How art met science in “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”

I’ve written a lot here on Scientist Sees Squirrel about my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  That is, I’ve written a lot about the book’s subject (eponymous Latin names; or, those Latin names that honour people).*  I haven’t written as much about the illustrations. It’s time to rectify that, and I’m thrilled that I can point you to a new online exhibition of Emily Damstra’s wonderful illustrations, and an interview with Emily and me about our experience working together.

I knew from the start that Charles Darwin’s Barnacle needed illustrations. I spent some time looking at portfolios from various natural-history illustrators, but I’m extremely happy that I ended up commissioning work from Emily.  I’d interacted with her a little bit before, when she wanted scientific advice about some illustrations of goldenrods and their gallmakers**, so I knew that I liked her work and that I enjoyed talking with her about nature.  I got a small grant from the Harrison McCain Foundation to pay for Emily’s work, and collaborating with her was an enormous pleasure in every way. The finished illustrations are gorgeous: technically accurate, but also sparkling with life and personality.

“But wait,” you’re saying, “can’t I see those illustrations?”  Well, of course you could buy the book (and I think you should); but if you don’t want to do that just yet, I have really good news for you.  This week, the magazine createdhere launched an online exhibition that includes many of Emily’s illustrations accompanied by short texts about the species she illustrated.  It’s fabulous; give it a look right now!

To accompany the exhibition, createdhere interviewed the two of us about our experience working together. We touch on how the illustrations fit the book, about the broader relationship between art and science, about Emily’s artistic process and how we worked together.  I hope it comes through just how lucky I was to see art meeting science as Emily illustrated my book.

All this came about in an interesting way.  My book was released March 17, 2020 – just as North America pivoted rapidly into pandemic lockdown.  I had a book launch planned, along with an exhibition of Emily’s illustrations in our local public library.  Those things, obviously, didn’t happen***.  But enter Allison Green, a local artist I’d worked with in one of my volunteer gigs with the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  Allison is a textile artist with a keen interest in nature and in connections between art and science, and she also happens to be the managing editor of createdhere.  Allison asked us if an online exhibition could replace the physical one canceled due to the pandemic. The rest is history – and it’s wonderful, because you can see the online exhibition no matter where in the world you are.

Can art meet science? Of course it can; there’s a long history of artists doing science, scientists doing art, and the two meeting in the middle.  Emily’s illustrations for Charles Darwin’s Barnacle are just one small example – but they’re one I’m thrilled with.  So if you haven’t already, please click through and have a look. Here’s the exhibition, and here’s our conversation about working together.

© Stephen Heard  August 27, 2020

Image: Gazella cuvieri, © Emily Damstra, from Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider


*^Here, for instance, is a post about some Latin names that are in the book (and here are two about Latin names that aren’t in the book, but could have been); and here’s one about eponymous Latin names and diversity in science. That last post, by the way, is significant to me.  Diversity in human contributions to science, and how it’s reflected in eponymous naming, ended up being an important theme in the book.  A few reviewers on Amazon have complained about that, arguing that by dipping into issues of equity and diversity, the book got “too political”.  To this I say, with all the dignity and decorum I can muster, THBPBPTHPT!

**^Which I know fairly well, because I’ve had a longstanding research interest in insects that make galls and mines on goldenrods.  Those turn out to be an excellent model system for understanding the evolution of host specialization among insect herbivores.  If you’re interested, here are two relatively recent papers – one with my PhD student Chandra Moffat, and one with my postdoc Julia Mlynarek.

***^It was a brutal time to launch a book.  Not just my book, but many books by my friends and colleagues suffered as the pandemic canceled launches and events.  It would be fabulous if you could help out one of those authors – buy a book (not necessarily mine!) or do something simple (and free) to help out an author.

2 thoughts on “How art met science in “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”

  1. Emily

    I think your discussion of working with an illustrator could be really useful to authors thinking of doing the same, and I’m so grateful to be the illustrator you selected! Thanks. I especially like your reaction to unenlightened book reviewers who complain about it being political. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. John Pastor

    When I taught Biological Illustration before I retired, I always told my students that their drawings should teach the reviewer something about the biology of the organism without using words. Emily’s drawings do this superbly. My favorite is the drawing of Twinflower. The reason for the English name is readily apparent in the pose of the two flowers emerging from a single stem. But if you also look at the base of the plant, it is apparent that this stem and all its leaves are emerging from what looks like a runner of some sort. In fact, twinflower is a trailing shrub with interesting shoot demography (see especially Eriksson, O. 1988. Variation in growth rate in shoot populations of the clonal dwarf shrub Linnaea borealis. Holarctic Ecology 11: 259-266 and
    Eriksson, O. 1992. Population structure and dynamics of the clonal dwarf shrub Linnaea borealis. Journal of Vegetation Science 3: 61-68, as well as the essay on my blog http://www.theclevermoose.com/linnaeuss-favorite-flower/).

    Great job, Emily. Everyone – please take a look at Emily’s website (https://emilydamstra.com/) for more beautiful drawings that will teach you a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

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