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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
So I set the container with floats attached, and a drop-weight to sink it. I tested the system to make sure the release would work: we dropped the empty container overboard and then sent it an acoustic signal which triggered the release. Sure enough, it dropped its anchor and floated to the surface. We were confident we could leave the instrument on the bottom for a couple of days, then I could simply send it a signal to drop the anchor and it would float to the surface.
So, I deployed the instrument. We did everything right. Yet, when we came to recover it, nothing happened. It was a complete disaster. The instrument was unique, extremely valuable and there was no way to get it back. It was under over one kilometer of water! I kept trying. I placed an acoustic transponder in the water and tried to signal the instrument to drop its anchor and float to the surface. The transponder would beep into the water; the instrument would reply and beep back and yet it wouldn’t move. I didn’t know if I would ever recover my data or how I could complete my years of research.
As the vessel held station at the site, two humpback whales approached. The water was dead calm, and it was quite peaceful as they slowly circled the boat. I think they might have been a mating pair as one was a little larger than the other. These animals have huge ranges and can swim quite rapidly. They could have been anywhere, but they spent that entire afternoon with me. As I tried signalling my instrument again, the whales dove – I presumed that they were following the sound. They returned to the surface and looked right at me. One of them came within 2 metres of the boat and literally looked at me with one big eye. I felt like they were trying to tell me my ‘baby’ was alright, nestled down there on the ocean floor. It was quite incredible to be that close to an animal of that size, and to feel like we had communicated.
We had to return to shore, but the next summer I was able to return to the same site with a remotely operated vehicle, which we used to recover the instrument. We found the anchor weights had jammed in their container.
This inspired my woodblock print, ‘Little Boat, Big Ocean’. The print is a sort of metaphor about what it feels like to do research at sea. It’s important to recall that despite the best planning, you are not in control. The ocean is a bigger force than any person or vessel. So, I feel like the tiny fisher in the paper boat, with huge unknowns (like the giant octopus below).
Artwork always has to wait until I am ashore. It’s hard to do anything, let alone draw, on a moving vessel at sea! But, I always have amazing dreams when rocked to sleep by the waves, and I’ve seen some amazing creatures, so I think it does inspire me when back ashore.
You became interested in both physics and printmaking as a child and, enviably, you stuck with your childhood interests and cultivated them into adulthood vocations. You cite kids’ printmaking classes at the AGO as a big influence on your development as an artist. What or who inspired you to become interested in science? Who is your hero right now – is it an artist, a scientist, or both?
When I was small and people used to ask me what I would do when I grew up, I would reply, “something with math,” which generally surprised the adults. I remember being a toddler obsessed with numbers. I don’t really remember someone inspiring my interest in science – it’s more like I simply don’t remember ever being any other way.
When I discovered physics in high school I found it instantly made sense to me. I’ve been blessed with some really talented teachers, so I had a really solid foundation. I should thank teachers like my physics, chemistry and calculus teachers, Mrs. Shaver, Mrs. Davidovac and Mrs. McClellan. Role models, especially female role models, were far more valuable to me than I could have imagined as a teenager. I participated in a great programme called Shad Valley which encourages engineering and entrepreneurship in high school students, which was another influence.
I admire a lot of people who do extraordinary things, in all sorts of fields. Lately, the person I think is a hero is neither artist, nor a scientist, but a girl who is brave enough to claim her and her fellow girls’ right to education even in the face of deadly violence: Malala Yousafzai. But, I’ve also long been a fan people who manage to be both artists and scientists, ever since a girlhood fascination with Leonardo da Vinci.
What was the most important thing you learned about printmaking or about your own artistic process over the years?
Knowing when to quit. When you make a relief print, you carve away the negative space… and that material is gone. There’s no going back. So I think the thing to remember about printmaking is that it is a process… and to print a series of proofs as you go. Sometimes less is more, when it comes to carving. Sometimes it is better to make something simpler than I imagined.
You recently started making prints using thermochromic ink, which changes colour depending on the temperature. How did you learn about and come to use thermochromic ink?
Hmmm… well, I’m afraid it isn’t something you can go and simply buy. In fact, I’ve been making my own! It is possible to buy thermochromic and UV sensitive pigments (for instance from SolarColorDust.com). I’ve figured out how to mix these with block printing ink medium to make inks which change colour with temperature or UV light. I got interested in not only portraying the history of science but actually incorporating science and engineering into my art.
A book published by craftzine.com, Fashioning Technology by Syuzi Pakhchyan was really useful and straightforward introduction to electrically conductive and smart materials (which react to their environment by changing colour, shape, emitting light or producing sound) and ways to use them in art and craft. She also runs a great website with blog and forum. I’ve also found that I can make electrically conductive prints by combining paint from Bare Conductive with block printing medium. This lets me make linocuts which are, say, proximity sensors, or even block print a spiral onto paper which actually acts as a speaker when placed near a strong magnet!
On your blog you have a fantastic list of resources for “incorporating a little science into your art,” which links to tutorials and supplies for wonderfully geeky projects, from soft circuit textiles to robots to electrically conductive paint. You yourself have made lightboxes, with one of your prints back-lit by LEDs of changing colours. What other art have you created with electronics? Are there any artists incorporating electronics into art whose work you really admire and would recommend?
I’ve made a couple of theremins – a sort of electronic instrument where pitch is controlled by a capacitative proximity sensor (which is easier to build than you might imagine). I’m working on making electrically conductive block prints, which respond to viewers by making sound. I have a series of bee linocuts. I want to make a multimedia piece, which will involve portraits of six different bee species, each of which is a proximity sensor. So, if you approach any given bee, it will make the appropriate bee sound, like buzzing, or nest-building, or whatever. You can see a prototype on Flickr (turn up the volume to hear the buzzing). I also made a version of my Bullfinches which sings when approached.
I’m also thinking of building more lightboxes, including some with more interactivity. For instance, I’d love to let the viewer choose the colours. Really, I want to make some interactive, block-printed, sculptural jellyfish!
I love seeing what the High-Low Tech group at MIT, lead by Prof. Lead Buechley is up to. Not only have they made some amazing and beautiful electronic items straddling art and science but they are completely devoted to making things open source! You can find all sorts of tutorials and free code by exploring their websites. On my Pinterest board, there are all sorts of artists incorporating electronics I admire. Also, a little shout out to fellow Etsy artisans: Polymath, Plusea, and BetaRays.
You will be participating in the One of a Kind Show show for the first time this spring, which is a slightly intimidating undertaking. The great thing is you’ve started blogging about your preparation process and will do about the show itself when it takes place March 27-31 – so your experiences will be a great resource for other artists. Are there any other exhibitions coming up for you or is OOAK going to be your main focus for the next little while?
OOAK is definitely my focus right now. But, I do have one print in the Year of the Snake show at PROOF Gallery in the Distillery, which runs until February 24th and then moves to OCADU for March, then continues to the Ottawa School of Art, Concordia University and Muskoka Place Gallery. I’m also pleased to be showing my bee prints at the Ball’s Falls Conservation Area in Jordan Station, who are planning an upcoming exhibit about the biodiversity of bees from March 30 through July 1.
All images in this post © minouette. All right reserved.