Artists Find Inspiration In Genetic Research Two artists delve into DNA as subject matter for their work and the results are as different as one haplogroup to the next. Lynn Fellman and Daniel Kohn talk about their experiences in the laboratory and how their art visually represents DNA.
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Artists Find Inspiration In Genetic Research

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Artists Find Inspiration In Genetic Research

Artists Find Inspiration In Genetic Research

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

And next up, art and science with two artists who are inspired by DNA research. One of them, Lynn Fellman, is an artist who will create a personalized portrait for you using your own DNA to track down your ancestors going back thousands of years. You send off a tissue swab, and what you get back from her is a colorful self-portrait and a world map showing the route your distant ancestors took. And she's here to talk about using scientific findings to enrich your art.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LYNN FELLMAN (Digital Artist): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to have you here.

Daniel Kohn is an artist who works with DNA and genetic research. He was the artist in residence for two years at the Broad Institute. That's a genetics lab. And he set up his studio in a lab and worked along scientists, including Dr. Todd Golub, studying genetics. And he is showing his work from the lab in New York City this June.

Welcome, Daniel, to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. DANIEL KOHN (Artist): Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Where is your exhibit going to be shown?

Mr. KOHN: It's on 24th Street at Cynthia-Reeves Gallery. And it's starting next Thursday.

FLATOW: And, Lynn, you're showing today?

Ms. FELLMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: Where?

Ms. FELLMAN: My work is out on display at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory through Monday during their annual symposium called "Evolution: The Molecular Landscape."

FLATOW: Now, I have met you with other symposia, and that seems to be a place where you get inspiration for your work, and you stay current.

Ms. FELLMAN: That's so true, Ira. I love being around scientists. And it's where I do my research and where I learn and, as you said, get inspired for new ideas and how to be smarter about how I'm using science in my work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, Dan, you, too - the laboratories where you hung out to do your artwork?

Mr. KOHN: Well, for me, it's a new adventure. I've been interested in science all my life. But it only came into my art when I met Todd Golub. So it's a new adventure for me.

FLATOW: We have samples of your artwork on our Web site at for folks listening, who want to take a look at it.

Tell us how you got inspired and what happened to you at the laboratory.

Mr. KOHN: Well, I was more interested in physics. I think a lot of artists in the 20th century were really inspired by physics. And I did do a biology A level in England when I was doing my high school schooling. But Todd Golub saw my work and he wrote to me, and he said, you know, I like you work, but I'm a scientist and I'm also an amateur musician, and I like painting, and I'm curious about the interaction. And for me, that really opened up something. And we fairly quickly came to the understanding that we both saw science and art as knowledge generation fields and not as…


Mr. KOHN: …you know, subjective versus objective fields. And so, that really -that complicity between us kind of opened up the field for me.

FLATOW: How would you describe your artwork for people who don't know it?

Mr. KOHN: Well, now, it's made up of multiple panels. I'm typically working in 3 by 3 grids. It started out as a watercolor series, which was part of my way of thinking visually through discussions with scientists. And now, I've come back to the studio and I'm working - just putting finishing touches on the paintings for the show, and these are large.

So they're large oils, sort of 9 by 9 feet. And they're about structures in science. And that's what I'm interested in, rather than representing molecules or, you know, double helixes or things like that. What I'm really interested in is - are the structures we apply to understand nature, understand the world.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, Lynn, tell us about your DNA portrait. How did you come up with that idea? And, Lynn, what do you - and what do they look like, these portraits?

Ms. FELLMAN: Well, the first thing that we do if I would do your portrait, Ira, is I would give you a lab kit - and I use the genographic lab kit, which is, like you said, buccal swabs, the cells from the inside of your cheek. And you would choose to do your Y chromosome or your mitochondrial, male or female, and you'd send that into the lab. And it's confidential. But I would help track the number for you.

And the day that that comes back, then I put into one of my images. And I've developed several images. I'm a digital artist. So while I'm waiting for those lab results, I'm doing some pencil sketches of your face, if I would do your face, and getting my composition just right. And then that comes into the computer. And I essentially redraw because I do vector graphics, and I add a lot of color, transparencies, layers, it gets very complex on the screen.

The output, though, is from my really big Giclee printer - on 100 percent rag paper. So they're really nice, large images, usually. And I print on silk as well. So like I said, I'd pick up that data online with your Y chromosome information, say, if you want to do your father's line. And that goes in a landscape with your face. So it's an interesting combination of a portrait idea and a landscape idea.

And then the best part, of course, is that haplogroup, your haplogroup, which comes out of Africa - we're all Africans. This is a deep ancestry prehistory and ends up then wherever your, perhaps your family started. Still, you end up, yeah.

FLATOW: We're you always interested in science?

Ms. FELLMAN: You know, I always was.

FLATOW: But - even while you were doing artwork early on?

Ms. FELLMAN: Well, as a little kid, it was National Geographic and the Leakeys is in Africa and "Origins" and I loved that stuff. And then Desmond Morris came out with "The Naked Ape." I mean, who couldn't love a book called that, "Naked Ape?"

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. FELLMAN: But I was an artist as well. And just got interested again when mitochondrial DNA was looked at to find deep ancestry.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking about artwork with Lynn Fellman and Daniel Kohn, two artists who use science to inspire them. Also, we're twittering. Tweet us at @scifri, at S-C-I-F-R-I, we have our 16,000th Twitter member. So we're very happy to keep expanding our audience.

Daniel, how has your work been affected since you started working with genetics? Have you found things about yourself or made discoveries - or changed your style since you discovered genetics?

