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  • Writer's pictureMartha Iserman

My Life with Bugs

I wanted to take a break from my Australian Animals Series to reflect on how my career has evolved over the years. I have a kangaroo drying right now (a painting, I'm not a monster), but I was flipping through some of my old sketchbooks and had a wave of nostalgia that I'm going to impose on you.

What Is Science Illustration?

"Webster's Dictionary defines Science Illustration as..."

Simply put, science illustration is art in the service of science. As science illustrators, we create images that help articulate scientific subjects to inform and communicate. This includes digitally rendered 3D models of solar systems, colorfully painted children's books explaining how plants create oxygen, museum infographics about the tools ancient peoples in Mesopotamia used, diagrams explaining complex medical procedures, and anything else with a focus on science and education.

Here is a highly scientific representation of two adult humans and two small cats sharing a queen sized bed.

Some science illustrators focus their work on a subject. Medical illustrators, for instance, require a lot of education and experience with human anatomy specifically and therefore focus their skills in that field. I realized early on that I was particularly interested in invertebrate zoology (the 'crunchies' and the 'squishes' as I academically refer to them), but they are not my only subjects.

On that note:

I was interviewed along with some other illustrators by Adobe Create Magazine a few months ago about what this career entails. You can read the full article and see some of my work featured here. At one point the interviewer asked me what my focus is and I replied "entomology", since I enjoy and feel that I am pretty good at insect illustration. When the article was published I was mildly amused when she referred to me as an "insect specialist".

I am stating here and now, I am NOT an entomologist and do not claim to be one. If you approach me with a rare grasshopper specimen that you would like identified, I will most likely declare (after squinting and nodding to myself) "Yep, looks like you got a bug there, that's for sure." and that won't even be correct since bugs are a subcategory in the order of Hemiptera (I'm not a total idiot).

My Journey

Me posing with the world's largest insect specimen

So how did I become an insect expert? It all starts back in my childhood...

In Minnesota babies are raised on oranges and Miller High Life

I didn't immediately know that I wanted to be the nerd version of an artist. I just wanted to share that picture to shame my parents. I did have an affinity for the "creeper crawlies" from a young age and all things related to sharks (which is a whole different blog post). I also started drawing at a very early age and one of the things I liked to draw was Piders (my wordplay has always been a strength).

Piders lived on my bedroom ceiling and I was concerned about them dropping into my mouth as I slept. This is a universal concern. I would call in my dad to remove them, and then cry when he flushed them down the toilet (they had Pider jobs and Pider families after all). It was a moral struggle that I had to express through art, therefore I started drawing all the Piders my father murdered.

From my Orange Period

Though this may be a slight dramatization of the start of my science illustration career, I did draw this spider at a young age and can only surmise that the pensive expression was the realization of its impending death at the hands of my father. (Note the dynamic leg placement and hint of goatee).

This is the earliest drawing of mine (that I know of, I'm sure historians will argue about this in the future) which says to me that I liked drawing invertebrates. I did say invertebrates and not insects because again, I am an expert.

As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to attend The Perpich Center For Arts Education's visual arts program for the last two years of high school. I learned a lot of valuable lessons there, including how to accurately draw from life and that nose piercings are not a personality. I also learned printmaking, which became the focus of my fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota. The first print work I created back at Arts High was a series of plexiglass engravings of insects.

Not technically correct or particularly inspired, which sums up my teens

So this was the second instance of insect-inspired artwork that popped up in my past. Apparently something was calling me to draw small critters poorly.

Making It Real

I went on to get a BFA in fine arts and spent a few years creating and showing artwork with a slightly 'biological' feel around the midwest. I was independently studying marine biology so I could create sea monsters, or looking up botanical diagrams to paint unique abstracted landscapes.

We all experiment in our 20's

Then I discovered there was an actual field called Science Illustration, and there was a graduate program for it in Monterey Bay California. The only problem was that I was under the impression (not sure if it's completely true) that the program mostly accepted 'Scientists who are good at art' not 'Artists who are interested in Science' and I was definitely the latter. So I spent a year and a half studying up on biology and zoology. Shout out to Ralph Holzenthal, an actual entomologist who let me attend his graduate class on insect illustration and help inspire me towards this career.

Spoiler alert- I got into the program and had an amazing time creating and learning and making some of the best friends of my life in the most beautiful part of California (suck it Napa).

I learned a bunch of new skills and built a new science illustration portfolio.

Afterward, I got two of my dream internships.

The first was at the Field Museum in Chicago where I worked with the Invertebrate zoology department, took advantage of dino legs, and faced the wrong direction in group photos.

And the second was at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC where I worked with Taina Litwak in the Entomology Department. You can tell I was an intern because of how terrible my camera was.

In summary

I went from drawing Piders, to digitally articulating moth genitalia for the country's leading science institution (every little girl's dream).

That's my journey as it is. Sometimes there is a pattern to things if you look back on the path your life has taken. I'm still looking for ways that I can evolve and change my path, but I know that science and insects, in particular, will continue to be themed in my work. There is plenty to improve upon and plenty to absorb, but I'm enjoying the process and this blog is a large part of it. Thank you for participating and I hope to bring you more creeper crawlies as I grow and continue.

So thank you for attending my Ted Talk entitled "I Intended to Have My Kangaroo Painting Done By Now So Here Is My Life Story".

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