In progress: Illustrations for The Story of a Piece of Paper

Apropos of nothing, here are some of the illustrations I’ve been drawing for a children’s book called The Story of a Piece of Paper.

Story of a Piece of Paper, page 3

As you can see, this story has a paper rabbit in it. So I’ve gotten quite good at rabbits. Here’s another one.

The Story of a Piece of Paper, page 4

The reason I’m drawing these right now instead of, say, finishing the Sprawl mosaic, is that our kids’ birthdays are coming up in just over a month. And this is a story we made up together.

Our older daughter Katya, who is almost five, asked me a few months ago to make up a story about a piece of paper. Yes, that was her chosen theme: “Mommy, can you tell me a new story? Make one up yourself. What about? Oh, just a piece of paper.”

So I made up a story on the spot – with the girls’ help, of course – and they were quite pleased with it. So pleased, in fact, that they kept requesting that same story again and again. I personally didn’t think the story was all that great. But clearly I have a poor grasp on what literature appeals to children.

Since then, I have had to make up several different stories about a piece of paper. Variations on the theme of a piece of paper are now our family storytelling tradition. If we decide to get a family crest one day, we will have to put a piece of paper on the escutcheon. A4 rampant.

Continue reading » » »

Canadian Visual Artists: Ele Willoughby (aka minouette)

Ele Willoughby (aka minouette) is a marine geophysicist and printmaker from Toronto, whose linocuts and woodblock prints are inspired by science and the natural world. Clicking on any image in this post will take you to the artwork’s listing in the Minouette Etsy shop, where they can be viewed in greater detail.

Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission linocut from minouette's History of Physics series

Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission linocut from minouette’s History of Physics series

It seems you have achieved an uncanny synergy of science and art in your life – is the relationship fully symbiotic or do you ever find these two forces in conflict?  

For me, the intersection of art and science is a really fertile source of inspiration – I even write a blog about it called magpie&whiskeyjack. I think that most people have been misled that art and science are very different – that science is constrained whereas art is free and creative. In truth, science is a very creative activity. Scientists are always problem-solving and inventing new things: tools, techniques, or stories about how things might work (also called hypothesis making). Art can also be constrained – there are often specific procedures which must be followed when working in certain artistic media that are very much like executing an experiment.

A Tower of Giraffes linocut illustrates the collective noun for a group of giraffes

A Tower of Giraffes linocut illustrates the collective noun for a group of giraffes

I’ve used artistic skills as a scientist, both when it comes to designing tools and to scientific visualizations and communications. Building a prototype geophysical imaging device is not unlike building a sculpture. You spend a lot of time in hardware stores thinking about whether things can be adapted to your purpose, which is the sort of behaviour artists will recognize.

I’ve also used a lot of my scientific skills and knowledge in my art (incorporating electronics or thermochromic inks and using the history of science as subject matter). So, I would say that for me the relationship between art and science is symbiotic.

However, these two interests, or perhaps hemispheres of my brain, do occasionally conflict. When I’ve had a difficult day in the lab, you’ll find sketches in my lab book. I find scientific colleagues don’t think about colour in design the way I do – occasionally I’ve found a battle on my hands when arguing for certain scientific visualizations.

Bacteria surrounding Louis Pasteur in this portrait are printed in thermochromic ink and disappear when heated - just like in pasteurization!

Bacteria surrounding Louis Pasteur in this portrait are printed in thermochromic ink and disappear when heated – just like in pasteurization!

As an artist, I find I can really enjoy the work of other artists who use science as inspiration, but I personally could never use, say, a diagram or some sort of scientific apparatus for strictly aesthetic reasons – they aren’t just decoration. So, in that sense, the education does influence the way I think, and hence the art I create.

As a scientist, you build machines for underwater imagery and you also get to use them in marine expeditions. What was your most memorable, terrifying or awesome experience while at sea and did you have to wait till getting back home to make art inspired by it?

Sailing Ship II - block print with mixed papers by minouette

Sailing Ship II – block print with mixed papers

Goodness, I do have some stories. It would be hard to choose which one to tell! I’ll tell you about one experience which was difficult, then amazing, and which did inspire new art.

