Precisely two years ago today, Stoytcho and I were walking the warm, humid streets of Jakarta at night in search of dinner. Indonesia was the 11th country in a year-long trip to circumnavigate the globe; from October 2016 to November 2017, we traveled through 28 countries on five continents to experience what the world beyond U.S. borders. Eschewing resorts and (most) tourist destinations, we took our two ~40 lb. packs and hostelled, camped, and hiked our way through these countries, living on USD $30 per person per day for meals and lodging and documenting our experience on the blog Neverending Everywhere.
With cash and carrying capacity limitations, we couldn’t buy many souvenirs on the trip, but wanted more than digital photographs for memories. So we started collecting business cards everywhere we went, because people gave them freely (and often) with excitement. Every few months, we shipped them back to the U.S. and by the end of the trip we had collected more than 200 cards, tracing our path across the continents through neatly rubber-banded stacks. We had a way to visualize our travel in more than just photographs.
Though we knew we wanted to display the business cards somehow, they sat untouched for a year after we returned to the U.S. as we settled into new lives in Boston and I started consulting with ClearView. A couple of months ago I pulled them out to organize them and see what we could make.
I had originally envisioned layering the cards underneath a sheet of glass on a coffee table, but our apartment didn’t have a coffee table and finding one seemed time consuming. So for now I decided on a collage display format, which would only require a frame and cardboard mounting.
The creative process for the collage was straightforward, with deciding on the broader pattern and minimizing card overlap taking the most time. I started by finding the average size of the business cards and laying out a pencil grid on the carboard mounting, guessing that a vertical collage with horizontal business cards would be most visually appealing.
Then came figuring out how to pattern the business cards. I wanted to lay down cards by color instead of by chronology, so you could see Mandarin next to Cyrillic next to Vietnamese next to English. But the colors on each card were different and the number of cards we had in each broader color group varied significantly. We had many more cards with red, yellow, black, or brown primary colors compared to relatively fewer greens and blues. So a rainbow across the collage in any direction, built from columns of business cards of similar color group, seemed difficult to complete.
Instead, I opted to pattern the collage as a gradient, working to match each card laid down with the color next to it. I organized the cards by color group and within that, color intensity. I laid them down with black on the bottom, then moved slowly upward and outward, laying down blue, gray, and brown cards, then up further into greens, yellows, oranges, and reds. I used standard poster putty tack to hold cards in place, in case I wanted to move them later.
I initially placed business cards so they would have minimal overlap, but because of variation in sizes and the size of our final frame, Stoytcho pointed out that we would have to cut the edges of some cards to fit them into the collage. So I reworked the collage to allow overlap between cards, ensuring the most interesting or informative part of the card remained visible to trigger memories of people and places.
After the final card was in place, we slotted the board into the frame and hung it on the wall, a reminder of our travels. Taking a step back, it’s amazing to see not how many places we visited, but how many people in the world have their own businesses. Here in the U.S., where brands reign and large companies are common, when we envision work or a career it’s often in someone else’s company. In countries outside the U.S., especially in the developing world, to build and run your own business is much more common, from walking vendors hopping between railcars in Mexico City to the evening food carts of Indonesia. The lifestyle comes with its own pitfalls and benefits, from uncertainty over the future to the freedom of working to build something for yourself. But it’s something different from the U.S.
It will be a long time before Stoytcho and I get a chance to travel around the world again, but for now we have built a reminder of where we’ve been.
Inspired by my friends Cindy and Eric, I’m learning to create art. The last time I put pen to paper for artistic study was in high school (hi sophomore art class). This is probably my fourth or fifth attempt to do learn how to make art in the last decade through lesson plans or tutorials, with ended in failure. My last visit to an art supply store was an avalanche of colored pencils and paper types and paints and tempera and markers–so many tools that I don’t know how to use, all of them daunting. I have no idea how to art, so how do I start learning what I don’t know?
I started with what I know. And if you want to learn to make art but are also feeling uncertain, overwhelmed, or terrified by the thought of creating art, starting with what you know (instead of a specific book or tutorial) might be the right path for you too.
While I haven’t created art of any kind in years, I have been making creative decisions my whole life. You have too. An artistic decision is everything from choosing the color of our clothes to picking what music to listen to after a rough day at work to simply choosing to touch the bark of a tree. You’re making a decision to experience a feeling in that moment. That is a creative act in your life, even if it doesn’t make art that others can enjoy. So we are all creative.
Some of my most recent creative decisions have been in figure-making for academic journals, which might sounds boring (but stick with me). During my PhD I published two research articles that required not just figures showing data, but also schematics of what was going on at the molecular level. Creating these schematics isn’t entirely standardized, leaving room for artistic leeway. I ended up spending a lot of hours in Illustrator and Powerpoint building these schematics, not just for my research articles but also for presentations I gave on my work. This mostly consisted of arranging shapes and colors in a way that conveyed information but wasn’t painful to look at (seriously, lemon yellow will never look good on a projector). These each creative decisions, though I didn’t think of it at the time.
So for my first artistic endeavor, I started with something I know: my thesis work. Below is an artistic interpretation of what I discovered with my thesis work.
