The Art of March Mammal Madness

Anyone who has followed me on social media for any length of time knows that around late February, things begin to get a bit busy in the studio as an annual event known as March Mammal Madness takes precedence over most all other projects in my life. For seven to ten weeks, I not only learn a great deal about animals I may have never heard of previously, but I get to share all of it with everyone participating in the tournament.

The tournament, organized and run by Dr. Katie Hinde, has become a much-anticipated event on Twitter, and in many classrooms as a growing number of teachers and professors now implement it in their curriculum. The team of narrators has grown to include many amazing experts and science communicators, and I came on board in year 3 to help provide artwork for each of the contestants. 

MMM has proven to be an immensely growthful experience for me both as an artist and a visual science communicator. Working with scientists and academics alike is an acquired skill and can be almost like learning a second language at times, but the rewards are great. Having a platform to raise awareness about a particular species and share why it is important is something I have loved doing since I was small. I would watch nature documentaries voraciously and read all I could on animals both extant and extinct. I would also constantly share what I had learned with anyone who would listen, much to the annoyance of my friends and family at times. The ability to do so in professional capacity has been a literal dream come true.

This year the two-artist team has grown to include two more artists, whose talents I am incredibly gratified to be able to help showcase. 

I met artist and creature designer Valeria Pellicer as she was completing her scientific illustration internship at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I was the intern coming in after her and our paths crossed for a week that was filled with fantastic conversation, some of which happened to include MMM. She and her sister, artist and animator Olivia Pellicer, are strong additions to the team who will no doubt create some very memorable art work for 2019MMM. Illustrator Mary Casillas also returns this year and will have the opportunity to showcase more of her incredible acrylic painting work.

Please give all of these artists a follow on Twitter (@vpellicerart @opellisms @maryccasillas) and be ready to experience some fantastic visual science communication. For more information on the tournament itself, and how this year’s divisions are shaping up, Dr. Hinde’s website is your go-to for the most up-to-date information. Hashtag #2019MMM is your ticket to some of the best science communication and outreach the internet has to offer. See you on the virtual paying field!

Maximizing Creative Work in Minimal Space

I am a location independent artist living full time on the road in a lovely restored 1966 Airstream Overlander travel trailer. It has been home and studio combined for well over a decade and has allowed me the advantage of being able to go directly to where work and networking opportunities are available. One of the many questions I get about my work in illustration is how I manage with such a small and minimalist studio space. While it is true that space is at a premium in my 26-foot-long silver home, it is also true that this aspect of RV living has fostered some creative solutions for the effective use of that space.

My main working space is a drop-leaf table covered in formica and I generally use a second drawing surface or an easel depending on what medium I’m using. The easel doubles as a drawer to hold brushes, brush holder, palette knife and tubes of watercolor and gouache. It stores away beneath the table in its upright position when not in use. The second drawing surface has alternatively been wood or masonite, both of which are also able to be stored beneath the upright table. When the table is lowered to be flush with the wall, both items store in front of it.

A shallow shelving unit has been built to enable me to have books, pads and even my laptop and iPad on the table simultaneously without cluttering or monopolizing the surface or blocking working space. It takes up less than a third of the back end of the table leaving the forward section completely clear. Pens, pencils and other tools with long thin handles are stored upright in a block of foam drilled with holes for just such a purpose, and that block is placed in a cubby built into the top of the shelving unit. They are within easy reach and since I can read the labels on them, as well as see the tips, I never have to sort through multiple tools to find the right leads, nibs or point size for whatever piece is in process.

With regard to working surfaces, anything up to 24 inches tall can be stored in a rear closet, with smaller dimension surfaces being stored flat in an overhead berth further back in the trailer. A stand for the iPad makes it easier to have reference nearby without taking up table space, and it folds down flat to store in the berth as well. My flatbed scanner is also stored back there.

There really isn’t much more that I need, to be perfectly honest. The feeling of having everything right at hand is a powerful one. I’ve also come to realize that producing a strong and accurate piece of art is much less about the materials used and more about how the artist wields those tools. I suppose that seems obvious, but it took necessary downsizing to make it perfectly clear to me. I love my little studio, and I know it will serve me very well for many years to come.

Memories and Gratitude

It is interesting to me what memories come back when one is faced with a loss that leaves a hole much bigger than expected. I’ve been sitting with the news of this loss for a few months, and this has given various stories time to surface, many of which I now understand were the seeds of major turning points in my artistic life and subsequent career. But, honestly, who understands that in their college years, especially when those years are rife with insecurity and self-doubt?

My early 20s were spent agonizing over not being enough. I had gotten my first college degree (in Fine Art) survived a toxic job situation complete with rampant sexual harassment, and now spent my evenings retreating into dim corners of whatever dance club was open. I had my sketchbook, pens and a tentative relationship with an exceptionally talented artist who was fairly well-known in the community at that time. He, too, carried his sketchbook everywhere and was well-used to the praises and accolades of his peers. I hung on his every word and took his advice to me as gospel. As the vastly superior artist, he knew better in all things, and that included what I was capable of producing. For him, I was enough. Just. It was clear to both of us that I would never be anywhere close to his level, so I didn’t bother trying.

I had just been ripped off to the tune of several thousand dollars on a large amount of spec work (I know … TRUST me, I know) that had come to me through a recommendation from this artist. He was retained by the studio owner for further work and paid quite well. I was let go with phone calls unreturned and emails bounced back. When I expressed any sorrow or anger over this, he would simply shrug and chalk it up to yet another indication of our respective worth as artists. The message could not have been clearer.

