Washington, DC-based Michele Banks, interestingly, has degrees in neither art nor science—she studied politics followed by Russian studies, then worked as a management consultant—but she has been inventively bringing the two disciplines together for years. On her website, she has arranged her creations under four categories: “Neuroscience”, “Microbiology”, “Climate Change” and “Cell Biology”.
Zooming into invisible domains of our physical reality and illustrating the theatre therein, she gives us a grander, more expansive view of life. She casts diagrams in attractive palettes and reveals the marvellous complexity that we are built of—in the process, making art more informative and science more beautiful. Such an interdisciplinary approach is uncommon but it is not new. The German zoologist-artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), for instance, is known for his 1904 work Kunstformen der Natur (“Art Forms in Nature”), which you can view on Wikimedia Commons (a 700-page book on his oeuvre is available from Taschen).
Michele explains her own practice: “My work explores the world through the interplay of art and science. I create art—mostly painting—exploring themes from science and medicine, including images such as viruses, bacteria, and plant and animal cells. I’ve looked at how these organisms affect humans, and in turn how we affect them, through climate change, antibiotic use and other impacts on the earth. I like to paint science with watercolor because it can be transparent or translucent, allowing me to hint at what is happening beneath the surface. Watercolor also naturally flows into fractal patterns such as those seen in the nervous and circulatory systems, as well as in tree branches and river systems—in fact, everywhere in nature.
“Some of my earlier science-inspired pieces, like Portrait of a Human (2012), are watercolors that look at the basics of microbiology and cell biology, celebrating the hidden world around us and within us. Portrait of a Human is in fact a way to “flip” the idea of a portrait, which traditionally focuses on the external and the psychological, and here examines the internal and physical.”
Beyond the visual and structural elements, engaging with science through the prism of art lets Michele grapple with big, endlessly-opening topics, like what it means to be alive, to be human, and to belong in a natural and social environment.
Michele started with the most basic biology—cell division—and has gradually moved on to making art about microbiology, neuroscience and the environmental effects of global warming. Most of her work is still watercolour-based but she has branched out into mixed media, sometimes incorporating scientific lab equipment and glassware.
One of Michele’s most stunning works is “From the Cells to the Stars”, made after she lost her friend Cathy to cancer. She wanted to tell Cathy’s tale through painting—but not in a negative, depressing way that would just focus on bodily deterioration. She found a parallel between supernovas and dividing cancer cells and added to it the inspiration gained from Carl Sagan, who famously quoted: “We’re all made of star stuff”. The result was gorgeous. Cancer, as saddening as it may be, became an event that could be reflected in cosmic occurences and turned into something just a tad less meaningless and lonely.
Michele says: “I was reading about astronomer Carl Sagan, who often expressed the idea that humans are made of “star stuff.” That is, that all the basic elements of life on earth derive from “space debris” from the gigantic explosions of massive, ancient stars. This concept is at once so simple and so mind-boggling that it’s a struggle to absorb, much less to express artistically. I started looking around for ideas of how to visually portray the basic elements such as hydrogen, helium, and nitrogen. This is difficult, because you can’t see them.
“If you do a Google image search on Carbon, it comes up with a lot of gray-black cars. But when I thought about how the elements were released, I found supernovas. Not only are supernovas beautiful and awe-inspiring, they bear a strong resemblance to dividing cells, especially explosively dividing cancer cells. This painting, besides celebrating the cosmic connection that all living creatures share, goes out to Cathy and Carl. From the infinitely tiny cells deep in the marrow of their bones, to the billions of stars in the sky.”
Some other important works of Michele’s are “Culture Dishes”, “Zone of Resistance” and the “Brain Scan” series.
In 2014, she did an exhibition called “Voyage of Discovery” with two other artists, Ellyn Weiss and Jessica Beels. They used a variety of media to look at effects of climate change in the Arctic. One of their goals was to show effects at levels ranging from the microscopic to the geological, and you can see that in “Culture Dishes”, a mixed-media piece inspired by changes in the soil bacteria as the earth warms.
After the 2016 election, Michele was moved to create “Zone of Resistance”, a mixed media collage of petri dishes in which a malevolent pathogen is surrounded by an antibacterial agent—what biologists call a “zone of resistance”.
The Brain Scan series explores ideas of learning, memory and forgetting. She writes: “I draw a brain outline (based on an MRI image) with a resist on yupo, and then add ink and water, like information or sensations entering the brain. I let the “information” sit for a while, and then wash some of it away. This leaves “ghosts” and outlines, like half-forgotten facts. Then I repeat this process several more times, creating a multilayered landscape of the mind.”
Michele’s work has been shown at the National Institutes of Health, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Society for Neuroscience and been showcased in Wired, Scientific American and The Scientist. In 2015, she was artist-in-residence at a biological station in Arctic Lapland and in 2018, at an evolutionary biology lab in Paris. Her paintings have been featured on journal covers and textbooks. She shows her work at festivals, galleries, science meetings and online, and writes and speaks about the intersection of art and science whenever she’s given the opportunity. Over the past two years, she has expanded the scope of her work to consider the ever-relevant and always-controversial topic of evolution. Her collaborations with scientists in DC and Paris, who study evolution through in butterflies and fruit flies, is reflected in some of her most recent artwork.