Artist Natalie Settles, featured in Image issue 85, has long been fascinated by the biological sciences. She makes drawings and installation art that mix highly detailed botanical and zoological imagery with highly stylized forms, like Victorian decorative motifs. Her installation works are interactive; they use a gallery space to create an ecosystem in which the viewer becomes a participant. We asked her about her interest in the sciences, the temporary nature of her work, and the way she uses color.
Image: In his profile of you in Image, Mark Sprinkle writes about your collaboration with Stephen Tonsor, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh. How did that come about?
Natalie Settles: We met up when I contacted him about his work and research after I’d been living here in Pittsburgh for about a year and a half. I moved to Pittsburgh from Madison, Wisconsin, where I had been in personal and professional community with a range of folks in art and science through my graduate school experience and life there for nearly ten years. Madison plays host to one of the powerhouse universities for biological and other sciences, and so I had become accustomed to being immersed in a community full of science and scientists.
When I came to Pittsburgh the culture was much more diverse and the culture of science much less pervasive, though still present. While I plugged into the art scene and began going to shows, I also noticed myself perusing the websites of the various biology labs, and even wandering out of the studio to catch interesting lectures in the university bio departments. After a year and a half there came a tipping point where I knew I needed to either consider this a curious but distracting habit and set it aside, or engage my interest more intentionally.
I’d noticed a lab whose work seemed to be driven by some of the broader questions that motivated my own studio practice—life in the margins, forms shaped by place, the ideal and the compromised, things that are compelling and powerful and also fleeting. This was Steve’s lab. One evening while we were walking the hilly streets of Pittsburgh, a friend urged me to get in touch to see what would happen. The next day I emailed Steve and told him I was an artist and was interested in his work. A couple days later we met for a two-hour chat over coffee; now four years later the rest is history.
Image: You’ve been involved in several recent initiatives geared towards bringing art and science into dialogue, including the National Academy of Sciences’ DASER forum. It’s not hard to imagine a lot of common ground between artists and scientists—attention to the details of the physical world, and also love of big ideas and big questions. But what are the challenges? Are there things that make it hard to talk to each other?
NS: I think for a lot of people the connections between the practices and inquiries of art and science are hard to make, and even the few connections that may seem quick and easy on the surface are not in practice. I’ve now been doing some form of work that interacts with the sciences for fifteen years and what keeps coming home to me is how cyclical the process is: First you find a connection, push as far as you can until it breaks. Then you get dumbfounded when nothing seems to fit, work, or connect anymore. Finally, just when you’re about to lose hope, the connection between the two reforms and refigures in some amazing new way. It’s a bit like working a Rubik’s cube—you’ve got to be willing to make a meaningful mess out of things in order to get to a better place.
Concretely, the language and cultural values of the two fields are pretty different. The solitary studio pursuit and the communal life of the lab are intriguing and informatively different. It also takes a tremendous amount of experience and patience to understand rigor in the context of each field, and be able to detect and pursue it. Even funding creates challenging imbalances, as funding for the sciences is an order of magnitude higher than it is for art. There’s much more of course, but I’ll stop there.
Image: Tonsor has written that it was his “devotion to mystery and the sacred in life” that led him into science in the first place. Did you and he talk about faith much? Did that inform your connection?
NS: Perhaps it did subconsciously, as there was a Native American teaching poem on the front page of his lab website, which told me this was a person who could think about their work in a broader sense. However, the overt faith dialogue developed much later in the four years that we’ve worked together.
Faith had always been a part of my thinking when it came to working amid the concerns of art and science. My earliest in-depth conversations with scientists had been with people whose faith drove them to their work, and whom I had met in faith communities. Faith was the basis of our interaction that preceded any discussion of our lines of work and inquiry into the world. Faith served as a home base we could always return to when we got lost in the tangles between and in our fields.