Enter Al Kamajian.

Al and I met in one of the many now-defunct Goth-Industrial cubs of NW DC where I would stake out space to draw in a darkened corner. It was the early 90s. I had just gotten my first pair of glasses, which I knew I needed but refused to wear much of the time, because vanity. Al was dating an acquaintance of mine and they spent long hours dancing together. My first working memory of Al is of watching him negotiate the dance floor with skill, joy and complete confidence. We would exchange greetings at the start of the night and farewells when either of us left. It wasn’t until he found me in my corner struggling with some cross hatching on a recent illustration that he struck up a lengthy conversation and told me that he was an artist as well.

Since my experience with other artists up to that point had me believing the myth of the starving artist, meeting Al was like a beam of focused light that lit up my perceptions of what it meant to be an artist. Not only was Al a working artist, but quite a successful one too. After our initial sketchbook meeting he made a point each week at the one particular club we both frequented to seek me out, ask what I was working on and share his current projects. He gave me advice on use of light and shadow, line weight and composition. This was not the nebulous, vague and often hurtful advice I was used to. Al was specific, gave examples, asked to borrow my pens so he could show me what he was describing. It was the sort of advice that made my artist self light up inside with an “a-ha”. When he told me I could find a current completed project of his on the magazine shelf at Borders Books (this should give you an idea of the time all this was taking place), I was eager to go and find it. It was a cover painting for Scientific American, a skeleton using primitive grinding tools. This particular cover image is now widely considered iconic, citied by many as one of their favorite illustrations from that publication. Another of those images, the Robo Tuna, is below. It is probably the piece of art for which Al is best known.

The artist I was seeing at the time was somewhat puzzled by my interactions with Al, and in hindsight I realize it was because of the changes he was seeing in my perception of my self, my work and my worth as an artist. Al was blisteringly angry when I described the spec work debacle, and while he gently but firmly chided me for working with no contract, he also recognized that my inexperience had been thoroughly exploited for another’s gain. He introduced me to the Illustrator’s Club, an organization still active in the DC Metro Area, told me about resources for recouping losses and for legal advice. It was incredibly validating to have someone actually angry on my behalf, and for that someone to be a knowledgable working artist whose perceptions and experience I could trust. Most importantly, he told me, almost apologetically, that I needed to find a better and more supportive network of friends, rather than spending time with those who discouraged my growth and constantly cited what they perceived to be my limitations.

It should be mentioned here that at the time this was all taking place, Al was close to two decades my senior, a fact he swore me to secrecy about, not wanting to attract criticism for his continued attendance at clubs that attracted a generally much-younger crowd. In our time spent together, Al was never ever intimidating, inappropriate, or creepy. He had no hidden agenda. He wasn’t setting me up for some sort of payback in the future. Al was genuinely interested in what he saw in my sketchbook, what it could mean for me as an artist and how he could help me manifest it into some sort of practical reality. He was a mentor in the true sense of the word.

As the years passed, Al’s relationship with his dance partner dissolved and I saw him less and less. By the time I stopped attending clubs altogether, he had as well, and we lost touch as our paths diverged once more. I still looked for and saw his work on the magazine stand, each time holding on to all that he had told me and encouraged me towards. In the day and age of the Internet I began looking for him to see if we might be able to reconnect, but the one email address I found was a dead end. Al was not a user of the social media that was emerging, so searches there weren’t successful either. Undeterred, I made a semi-annual pilgrimage of the Internet, but never managed to turn up anything useful.

I stayed determined to find a way to contact Al. I wanted to tell him that his advice had led me to listen to experts in the field of scientific illustration. I wanted to tell him I had sought out proper training with some of the best artists in the industry. I wanted to share that I was working within professional artistic standards and putting together a useful CV for a significant career shift following a scheduled internship. Most of all, I wanted to thank him for his very real part in laying the groundwork for it all. I wanted to thank him for his time, his interest and his expertise. I wanted to thank him for seeing the potential scientific illustrator in an insecure college student who was listening to all the wrong people at the time. 

When I met Jen Christiansen at the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators conference this past July, I knew I had found my best chance to be able to do so. She lit up with recognition at the mention of Al’s name and said that yes, she would be happy to help get me in touch. The following month, she left me a voicemail with terrible news.

In June of 2018, the world lost Al Kamajian to a rare blood disorder. It was a rapid onset illness that took less than a week to claim the life of the man who, for so many years, I had so wanted to thank, and to tell of the profound difference he had made in my life. I had missed my chance by a matter of weeks. Jen and I spoke for a while and I thanked her for letting me know. She also put me in touch with Ed Bell, Al’s former Art Director at SciAm, with whom I had the chance to connect and reminisce about our lost colleague. While Ed had known Al in a professional capacity, I had known more about his personal life, so our conversation ended up being an amazing collaboration to form a fairly complete picture of who Al was and what his world was like.

Ed very generously sent me some of Al’s preliminary sketches and some prints of the covers mentioned above, and I am profoundly grateful to have something of Al to take forward with me into my emerging career as a scientific illustrator. It is my hope that on some level, he knew that the conversation he struck up with me over my mediocre sketchbook was a turning point. I only wish I could have told him so myself.

Thank you Al, for everything you unknowingly did to get me here. You are very missed, and you will never ever be forgotten.