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Ecologies of Knowing:
What Natalie Settles Learned in the Lab


IN 2011, NATALIE SETTLES sat down for coffee and a conversation with Stephen Tonsor, head of an evolutionary plant genetics lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Settles had recently moved to Pittsburgh after a decade in Madison, Wisconsin, where she had been fascinated with and immersed in the world of biology as well as that of art. Adapting to a new environment herself and wanting to understand how others were investigating topics that interested her, she visited websites of biology labs around Pittsburgh, decided she liked Tonsor’s work in particular, and cold-called him for a meeting. At the end of their hour-long talk, Settles asked if she could become an artist-in-residence in the lab. Tonsor replied, “How should we proceed?”

There are, of course, many things that contemporary artists and scientists have in common—beginning with an attention to the details of the material world and, for many in each profession, a deep sense of wonder at that world, including its complicated mix of life and death, creation and decay, beauty and ugliness. Settles and Tonsor were both drawn toward that complexity and the questions it raises. Despite the general possibilities of overlap and Settles’s familiarity with some of the major questions in evolutionary biology, it was also clear that there were significant differences between the worlds that she was proposing to intertwine, and understanding the ways art and science do not play well together was a key part of the project as well. Indeed, the answer to Tonsor’s question was a multiyear collaboration aimed not at creating a mash-up of art and science, but—through their respective work and personalities—at letting those two fields jostle and bump and overlap and conflict as often as they might cooperate.

In shaping the artist-in-residency, Settles drew especially on the concept of “social sculpture” as articulated by German performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921–86). Beuys argued that intentionally and creatively changing social relationships by forcing communities to interact in original ways was itself a kind of art. In this case, Settles and Tonsor would bring together contemporary art and evolutionary biology—two very different social worlds with different aims, techniques, and measures of success—and let them be different in close proximity, expecting that each would be shoved in new directions and each would adapt in unexpected ways.

Settles has said that, “What caught my ear in this method of shaping social space was that Beuys had modeled his work on evolutionary theory, that putting into contact different types of social forces could reshape the practice of each,” much as species that share or compete in an environmental space become adapted to it and each other. Settles continues, “This was not only modeled on science, it offered a window into how to address the goal that C.P. Snow (…who called art and science different galaxies) had addressed [when] he said that if ever the two cultures of art and science could be put back into contact they would likely clash—exert force on one another—but also produce creative chances for both fields.”

In the case of Settles’s suggested residency, perhaps things would go well, but perhaps they wouldn’t; no one was sure, and no one knew what, if anything, concrete might emerge. In fact, Settles and Tonsor agreed to set aside any talk of joint projects until at least a year had gone by, during which time they would share space and a community of coworkers. They agreed that they needed that time to begin to understand each other’s work on its own terms. Now, four years on, as they each move into a new space as individuals and in their work together, it is possible to look back and ask questions about the work that emerged through the process; the concrete work Settles produced via means immediately recognizable as art (drawing, installation, etc.), but also the more experimental, conceptual work they set out to do as social sculpture. Certainly one can point to the way this formal relationship with Tonsor and his fellow biologists has sharpened Settles’s thematic and practical exploration of biological dynamics through her drawings and installations. But the more subtle performative, relational work of the residency and friendship is just as much a creative result of their time working together as is the joint project now coming to fruition. In the end we can look for the ways studio and social practice have themselves been fused into something new—a novel leap forward that evolutionary biologists might even call a “hopeful monster.”

But why would it occur to Settles to look up biology labs at all, and then be drawn to Tonsor’s studies of mouse-ear cress, a small weed more widely recognized in research circles by its scientific name, Arabidopsis thaliana? Despite the initial realization that the practice of science and the practice of art are very different things, there were some key common interests that made it a good fit, chiefly a shared focus on the way an ideal or archetypal pattern is related to the real, the common and specific—how order can be recognized in the midst of chaos.

