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For the Love of Science and Art: Q & A with the Creators of Invisible Portraits

Invisible Portraits is Science World’s newest art exhibition. This multimedia exhibition uses metal sculptures, wood carvings and large-scale portraitures to highlight the world of microbes—invisible to our eyes but complex and incredible when viewed up close. I had the opportunity to meet up with two of the exhibition's artists, Patrick Keeling and Erick James, before their “Meet the Artist” night here under the dome. I recorded our meeting using my slightly less than top of the line tablet, and had fun transcribing our conversation, which was almost overshadowed by the sounds of children playing around us. What came through, though, was the obvious delight when I asked Patrick and Erick where their art meets science.

You are coming to Science World as an “artist,” do you ever think of yourself as a scientist? If so, how? If not, why not?

Erick: I am a scientist first and foremost. I am trained as a scientist and have a Master’s Degree in Genetics. The art came afterwards. So, yes. I think of myself much more as a scientist than I do an artist.

Patrick: Me as well. I am a professor of Botany at UBC, and the art is something I do on the side. It started as public outreach, I guess, and as a hobby. Well, the woodworking is a hobby and the gold picture frames are more of a public outreach exercise. It’s difficult material to relate to the public, because it is so abstract. And I guess we noticed that a lot of these pictures we take for information are really pretty. So we thought we could do this kind of thing to get through to people. There is a lot of interesting stuff out there, and this seemed like a good way to do it.

Where do you think Art and Science align in their ambitions?

Erick: We’ve been asked this question a lot: “art and science, are they separate entities?” and I kind of don’t think they are. I think, we use, I use, in my scientific practice and in my artistic practice, a lot of the same principles, like trying to figure out what the best way to do something is. I’ll observe something, and figure out a question to ask, and then figure out an experiment for how I can answer that question. Whether I’m on my lab bench doing a PCR (polymerase chain reaction), or in the shop trying to figure out why my welder is not working, it’s all very similar.

Patrick: I also think they (science and art) are just creative exercises that you do. I think we have always been interested in the nature of the universe and what our place is in it. Science answers specific questions. Art is just an expression of what we know and how we feel about those certain things. They are not really that different.

Where, in your artwork, do you see the science?

Patrick: Inspiration.

Erick: Yes, definitely.

Patrick: It isn’t really any different than Robert Bateman painting a wildlife painting—that’s inspired by nature. This is just the same thing, they’re just tiny little creatures. So, for me you see these things and just go, "Wow, this is mind-blowing. How can we get people interested in this?" It’s much better than words.

Erick: We are really fortunate that we get to see these things on a daily basis and we haven’t lost the wonder in them. We try to get the public to wonder in the microscopic. Not all microbes cause disease, and they are not all trying to kill you.

Patrick: I also think the media, to some extent, pounds that out of people—the wondrous nature of art. It just turns science into boring stuff they remember not liking in school. Part of this exhibition is just trying to get people excited about things that excited us, I suppose. If microbes disappeared today, we would all die in no time. Whereas, if we disappeared, microbes would be like, “Who cares?” because they are the foundation of all the ecosystems. They are really important. Most of them don’t hurt us, but they get a bad rap. 

Is there anything you would like to add?

Patrick: The thing that I would like people to take away from this is that we have a bigger world than they might know. The biological world, that is. There is more out there, more going on, and it’s not all bad.

Invisible Portraits is on display now until the end of March 2015, at TELUS World of Science. For further inquiry into things that can't be seen with the naked eye, make your way to the Science Theatre on our second floor for BBC's Inside the Human Body: Hostile World.