Monday, October 19, 2009

Icons of evolution

Nancy Lowe goes to church more often than most. All she has to do is step outdoors, where she finds the sacred in nature. During breaks from her job as a lead research specialist in biology, you might see her sketching a leaf or a bug somewhere on campus.

“I’m an artist and a naturalist,” she says. “Working as a lab technician is my day job.”

Lowe’s art is featured in the ongoing exhibit at Emory Library’s Schatten Gallery, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The eclectic show includes original editions of “Origin,” panoramic “nanoscapes” captured by electron microscopes and a retrospective of how poet Ted Hughes’ work evolved.

Lowe’s contribution is a series of luminous paintings called “Species Icons.” On canvases glinting with gold leaf, a pitcher plant wears a halo and tube worms are strung with jewels.

“Medieval religious icons seem to glow with a certain power,” Lowe says. “They’re old and precious. I wanted to combine that feeling with the careful attention to detail in scientific illustration of organisms. For me, that’s what’s sacred – the amount of geological time that it has taken to evolve these species.”

The paintings also grew out of a question that Lowe says she’s pondered for years: “Now that evolution has become our primary creation story, what should we put on our stained glass windows?”

After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Lowe worked in video and film before discovering her love of illustrating nature. She volunteered as an artist for a species inventory project in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She regularly teaches art, in addition to making her own. The name of her web site, "look at your fish", comes from 19th-century naturalist Louis Aggasiz. He would give his students a pan containing a pickled fish and leave them alone to stare at it for hours.

Careful observation is important to art, as well as science, she says. “I want my students to ask, ‘What’s this little bristle for on this bug?’ and realize that every structure is connected to some function. It all comes back to evolution.”

A microscope can distance scientists from their subjects, Lowe says. “We’re looking at things now through a molecular and a genetic lens. That is a more cerebral pursuit. I think we’ve lost something about teaching students to love the organism.”

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