In evolutionary biology this tension between the general and the specific is manifest in the distinction between the genotype and the phenotype, the genotype being the genetic code for an organism, and the phenotype being a specific expression of that code in an individual—the contingent mix of attributes by which that particular creature makes its way, more or less successfully, in the world. Even in a set of the most statistically average representatives of a species, each member inevitably bears the marks of existing in its own, always less-than-ideal time and place. Indeed, the irony (or perhaps mystery) of a genetic understanding of life is that in practice, the genotype is only ever visible and accessible through the phenotype—the ideal only ever known directly via the ordinary.

As Settles puts it, “The phenotype is the physical manifestation (what it looks like, how it acts, stuff it makes and uses) of an organism that develops from the mix of genome, environment, and chance…. You never see the genotype but through the mask of the phenotype—the particularity of specificity. The genotype is an abstraction in this way, an idealized form that doesn’t exist in our reality, but is the pattern towards which the individuals point.”

While this distinction and its context in evolutionary biology have become more central to her work while collaborating with Steve Tonsor, Settles had been addressing the interplay between the ideal and specific in biological and natural settings for some time, through the seemingly unlikely lens of Victorian-era decorative motifs combined with precise drawing of small natural materials like twigs and dirt. Settles describes the Victorian era as a time when decorative art designers and evolutionary biologists were in dialogue “about all they knew and suspected about pattern and variations on a theme in the natural world,” and Settles’s primary muse, Christopher Dresser (1834–1904), was steeped in both fields: a prolific and creative designer as well as a published botanist.

Dresser’s wallpaper motifs were especially suggestive to Settles, and it was not lost on her that the collections of those designs were presented to clients in books of plates using an organizational strategy later adopted in books of natural history: as variations on a theme laid out in an orderly arrangement on the page. Dresser’s designs focused on stylized forms that were symmetrical and autonomous, even inviolate. That is, his motifs do not overlap or intrude on one another, in contrast to the designs favored by his contemporary William Morris, whose plants and leaves interweave in intricate ways. As Settles describes it, you can cut one of Dresser’s archetypal designs from a sheet of paper without damaging it or its neighbors, whereas trying to do the same with the contingent designs on a Morris paper gives you a mess of leaves and branches with missing parts.

After discovering the Victorian designers while in Cambridge in 2007, Settles began to appropriate elements of Dresser’s work as ciphers for the underlying archetypal order behind the commonplace and extraordinarily contingent forms of twigs, sticks, stones, buds, and other materials she found readily at hand wherever she went and worked. Whether whole or excerpted, his ornaments provided a complementary visual language to her already meticulous, botany-inspired style of drawing, a second representational mode by which Settles could connect the ordinary and the ideal and invite viewers to see each in the same space at the same time.


Plate 1. Natalie Settles. Fractionate, 2009. Graphite and watercolor on paper. 19 x 45 inches.

In works like Insertion (2008) and Fractionate (2008), both from her Natural Motif series, Settles uses two contrasting methodologies as corollaries for the two modes of addressing and understanding species of biological creatures, the phenotype and the genotype [see Plates 1 and 2]. First is a precise, meditative, even ritualistic mode of drawing the most representatively ordinary twigs—the broken, partial, damaged evidence of very specific living things, always blown up as if under a microscope. In Fractionate, for instance, the same twig is rotated again and again, with each whorl and bump and flake of bark obsessively recorded. Put another way, each scar and bruise, each imperfection and mark of the thing having been in the tumult of the real world, has been lavished with the artist’s attention. Neither cleaned up nor overlooked, much less idealized, they have been lovingly recorded and, in a way, immortalized. In this mode of representation, Settles makes herself present to the once-living object, and makes it present to us.

Plate 2. Natalie Settles. Insertion, 2008. Graphite and watercolor on paper. 11 x 30 inches.