Several years ago, I was working offshore Vancouver Island on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel with a team of university researchers. I had been working on a method which allows me to measure the stiffness of seafloor sediments by lowering an instrument to the ocean bottom. We decided that it would be great to get a really long dataset, but that we couldn’t stay put; rather than lowering the instrument to the bottom and holding station for hours, we could let it fall to the bottom and retrieve it later.

Continue reading » » »

In progress: Sprawl

If I write an “in progress” post about something that’s not actually seen any progress for weeks, will it spur the whole thing back into action? This is a story of how I came to use a picture instead of a pencil sketch as a basis for a mosaic, and how this method is working out for me.

First sketchThe project is the next piece in my “Favorite Books” series, and I will talk more about the cyberpunk novel that inspired it in a future post to be written when the mosaic is complete. The scene I wanted to portray was a futuristic, densely populated, techno-seedy urban landscape. When I first sketched a tiny 2″ thumbnail draft of the design, it looked like this:

Then, when I attempted to enlarge this concept to actual (16″ x 10″) size, the perspective got all wonky. Perspectives being what they are, that didn’t surprise me at all, especially since the last time perspective really counted in something I drew was high school art class. I tried again, but each attempt was wonkier than the last.

So I decided to get a program that’s much better at perspective than I am to do it for me.

SketchUp streetThe first thing I tried was Google SketchUp, which is a 3D modelling program often used to design models of real-life buildings (to add to Google Earth), as well any other things that need to be rendered in 3D, like furniture or gadget prototypes. It’s an easy program to use and I figured I can quickly put a bunch of faceless buildings in a line to get the right perspective of a street. After a while, that street looked like this:

This was clearly going to take more than one street and I was tired of stacking faceless boxes next to each other.

Now this project was looking like the perfect excuse to play SimCity – one of the very few computer games that I ever bothered to play for considerable stretches of time. (That was before I had kids.)

As you play the game, you build a city, and as it sprawls – filled with a variety of buildings rendered in lovely detail – perfect perspective is just a screenshot away. Even better, SimCity Societies – the version of the game which lets you build thematic cities – has a Cyberpunk mode. That would get me not only the right perspective, but the right ambiance too. Bonus.

Continue reading » » »

Fragments of books: The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistI don’t want to give you the impression that I only read books with “optimist” in the title, but this was another great one that I wanted to share.

For me, the appeal of books that take an optimistic stance on humanity’s current conditions and future prospects is in the suggestions of positive directions to take. The benefit of learning about the promising options available – rather than the ways in which we are messing things up – is encapsulated in this statement from The Rational Optimist: “If you teach children that things can only get worse, they will do less to make it untrue.”

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley presents a compelling argument for the role of specialization and trade in enabling the evolution of technology and the remarkable increases in human prosperity. He demonstrates how vast improvements in living standards over the ages and across the globe can only be expected to continue, as long as commerce and innovation remain unrestricted.

Presenting the reader with a historical overview – from the Stone Age to the 21st century – of the state of technology, prosperity, morals, health, and the environment, The Rational Optimist shows how in every age innovation and technological progress resulted in finding solutions to problems that previous generations thought insurmountable, and in improving the quality of life of a great number of people along the way.

Remaining optimistic even about such tough issues as the future economic prosperity of African nations and the potential outcomes of climate change, Matt Ridley argues that slowing economic progress today in order to mitigate probable future harm would be detrimental to humanity’s prospects, and that letting innovation and economic growth take their course is the only means to ensure continuing decreases in human misery, famine and ecological degradation.

The Rational Optimist‘s narrative style is slightly more academic than is typical of many popular science books today, and dry rather than humorous. Matt Ridley presents his arguments persuasively, forcefully, often sternly. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating, stunningly insightful read, vitally relevant to an understanding of the dynamics of technological evolution and human prosperity, and I highly recommend it.

Canadian Visual Artists: Heather Vollans

Heather Vollans is a mosaic artist specializing in salvaged materials and concrete sculpture. She works and teaches mosaic courses in her studio near Hamilton, Ontario.

Mosaic in red and gray

Red Power was was inspired by a photograph of Chinese labourers painting the exterior of a power plant, hanging on long ropes.
Photo © Heather Vollans.

You’re originally from Australia and you’ve traveled a lot around Europe and the Middle East. How have your experiences in different parts of the world influenced you? Did your travels play a role in you becoming a mosaic artist?