With Steve, our dialogue started from the other end—beginning with the distinctive qualities of our work and the cultures of our fields, and converging on faith. It took us perhaps two years or more to find a language to connect on the notions of faith and spirituality, as our paths to the life of faith evolved through very different kinds of experience, leaving behind different sets of loaded and meaningful words and images. In many ways our process of learning to talk about faith had many of the same qualities as our learning to speak across disciplines.
Image: A lot of your recent work is temporary—that is, it’s drawn directly onto gallery walls and when the show is over, only photos are left. Can you speak to this?
NS: Yes, these are works with lifespans. In fact, the installations are typically up for the same amount of time over which the lifecycle of a small annual plant would play out. When viewers encounter one of these works, they’re usually enamored with the scale and detail and take their time moving throughout the gallery drinking it all in. Sometime toward the end of their visit with the work it hits them in the gut—this won’t last. The work will need to die. And so they stand and drink it in now with a kind of presence that comes from knowing this may be the last time they see and experience this space as it is—the last time they feel the presence of this work.
I know this kind of attention from the times I’ve spent with loved ones who have a terminal disease and whom I know I will never see again once we part ways. It is the feeling of visiting a remarkable place and knowing you will likely never return to it. These moments have a kind of vividness and apparentness that is unmatched. It’s the sort of attention I hope I grow to give to more moments of my life.
Often the works are painted over in my absence, and even when I’ve been present, curators have frequently insisted that I not paint over the work myself—they feel I should not destroy what I have made. If they feel this way, I honor it and let them paint it over. I provide them with the ritual process they must observe. The first step is this: “Stop, look. Yours are the last eyes to see this work.” I find these works teach me a lot about the beauty and power of things that you cannot keep—which is everything.
Image: You incorporate stylized decorative elements alongside specimen-like biological drawings. What drew you to put these together?
NS: The stylized elements are quotes from Victorian-era decorative arts designers. I began making this work while living in Cambridge, England, where I discovered the connection between Victorian design and early evolutionary biology. The designers and biologists had been in dialogue, and they both had a keen interest in modular forms that were variations on a theme. They borrowed and lent ideas in both directions. My borrowing imagery from this era became a touchstone back to a time when art and evolutionary biology were integrally intertwined.
The distinct appeal of grafting the stylized patterns onto drawings of actual plant matter was linking up idealized forms with pieces of a plant that had lived in the contingencies of a particular time and place. The plant matter had the battle scars, growth history, and contorted form to prove it. This of course speaks to the ideal of a genome playing amid the demands of other living and nonliving members of an individual’s environment. And this gets to a grander, underlying sense of a whole playing out through the snarl of bumped and bruised moments.
Image: You use a limited palette—lots of black and white with occasional reds and oranges. Why is that?
NS: I find black and white to be an incredibly rich palette—there are bright whites, warm whites, cool whites, putty whites. I prefer the ringing clarity of photo white (the purest white possible) against which I can cast other whites. Likewise, blacks provide a rich range from the deepest bone black to brown black, blue black, and the opalescent gray of solid graphite, along with the full range of grays down to tones so subtle they’re hard to detect. My work leans heavily on form and often features the substrate and negative space as much and more than anything that’s drawn. I find that the contrast of black and white is the most compelling way to create this kind of interplay. Added to this, I often play between matte and gloss media—shifting textures rather than colors. Though all the work is two-dimensional, for me it comes from a very sculptural mindset; contrast, tone, and finish are the backbone of this approach.
Red is primal, vivid, and powerful. It embodies both strength and weakness, as it is lifeblood and also the trail left by a wound. I love how its visceral earthiness interacts with the plant-based drawings to cast the discussion to a broader range of life beyond the literal life of plants. Red transmutes sticks and bark into bones and flesh. Orange I have less excuse for, except that it is another color when I need one. Its prime virtue is that it has perhaps the fewest cultural associations and so a kind of unfettered freshness and can hold its own with red.
Overall one of my greatest pleasures is drawing with minerals (graphite and watercolor) on plant matter (paper). In this way I am making images of dirt and plants with dirt and plants.