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.

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Fragments of books: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

To understand how much I enjoyed Mark Stevenson‘s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the first thing you need to know is that after I borrowed it from the library and read it, I went out and bought a copy and read it again just four months later. In my life as an unstoppable devourer of literature, this was a first. Usually a couple of years pass before I re-read even the most beloved of books, since my reading lists are so long that they give birth to baby-reading lists who in turn have baby-readings lists of their own in the time that it takes me to get through them.

Cover art for Optimist's Tour of the Future

Of all the cool things described in this book, there is not one word about jetpacks. Why they put one on the cover, I might never know.

However, a few aspects of An Optimist’s Tour proved completely irresistible and demanded an immediate re-read.

First, the number of new scientific ideas and emergent technologies that are described, accessibly and engagingly in this book, is incredible. Did you know there are several different research groups who’ve successfully created genetically engineered bacteria that consume waste CO2 and excrete fuel, such as diesel or ethanol? Or that an AI has learned not only how to derive new scientific laws, given a bunch of raw data, but also how to explain the meaning of the results it found to its creators?

None of the ideas in the book are hypothetical. In the course of writing it, Mark Stevenson visited (a very impressive roster of) research labs and startups that have conducted successful experiments with and built working prototypes of some mind-blowing technologies. From flexible solar film printed quickly and cheaply in big rolls on a former photographic printer, to nano-coating which can protect anything from clothes to monuments from weathering and dirt, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest  today in laboratories around the world.

The second aspect that makes An Optimist’s Tour of the Future such an enjoyable read, is how damned optimistic it is. In startling contrast to most books dealing with the subject of the near future, this one maintains an unwaveringly positive outlook about the success of and the possibilities offered by these nascent technologies. Lucidly and rationally, (but often excitedly, because it’s going to be so bloody cool when it ramps up and really gets going), Stevenson explains the potential of each technology to transform the lives of individuals, societies, and the planet for the better.

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