trilobites of sub-Order Redlichiina, genus Balcoracania have these nifty spines halfway down the body, that just lent to my imagination wing-coverings. (I highly recommend , an excellent site by Sam Gon III!)
Chitinous wings are buzzing. This is the start of The Flying Trilobite Blog. There will be images up soon.

--Glendon Mellow
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