Yet even in the midst of this nearly sacramental attention to the specificity of the natural objects in front of her, Settles also makes the leap to the archetypal, the abstract—the pattern behind or inside or beyond the individual. Alongside and flowing into—or from—the naturalistic drawing is an abstraction or idealization of the object, placed before us as an absence of the grime and decay and specificity she has elsewhere so honored. Settles’s borrowings from Dresser emerge as “negatives,” where the underlying paper has been masked from stains and washes and dustings, allowed to remain untouched and unblemished. In a way, the idealized pattern is presented as if it were the fruit of the repetitive procedure of the rest of the image. Settles seems to ask how we might see what is really there, the underlying pattern, an idealized form that allows us (so we think) to generalize and make predictions, to claim knowledge that is neither anecdotal nor specific, but somehow more universal. Can we present such an extrapolation from the specific in a way that nevertheless honors the specific? Both modes of representation, then, suggest a kind of intense straining to see what is right before our eyes, as if to make us recognize that what we so often overlook or ignore is densely, profligately filled with detail and meaning.

Insertion presents the pattern-based ideal as it fits between and grows from pieces of a larger branch, in which the individual broken pieces are spliced together from possibly disparate sources—dry bones that do not speak much of life. Yet in the midst of it emerges a decorative form that not only completes it structurally, but also functionally: an elegant design that appears as a negative space defined by its outline in a red watercolor wash suggestive of both the stains used in biology labs to make certain cells and parts of cells visible, and of blood. This reversed-shadow archetype is leafy, living, and growing, while the sticks seem resolutely dead. In either case, the archetypal form connects directly to the ordinary, and even extends out into visual space in front of the twig segment at the right. Insertion presents an image of the pattern emerging from the specifics and effectively completing them, by almost mysterious means.

Settles offers a slightly different angle on the relationship between the archetypal and the contingent in Fractionate. Here the tension between specific and universal, real and ideal, appears as a dance. Settles presents a row of eight thirteen-inch tall drawings of the same one-inch twig, each from a slightly different rotation of the very small remnant of a once-living thing. Because the twig is not symmetrical or straight but slightly curved, the image seems to pirouette as the sequence unfolds. Their spacing is syncopated across the long sheet, with six placed close together on the left side of page, and the last two spanning the distance to the far right edge. In the midst of them all is something completely different—the white shape of an idealized bud branch from Dresser, visible again only because of a sanguine stain around it. One twig overlaps the red, just kissing the central white motif, and there is something strangely anthropomorphic about all of these twigs that are really one twig. Finally, the twigs are not uniformly lit as if from a single light source outside the page: rather, the strongest light is cast from the middle of the page, perhaps emanating from the white form itself, as if the ideal is shedding light on the manifold identity of the ordinary.

Plate 4. Natalie Settles. Chimera, 2010. Graphite on paper. 24 x 45 inches.

In both works from her Natural Motif series, Settles’s archetype and individual are related in a distinct way, with the individual needing to get out of the way so that we may see the ideal. But in other work, Settles began to push the figure/ground relationship (as well as the underlying individual/abstraction idea) in other ways, and eventually allowed the ideal and abstract to exist in the same space, overlapping and intersecting. Indeed in works such as Chimera (2010) she began to allow her consideration of underlying archetypal patterns to stay connected to the specific creatures under her gaze, but also appear against a more generalized background of life and death, creation and decay [see Plate 4 and front cover]. In that work, she again presents us with seemingly dead twigs branching out of (or perhaps giving rise to) larger Dresser-inspired patterns; but this time, the pattern of absence becomes visible through her introduction of a much more complicated and intricate foreground: dirt. Like the implied blood staining the page in her previous works, soil is both the product of death and decay and a rich matrix of life and renewal. It is also almost archetypally ignoble.

In Chimera, as with Fractionate and Insertion, it is easy to mistake Settles’s attitude toward that staining background, and miss how she relates to the perfection of the pattern. The pattern here (much more complete than the fragments in the other pieces) does not emerge by cleaning off or erasing the dirt. The point is not really its cleanliness, but that it can only be made visible through the humble and unglamorous. Once again, it is by lavishing her attention and labor on the most ordinary of materials that Settles really sees what is extraordinary in them—and asks her viewer to consider a more thoroughgoing, perhaps deeper “grounding pattern” behind the biological concepts she is considering in her work.