There are things I would change (and certainly a few things that are ‘scientifically inaccurate’) but overall I’m pretty happy with it. Here are some close-ups:
One of the biggest challenges (besides having to give up some scientific accuracy to artistic license) was figuring out what colors to use on the sketch. My previous experiences with color in this world have primarily come from 1) clothing choice, 2) creating Powerpoint documents and scientific figures, and 3) identifying plants and mushrooms. None of those translate super-well to watercolor pencils, so I took one of the sheets in my notebook and broke it into boxes to test color patterns for each part of the sketch. I then tested the final color palette on the other side:
Though it takes an extra piece of paper, this method was invaluable for seeing what colors look like next to each other (which does change) and I can keep it for subsequent projects, so I’ll count that as a technique learned!
I’ll let you know what I make next.
It’s been a while since I updated, thanks to the hectic nature of moving to a new state, driving across the U.S. for a third time, and getting settled before I start work. Here’s a cross-post from a project inspired by my friend Cindy Nguyen. She runs Haptic Press, a creative arts labspace for anyone to looking to experiment with creativity. Especially those people who haven’t done something ‘creative’ in ages like *cough* me. Graduate school was an eternal summer for my mind, but it was a long, dark winter for the creative self.
This piece is in response to Cindy’s most recent theme, “Classification”, merged with what I know to become “Biology x Classification”. This is a tribute to how messy life is, despite our best attempts as scientists to classify. Hope you like it.
An instructional on species
step one: definition
Figure 1: An individual
what is a species?
do you know?
Can you look up the definition?
Go ahead. Do it now.
i’ll wait here.
Figure 2: A lineage
have it? Read it out loud
for both of us to hear.
Figure 3: Two descendants, one ancestor
now, things get fun.
imagine the definition in your mind,
like on a piece of paper.
Take it, tear it up,
And toss it into the wind.
make a mess.
Figure 4: A mess
step Two: mess
The truth is, a species is messy.
it’s messy just like the scattered paper
That now makes up our definition.
you may have looked at animals and thought,
“This duck is different than a cat,
which is different than a deer or a bat.
All different species.”
Figure 5: Shared ancestry
And you’re right.
we can tell very different things apart.
but what about this bat and that?
This lizard and that?
The closer the two animals get together,
The harder to say they’re a different species.
Figure 6: Species complex, wherein ring species interbreed
we biologists like to say if animals don’t breed,
meaning they can’t make offspring together,
They’re different species. Separate.
but there are species of lizards that blend,
from one place to another.
Able to breed with neighbors,
but not neighbors-neighbors-neighbors,
And more distant.
so where does one species start,
And another end?
hard to say.
Figure 7: Interbreeding fails at ring edges
step Three: mix
or look at bacteria,
That make offspring only by dividing.
how do you decide a species
in a thing that does not mate for offspring?
who is to say bacteria A is a species itself,
isolated and separate from bacteria B?
Figure 8: Asexual reproduction
well, we tell ourselves that it’s in the DNA,
The genetic information that makes all life.
we look at two bacteria,
And if the DNA is different enough,
(we say 1%, but where does that come from?)
we say Bacteria A and B are different species.
but it gets even messier in the bacterial world,
like the pieces of our definition swirling in the wind.
because bacteria can mate,
They just don’t make offspring.
They mate across species,
Across close relatives and distant friends
not to make more of themselves,
but to swap DNA,
The very basis of our definition!
Figure 9: Horizontal gene transfer
They share DNA in mating,
Copying and swapping like teenage pirates,
a gene here, sequence there.
Copy, cut, share, paste, repeat.
each action blurring lines:
is the new cell, now carrying a bit of species A
still species B, or something new?
who’s to say.
Figure 10: Which species, none, or both?
step four: matrimony
And then there’s you.
The collection of cells you think you know
All descended from a first.
but beside your human cells are the others,
A collection of millions by millions of bacteria,
on your skin, in your gut,
on every open inch of body.
The unseen multitudes of multitudes,
different between each person.
They make you, become you,
so you are what?
Figure 11: Human and microbiome
And where do you come from?
who are your ancestors,
your mother’s mother’s mothers
stretching back into unconscious unmemory.
A secret, hidden in you
Thousands by millions of years ago.
Chance cast her lot,
As one cell engulfed another.
A normal act of eat to live,
but this time the infinitely unlikely,
Completely unguessable happened.
The devourer did not kill to sate its hunger
And embraced instead the cell within it
As a host would a guest in their home.
The guest, sealed and safe from the surrounding world,
gave energy for life in return.
if you seek within your cells,
you find these once-guests still today.
making, providing, trading
Their energy for a home.
The two working together,
Creating life from mice to men.
That is the strangest thing about you,
descendent of that accidental chance.
you are a marriage of not one form of life,
Figure 12: Endosymbiotic theory
step five: reality
As you can see, the definition of a species
diverges between flat paper and life.
our paperbound sentence is just convenient shorthand
hiding a stout, immovable truth.
for it’s impossible to encompass the chaos of life
of even for an individual in a word.
A name, a handle, a term,
And life’s lineage stretches long.
Figure 13: The lineage of life