Interview with Glendon Mellow of “The Flying Trilobite”

Friday, December 11, 2009
By Student


by Melina

Glendon Mellow is an extremely talented artist who uses fossils and microbes for inspiration.  His work is genuinely unique and has been acknowledged and presented in several magazines and on a number of book covers. Once planning on being paleontologist, Glendon decided that rather than taking a conventional route, he would take his knowledge and apply it to something he was passionate about - painting.


(”Darwin Took Steps” by Glendon Mellow, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License)

1. Have you attended any previous Science Online conferences? What are your reasons for attending this one?

Last year, I emailed one of the conference organizers, Bora Zivkovic and asked if I could attend. I wasn’t sure if I could, since I am not a card-carrying scientist. He said I certainly could, and could I perhaps help lead a session about art and science? In the end, fantastically excited, I led the Art & Science session, and co-led a session about improving blog images with Tatjana Jovanovic-Grove. Bora has asked if I would come back, and this year I will be co-leading a follow-up to Art and Science with visionary image-maker Felice Frankel, in which we will discuss the importance of different kinds of visual metaphors, and also do a short session about painting with a digital tablet.

Going to an “un”-conference like this really gets me thinking about new ways to make artistic connections with research, online and off. Last year, I asked how many people have an artist of some kind regularly visiting their lab, and there are more than I thought. I think the benefits work for both the artist and researchers. Some of this came from my worry (which I still haven’t let go of entirely, but it’s fading) that science-art is derivative and parasitic on science, and takes more than it gives. The overwhelming response in the room had me reassess that. So far, in numerous discussions with scientists and journalists, I have only come across a couple of examples of art leading the direction of research. So that’s rare. One of the examples was from The Open Source Paleontologist regarding how in illustrations of triceratops, they are sometimes depicted butting heads and locking horns. Andrew Farke set out to see if they could even physically do that – it was just assumed they could. The results are pretty interesting. Not only could they physically interlock, the bone is also denser where the impact sites are. I wonder if there could be more instances of art sparking new ideas like that.

This year, I’ve already had a lively discussion with Felice Frankel about our session – she suggested I think of the word “image” instead of art, since “art” notes the artist and their ego. By thinking about images, it opens up the world of metaphor to more than allegory. I like to give categories to those who find them helpful, and so far I’m thinking about Science Metaphors from metaphorical data sets (like graphs) to images that are symbolic and illustrative (like stuff I do) to scientifically-derived images that are removed from their direct usefulness as data, like some of Felice’s work. There’s possibly a fourth category about images that lead people astray, either intentionally or unintentionally.

2. When did you first think to incorporate science into your artwork?

Science has always fascinated me. I thought I would be a paleontologist until high school science classes bored me out of it – I went to a good school, but without placing blame, let’s just say a month of memorizing the diagram of the ATP–>ADP diagram -without being required to understand it- steered me away at the time. Sometimes I wish I had stuck with it. When I began university for Fine Arts, trilobites, tardigrades and other microbes and fossils began creeping into my work. I really consciously made a decision about it because of two things. The first, was reading Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden. It blew me away, how much could be figured out, how things about life that I thought were mysteries weren’t anymore. The second was when I had an art show, and a friend who was studying zoology recognized a tardigrade (water-bear) in one of my paintings, and seemed really happy about it. She understood the painting in a way no one else in the room did. I liked that. I wanted to keep making art for that audience.

3. What inspires you to make certain pieces? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Mainly paleontology and the microbial zoo. I also have tremendous respect for the scientists and science-communicators, so I’ve been playing with some portrait imagery lately. Inspiration abounds, but it’s only part of being a painter. I’m not one of those painters who just plays around having fun with paint. When I get a new image my head, I feel a strong compulsion to get it down quickly, and getting it right is often an agony for me. Most of my work goes through what I call the Ugly Phase where I have painted an initial layer of oil, but have to wait for it to dry before proceeding. That wait is often filled with a lot of self-doubt. For me, contentment comes when I feel the image is done, not usually during the process.

4. Would you say that your profession is a relatively rare one? Are there many other artists that portray science in the way that you do?

Ha! You’ve done your research, haven’t you? You’re certainly correct. I do find myself in a very small niche in the art world. My art is usually influenced by Scientific Illustration, the European Symbolist painters of the 1890’s, Concept Art from movies and video games and my university degree in contemporary Fine Art. I am not as exacting as a scientific illustrator needs to be, I like playing with visual metaphors like a Symbolist, I love sketching and concept generating, and occasionally I delve into mixed media pieces in a fine artsy way.

There are some artists who do what I do, and compared to ten years ago, scientific concepts are much more in vogue now in the fine art world. There are more all the time, which is what we need – scientific inquiry is such an integral part of our lives, yet still so many people reject knowledge and fun in science as an outsider thing.

If you’d like to see some more artists I admire, there’s a short list at ScienceOnline ‘09 – it was meant to clarify and instruct, but that list is in part a hit parade of people I think do excellent work.

5. What piece of yours are you most proud of creating?

That’s a difficult question. In my mind’s eye, I have these images, and sometimes my paintings fall short of that. I am my own worst critic and have to stand back and squint, so to speak, to avoid seeing the flaws. I heard the writer-comedian Stephen Fry once say the audience decides your favourites for you. In that sense, Darwin Took Steps has turned out really well – I used it originally to practice speed painting, and did the whole oil painting in three hours. Now it’s been on two book covers, a magazine, and in a museum exhibit for the Darwin year.

Custom blog banner commissions are something I never would have dreamed I’d be doing five years ago. Each collaboration has been so much fun, and I hope to do more.

I think my favourite right now is my current blog banner – I’ve changed it each blogiversary in March, and this one is going to be hard to say good-by to. I like the pencil, oil paint, and digital elements I put into the piece all together. It feels complete and very “me”.

Thank you for looking over my questions and I hope to see you at the conference next month.

Make sure you say hi! I’m the former goth-punk with the winged trilobite tattoo on his arm.

Thanks Melina!

Glendon Mellow
The Flying Trilobite:
Art in Awe of Science

2010 Calendar now available!

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