In both these works on paper, and through the increasingly ambitious installation works she was doing at the same time, Settles was engaging her studied intuition that there is a distinctive pattern—and even beauty—in the complex histories of life (evolutionary lineages) and complex systems of life (ecologies) we find in the world. Yet she was also suggesting that it takes both time and effort to see, much less appreciate, a species of order that emerges from so much seeming disorder and decay.


Plate 5. Natalie Settles. Transcribe, 2009. Graphite on wall. 14 x 17 x 9 feet.

Even while developing her aesthetic systems on paper, Settles had been developing ways to engage the same ideas on larger scales in order to respond to another key aspect of contemporary understanding of living systems and species: that they emerge and exist and change in discrete and specific settings, and in the company of many other living creatures. A corollary to both Fractionate and Insertion, Settles’s wall-drawing Transcribe (2009) likewise played with the figure/ground and archetype/contingent contrast, but did so on a scale that demanded viewers enter into and respond physically to the image, rather than only visually, at a mental distance [see Plate 5]. Lingering discreetly in the gallery among the other visitors, she noted that having the piece span a corner of the room enticed viewers to dart in and out of the space close to the drawing in order to examine detail—movement which also allowed (or forced) them to see the way the work changed when seen from different positions around the room. As do all successful site-specific works, it created the environment as much as adapting to it.

In this and subsequent installations where Settles sought to respond to and replicate the role of specific environmental niches in the natural world, she also created the work with its temporary nature in mind, using graphite powder without a fixative to define the negative space of the pattern and pencil to draw the details. These materials meant that the drawing was itself subject to environmental pressure, easily smudged and smeared by those who were inclined to touch as well as look. In addition, moving to a larger scale and more concrete substrate challenged Settles to confront the resistant physicality of the environment where her art came to life. In Transcribe and subsequent works, she had to deal with the rough texture of the painted wall, which confounded (or made more challenging) her efforts to give the pattern clean lines and edges. Finally, because Transcribe was completed in a space where another show would soon follow, it had a predetermined, limited life-span, even if no one marred the surface by touching it. At the end of its allotted three months of exhibition, it would be painted over with another coat of gallery white latex, its niche gone.

We can see now why Settles’s suggestion of a residency in Tonsor’s lab was well-received: both Settles and Tonsor are critically interested in the way a specific environmental niche shapes the creatures that live there. Both see a niche as including not just a geographic or architectural space, but all its inhabitants, permanent or migratory. And both had a feeling that the tension between the ways of knowing favored by their respective fields might be a source of innovation and insight. Here is how they described this particular tension in their joint project grant report:

The possibility of exploring this fluid space of the relationship between the genotype and phenotype emerged from an intriguing interplay between the natures of our fields themselves. Perhaps much like the phenotype itself, art often revels in the imperfect and problematic born of particular circumstance and experience. Much like the genotype, science quests for the underlying ideal, and in that, to remove “noise” from the information it seeks…. A particular set of challenges came with communicating and facing cultural differences in a cross-disciplinary context. For example, art often revels in the slippery and multiple meanings in materials, objects, and words, while generally science seeks precise and explicit terms and experimental outcomes.

Over the next several years Settles continued to work along the same lines she had established, focusing especially on more and more complex and elaborate wall installations as both drawings and responsive environments, paying increasing attention to the way that her work might respond to and be subject to the space in which it lived, rather than be imposed upon it and its other denizens, however temporary. Even while adapting her use of individual specimens within archetypal patterns to what she was learning via her close work with her biologist colleagues, she was becoming more attuned to the way the viewer’s experience is shaped by the spatial and even choreographic context of her work—to the way her drawings could adapt to their spaces and other participants in the work, including museum curators.

Plate 6. Natalie Settles. Ornament and Architecture, 2011. Graphite and white lacquer on wall. 10 x 22 x 22 feet.

