ScienceOnline'09: Interview with Glendon Mellow

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked Glendon Mellow of the The Flying Trilobite, to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

I'm yet another Canadian atheist artist-illustrator recovering goth-punk who blogs about incorrectly drawn fossil arthropods. We should have a lobby group. I grew up and live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and attended York University for Fine Arts. I'll actually be returning to complete that degree this fall after many years away. Evolution was always an interest, but after reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins, I was far more inspired by that book than post-modern painting. It's been pretty much a straight line from there to where I am now, blogging at The Flying Trilobite: art in awe of science. I'm also a contributor at the group paleo-art blog, Art Evolved: Life's Time Capsule.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

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Making a full time career out of illustrating and art-making is my eventual goal. It's getting closer all the time, and I desperately would love to illustrate a book with surreal scientific images. Perhaps for children. I'd like to work on another degree, and I'm torn between a biology undergrad and post-undergrad concept art courses. I could see myself using my management background to become an art director for a scientific group or institution.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Massive online amateur research programs like BioBlitz I think have a potential to somehow become fused with a game like World of Warcraft or maybe Facebook groups. People join WoW and Facebook groups for a sense of accomplishment and belonging -they make a statement about you- so I could see amateur research projects fusing with those in some way. That's been on my mind since hearing GrrlScientist at ScienceOnline09 and Joel Sachs at SciBarCamp Toronto.

Relating to art, I think the quality of scientific illustration and indeed all illustration is rapidly going up. You're competing with everyone. Artists are better at younger ages because there is a higher bar. And with something like Art Evolved, even though it's only a few months old, we have enthusiastic, largely unpublished (thought that's changing) artists engaging in a debate about pterosaur wings with paleontologists. That's not something I would expect to see outside the blogosphere.

You are an artist - why is your art science-related? What motivates you and what are your goals?

People enjoy the feeling of the sublime, like you're in the presence of something greater than yourself, and art has often dealt with that through myth and metaphor. I like exploring what new, awe-inspiring visual metaphors can be created with this wealth of real information and imagery that science gives us. Why use an image of a halo to enhance beauty in a portrait when you can use diatoms?

Your most famous picture is the Darwin Took Steps, features already in many places including the cover of Open Lab 2008. What gave you the idea for this work? What does it mean?

That Open Lab 2008 cover came out lookin' sweet, thanks to David Ng.

The painting is about the pattern of thought the starts building a memetic structure, taking those first steps up into the idea of evolution by natural selection and through Charles Darwin's thoughts, elevating the rest of us into that place so we can build on the idea with evidence. I could have used any amount of stairs, but I chose 5 to represent Darwin's main lines of evidence: biogeography, morphology, embryology, and paleontology, with the last step open to represent natural selection, or the elevation of reason over dogma. That's the type of symbolism I don't think a viewer could get from the painting itself, but it is important to me to make sure I have a reason in mind.

The concept actually came from a much older painting I did for a never-saw-print cd cover, with "random old wise man" with a staircase head. Marrying the idea to Darwin produces a strong reaction of familiarity in people who understand his theory. I didn't set out to create this painting to be popular, or to resonate more than my others. I just thought it was a neat drawing, Darwin Day was coming up and I wanted to try speed painting. I painted it in three hours. It's since appeared on numerous websites, a magazine and a couple of book covers. It caused a ruckus on DeviantArt as a featured painting this year and led to a full-on argument between the science crowd and creationists.

If I can throw in a plug, I'm donating portions of the sales bearing this image to The Beagle Project, and I have cards, prints and shirts available in my Reproduction Shop. Let's build a ship.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

The various options online can be daunting for a new artist. It's so easy for people to rip off artwork and claim it as their own, but on the other hand, it's an unparalleled medium for sharing images. There's never been anything close to this in history. After Science Online I was waiting with other participants at the airport, and Henry Gee asked me if blogging had changed my life. It absolutely has. It yanked me out of a deep, lightless artistic depression. I'd been sitting on paintings for years, occasionally making something new, frustrated with work that few people I knew liked. Using the blogging platform, I can display my, um, let's say niche artwork and still have a decent audience.

I tried liveblogging a painting for Darwin Day shortly after the conference. I burned out on it. Painting for two hours, then 20 minutes of uploading and colour-correcting the image, then painting 2 more hours...I spiralled into a strange place with that image. It felt as though I let people following down. It's sitting in my studio glaring me.

I participate on DeviantArt, LinkedIn and RedBubble which has an excellent online print shop. Twitter has actually gotten me back into Facebook. People who've never commented on my blog were becoming fans on Facebook: are they lurkers, quietly enjoying the paintings? I don't know. You start thinking about all of the eyes on you. It becomes a responsibility to become a better artist. I began posting new art every Monday as a way to discipline myself toward my blogpeeps.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

Being a Richard Dawkins fan, I really discovered blogs through links on his website, maybe 5 years ago.

Arriving at the hotel, Kevin Zelnio, Southern Fried Scientist, and Miriam Goldstein yanked me into conversation, and I let some of my imposter syndrome fade away. Karen James exudes cool. Talking with Stephanie Zvan between sessions helped me remember this was real somehow. I follow a ton of the blogs from the conference attendees. Anything in my sidebar.

You led two sessions at the conference - what did you learn from that experience?

The unconference format took the edge off, easier to be yourself. In the first session, the audience wanted to overwhelmingly move past the "two cultures" discussion about art and science - a huge contrast to the group at SciBarCamp here in Toronto in May. It hit me during the talk that maybe the distance of art and science is something you only see when standing in your own present - looking back across the decades of art past, it's easy to see art inspired by science standing tall above its history.

I brought up what I had largely been thinking about at the time - that much of art based on scientific inspiration is somewhat parasitic, not giving much back. The group was vocal, emotional about the contribution of art to inspiring scientists. I'm still trying to absorb that.

The second session artist/scientist/force of nature Tanja Sova and I tried to lend some tips on image making. The unconference format was good, but if we do a follow-up next year, I think blogging some step-by-steps in advance, a call for potential volunteers for a step-by-step would be helpful. I also learned that the best way to close a conference with laughs is to have your volunteer tech-person accidentally pull up nudity onscreen due to a mis-typed url.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote - that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

Roger Harris's session and comments from Greg Laden made me re-think my whole blog look. I changed it immediately. Follow-up email exchanges after the conference have my mind ticking about visualization.

Bora, there was so much - ! If blogging changed my life, then Science Online 09 did just as much. I have been massively discontented since leaving the unconference. Casting about for a new direction. There was a heady optimism in the attendees. The feeling of being around that many people doing what they love to do left me frustrated and hopeful that I can do the same with illustrating some day soon.

It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

Great to meet you too!


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

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