My years of travelling definitely influenced me – especially in terms of use of colour. Being Australian I was already influenced by desert colours and earth tones, but then living in the desert those colours became an even stronger influence. The textures and contours of the sand, the vegetation and shadows also had an effect. And all these years later l see some of those same textures, shadows and contours in the snow!

The textiles of Europe were another big influence. I am drawn to textures wherever I am – and it’s all around us… rusting metals, patterns of dirt and grime on a truck, plastic wrapping materials, old paint peeling, bark, ripples on water… I journeyed through many arts/crafts before finally discovering mosaic about 10 years ago, but all of those influences are part of the place I have come to.

The mosaic on this side of the wall is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, terracotta - all salvaged or taken from nature.

Mission Statement mosaic is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, and terracotta – all salvaged or taken from nature.
Photo © Heather Vollans

My favorite piece of yours is this amazing four-paneled mosaic wall you’ve built on the property beside your studio, which you describe as your mission statement. It embodies your enthusiasm for making mosaics using natural and salvaged materials, and it represents many of the themes and values central to your art including man’s journey through the ages and his relationship with nature. What was the most important you learned while making it? Does the wall provoke any reaction from passers-by who see it from the road?

The materials were important to me. They symbolised the waste in our world. I wanted to use materials which were just lying around, having been discarded, to make this statement. Much of the ‘process’ for me was the gathering of the materials, cleaning them, sorting and storing them before coming up with the design.

The other side of the Mission Statement wall - this is the side seen from the road

The other side of Mission Statement wall, facing the road

I’ve learned such a lot doing this large project: the biggest is – dream big, think about it, research it, keep the passion, work at it … you can make it happen. The thinking/dreaming/planning process for this wall took far longer than it actually took to build and mosaic! The building and mosaic work took 2 summers. Other things I learned were: you don’t have to do it alone. Surround yourself with enthusiastic supporters – get friends involved, run a class around it, throw a bar-b-que in with it and people will come to help. Another thing: research materials and construction methods well before you take on something this big – and build beyond specifications, especially in Canada where nature takes its toll on everything. Build to last.

Slate mosaic

This piece was created using slate roof tiles discarded after renovation of a victorian house.

We get a lot of reaction from people passing by on the highway – strangers come up the drive and ask to see it. Often when I meet people and tell them where I live they say “you mean the place with the big wall?” It’s gratifying that people notice and even more gratifying that people understand why I did it.

I love your philosophy of creating art from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. You use salvaged construction materials and discarded objects in your mosaics, as well as natural stone.  Do you have any good scavenging stories?

I have salvaged stuff all my life and yes, I have many great stories. It’s the materials I find that fire my work. I always begin with materials, rather than the idea or design. My work is all about the process – the thrill of the find, the endless hours of thinking about how to combine my treasures with other materials, and the final production.  All of this process is as important as the final result.

Working in construction, I have come across some wonderful dumpster materials – aluminum, ceramics, wood, rusty nails, copper and other metals. Once you take away from your mind the expected use of these materials you can see them purely as textures to be played with.

Mosaic sculpture using salvaged construction materials

The crushed Tim’s cup in the tool belt? My favorite part of the sculpture!
Women in Skilled Trades, back and front views. Photo © by Heather Vollans.

Continue reading » » »

Introducing the Canadian Visual Artists interview series

Canadian Visual ArtistsThis blog started out as a document of my own artistic journey, but one of the most interesting and enjoyably unpredictable aspects of a journey is the wealth of experiences and stories shared by the people you meet along the way.

Something fantastic that I’ve come to realize over the last year is just how many talented, inventive, passionate people are out there – making art. Making art inspired by places I’ve never visited and people I’ve never met, making art using techniques they themselves invented or media I didn’t know existed, making art guided by worldviews and philosophies that enrich my own.

So I am expanding the scope of this blog to share the work and the stories of other Canadians who make art. The first in the series will be posted tomorrow. I hope that you will, as I do, find them curious, ingenious, inspiringly kooky or madly inspiring, but all utterly fascinating.

Site redesign

New designHere it is! New website design.

I’ve been working on it for longer than I would’ve liked, but it seems to have been worth it. I do like how it turned out.

Please comment and tell me what you think of the new look! Or if you discover anything acting wonky, comment on that too, and I will fix it.

There is great new content on the way for the blog as well, but more on that later.