When Ornament and Architecture was being created in a gallery of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts for the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial, for instance, the curator suggested that Settles depart from her usual graphite for the drawing on the walls closest to the narrow entryway [see Plates 6 and 7]. The curator’s fear was that the coming and going of visitors would obliterate the delicate and fragile drawings in a matter of days. In response to this projected negative “selection pressure,” Settles opted to paint the repeating patterns on the two walls closest to the entrance in lacquer that was the same color as the gallery walls, but glossy rather than matte.

Plate 7. Natalie Settles. Ornament and Architecture (detail).

This response to the environment took the work in a new direction and elicited unexpected behavior in the viewers, who often only noticed there was a pattern on those walls well after they had entered the room—often only when they turned to leave it. In a loose corollary to the way adaptations in living creatures are somewhat misleadingly said to be for a purpose, or the creatures themselves are given credit for intentionally exhibiting their exquisite fitness to their environment, it is difficult to tease apart Settles’s own intentions and her responses to the requirements of the gallery setting, to say whether the viewers were responding to Settles or she was responding (in advance) to them. In any case, those new patterns of response became a significant part of Settles’s perception of the success of the work, precisely because they invited the kinds of debates and meditations on chance and purpose, freedom and constraint that are common to thinking about evolutionary adaptations.

Plate 3. Natalie Settles. Marginal, 2011. Graphite on three walls, ceiling, and soffits. 12 x 27 x 61 feet.

In Ornament and Architecture and especially Marginal (from 2011, her last major installation of that particular mode, created in the Friesen Galleries of Northern Nazarene University in Boise, Idaho), Settles drew on her experience in the Tonsor lab, which focused specifically on the genetic basis of Arabidopsis thaliana’s adaption to multiple climate niches in Spain [see Plate 3]. While many different species, from weeds to pinecones, are superimposed onto the decorative patterns in Ornament and Architecture, in Marginal, all the plants that give the specificity to the underlying pattern are variants of Tonsor’s mouse-ear cress subject. Indeed, Marginal takes both its name and its way of responding to an aesthetically “compromised” gallery setting (with dozens of fire extinguishers, alarm pulls, outlets, grates, and other mundane building features intruding into the notional purity of the white gallery space) from the Arabidopsis’s nature as a denizen of marginal, disturbed landscapes, which it colonizes ahead of otherwise more robust and resilient species.

Settles used Marginal to subtly advance her exploration of the relationship between the genotypic and phenotypic ways of understanding life (and even, finally, of understanding the practices of art and science) by using the regular and elegant design she has borrowed from Dresser to suggest that patterns of being are pervasive and underlie everything, even if they are only actually visible in the margins, through specific individuals. Whereas the archetypal patterns in Ornament and Architecture were monumental and somewhat self-contained (and not uniformly arrayed about the gallery), the pattern she chose for Marginal was highly regular and interconnected. Using a stencil-like process to mask the wall before she dusted the unprotected parts with graphite, Settles painstakingly aligned the pattern so that if fully executed, it would seamlessly fill the entire gallery space. The intersection of this implied, idealized common ground and the specific intrusions and aesthetic compromises of the gallery’s mechanical systems (light switches and the like) created the contingent environmental niches where she drew specific Arabidopsis thaliana plants. Looking at this work we can hear Settles suggesting that there is a consistent and regular structure, elegance, and beauty even in the historical emergence of an opportunistic weed, and that such odd beauty emerges only through the grime of the everyday. But we can go one step further to note that such order emerges only where Settles has actually refrained from making her mark.


Settles and Tonsor have continued to collaborate and explore the ways that their respective practices could be mutually challenging and beneficial, and Tonsor is adamant that Settles’s contributions in the lab were significant, even if not initially reflected in specific experimental outcomes. Considering that effective sharing of results is the last key step of scientific investigation, it is no small thing that Settles helped lab members reconceive and improve the way some of their work was communicated. But more significantly, Settles’s artistic attention to the specificity of living things served as a conceptual counterbalance to the scientific tendency to focus either on the generalized, archetypal genotype, or on a version of the phenotype that imagines individuals as a collection of adaptive parts rather than whole, integral organisms. Indeed, the complexity of that tension is at the heart of the pair’s innovative new Evolving Wallpaper project combining computational genomics and environmental art—Settles’s design-based wall installations and Tonsor’s work exploring the way environment and chance elicit change in living communities at the genetic level. But perhaps Settles’s primary (if most subtle) impact has been on Tonsor’s approach to how knowledge is assessed and described, prompting a recovery of his “natural” sense that intuition, imagination, wonder, and even mystery are precursors and prerequisites for good science, rather than a kind of “fuzzy thinking” that gets in the way of surety and success.

Still, what emerged as their collaboration continued to unfold was a sense in each that, while there was much in common in their disciplines and temperaments, the ways they were significantly different were critical, too, and not to be overlooked; they have come to appreciate that their differences might be as much the point as their synergies—with each acting as a corrective for the other at times. In fact, reviewing the last few years of Settles’s work in terms of the “social sculpture” aims that launched her residency in the Tonsor lab points to this kind of less technical but more broadly applicable insight about the relationship between art and science, and between those two disciplines and other key fields of cultural endeavor, as well: namely, that our ability to understand the depth and mystery of the world in which we live is often most acute and incisive when we recognize the limits of our preferred modes of investigation. In other words, we are most perceptive when we are most aware of our inability to perceive on our own familiar terms.

What is most remarkable about this collaboration, then, is not that Settles studied and engaged the technical science, but that she realized that her art was most itself exactly when it was in tension with science—that her art (all art, perhaps) should not be an exercise in creative or social autonomy, but an exercise of self-giving, of testing its own limits while inviting other disciplines and people into a common project of seeking meaning. Likewise, it is a remarkable testament to Tonsor’s intellectual curiosity and generosity that he was able to come to see more clearly—and articulate more forcefully—the limits of science through his interactions with Settles and the ways of art. This attitude of confident humility is in stark contrast to voices in many fields who claim that their disciplines, their ways of knowing, their maps of reality, are not only sufficient, but total. Yet there is nothing of either scientific or artistic self-rejection in admitting the limitations of each field; rather, it is a recognition that we should marshal every resource available to inquire of the nature of creation and our place in it.

Finally then—and most suggestively for the promise of this kind of friendship and co-exploration—both Settles and Tonsor were drawn to consider how their individual fields point to what they variously call the numinous, the divine, or the sacred. Tonsor has written that it was “devotion to the mystery and the sacred in life” that began his path into science, “because [he] wanted to more deeply know and understand this preposterous, miraculous world.” Likewise, Settles has been moved to ask, “What does it mean to look evolution in the face and see God? What does it mean to embrace art as a tool to see a particular facet of God, in the same way that science—and evolutionary science in particular—is a tool to see another facet?” Indeed, both also cite the basic fact of personal existence as one of the most profound and unlikely gifts imaginable.

Much in the way Settles’s drawings reveal archetypal patterns by leaving them unoccupied by graphite or stain, and often in the margins of a page or room, her collaboration with Tonsor has charted those spaces of knowledge where neither of their fields was adequate, even in combination with the other, and in so doing opened up a space of hope and promise. In conversation about their work, Settles and Tonsor each turn to poets, philosophers, and mystics to address what draws them on, and to frame their sense of the underlying meaning and character of the cosmos. Implicitly, then, they suggest that only in community—in an ecology of ways of knowing—can we begin to adequately trace the contours of what is.

Sadly, it may be that given the sociological weight and claims of cultural authority each discipline, culture, and institution claims for itself, the only place where we can experience that kind of community is in the margins, in the disturbed landscape where we find few other creatures wanting to dwell, or which others have actually abandoned. But if we are willing, following Natalie Settles and Stephen Tonsor, to colonize those liminal spaces, to hover at the intersection of the archetype and the contingent, we may yet help each other set our personal certainties aside just long enough to glimpse what is being revealed in the world, in each other, and in ourselves.

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