Mr. KOHN: Well, my style has - what my paintings look like has changed dramatically.


Mr. KOHN: I used to be with interiors and landscapes. And now they're - you would call them abstract. And - but I think that the continuity is that I've always been interested in place, and place as a complex notion that brings together physical place but also cultural place, the rhythms of the culture that you live in, the history that - and the rhythm of that history.

And so, you know, I was doing this place of - this house in France, which was sort of an invented home for me, and then the place of New York through the World Trade Center.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KOHN: And I realized a couple of years after I had met Todd that what I was moving into was the place of science, and through that, the place of contemporary society - because I think science is a revealer of a contemporary worldview, and that I think there's a new worldview that has been in the shaping - new is maybe the wrong term, but has been in the shaping for, say, 100 years, that started, really, in mathematics and in physics and now has been sweeping through our society and is really creating new challenges for understanding.


Mr. KOHN: And so I really saw that that was something that I was interested in. That was something that was being pursued at a place like the Broad. And I felt that I could not only learn about science and learn from them, but that I could contribute to that project and actually help them do better science.

So the project of the artist in residency is actually how to, in some way, make the burdens too permeable to science, I mean, to art…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KOHN: …so that you don't just have an artist in residence. You have speakers. You have, you know, all different kinds of shows, and you bring in artists in all of their modalities as thinkers and as makers, and have that interaction sort of reveal ways of addressing - new ways of addressing things.

FLATOW: Lynn Fellman, I see you shaking your head. These things - they resonate.

Ms. FELLMAN: Oh, very much so. And just to say Daniel, too, and elaborate a bit, is that the previous century was a century for physics, and very much an impact on what we saw in cubism, the way space was changed by artists seeing, you know, understanding the new physics.

This is the century for the life sciences. And it's been 55 years now, we've had the structure of DNA. And Jim Watson built up and developed Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. And that's one of the hubs of the biosciences.

And after 55 years, they've done incredible work but there's still so many new things that are happening, incredible first-time new things. And who couldn't get excited by that and be inspired?

FLATOW: Well, as an artist you were telling me, in Cold Spring Harbor, you were hanging out with E. O. Wilson…

Ms. FELLMAN: Oh my gosh.

FLATOW: …the superstars of the scientific world. How did they treat you as an artist, seeing you're at a wholly different side of the aisle, so to speak?

Ms. FELLMAN: They're really glad I'm there, and they're gracious. And E. O. Wilson is one of the nicest men in the world.

FLATOW: We know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FELLMAN: Yeah. And Craig Venter was there, wonderful synthetic biology presentation he gave. But it's - they'll stop and look at my art, and the colors, the shapes will grab you first. And then they'll say, wait a minute, how are you using DNA in here? Explain this to me.

They're very much into their specific fields, so when I talk about haplogroups in this way, some of it is a little bit different.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, see if we got a phone call, to Ray in Tallahassee. Hi, Ray.

RAY (Caller): Hi, Ira. How are you doing today?

FLATOW: Fine. How are you?

RAY: Pretty good. Thanks for the show. I listen all the time.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Thanks.

RAY: I am primarily a scientist, but I've often had the desire to get involved in the arts and to try to bring science into the arts. What your guest - do your guests have any suggestions as how a person primarily involved in one area can get more involved in the other area?

FLATOW: Let me start with Dan because he hangs around scientists in these labs. Dan, do they want - seem more interested at all?

Mr. KOHN: Well…

FLATOW: How do you get them? How could - what could you suggest?

Mr. KOHN: When Lynn was talking, I was also shaking my - I mean, nodding because I think scientists who are at the top of their field are very synthetic thinkers, and they think in a lot - they are able to think in a lot of different dimensions simultaneously.

And when we come as artists and talk about - you know, I remember having a discussion with Eric Landers(ph) and I finished by saying, you know, I think I can help you represent contemporary reality better and therefore make better science.

He said, of course. You know, I thought he was going to say I was crazy, but he completely understood where I was coming from.


Mr. KOHN: And so I would encourage you to contact artists, or if you have an inclination to as a maker - I mean, because as artists we're makers. And that's how we process reality. And as scientist, you are also makers. So we have a lot in common. And you know, go ahead and experiment because that's how we move forward.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOHN: And part of - sorry. Part of the…

FLATOW: It's okay.

Mr. KOHN: …part of the way, I think, we're going to answer these contemporary problems is by coming from these, apparently, radically different perspectives and shining light on this contemporary space. And we need each other.

FLATOW: Lynn Fellman, do you agree?

Ms. FELLMAN: Well, here's something to try, which I loved - get your hands dirty, get your hands on. There's a biophysicist at the University of Minnesota I do some collaboration with, Perry Hackett. And I said, Perry, let's go have fun throwing some clay.

And you know, men with three-dimensional - I thought perfect. And so we threw on the wheel these big amounts of clay. It was a riot. But it was a way to just, you know, really get in, work with some materials. Art is about materials, just like science.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with artists Lynn Fellman and Daniel Kohn on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, who can't draw a stick figure…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …just to play "Hangman."

Mr. KOHN: Perhaps you (unintelligible)

FLATOW: I have tried all - I have tried artwork and whatever. I find that if I just pick up a pencil and let it go on by itself…

Mr. KOHN: There you go.

FLATOW: …instead of me trying to direct it so much?

Mr. KOHN: Perhaps you should experiment with that.

FLATOW: I have, you know, it works a little better. But…

Ms. FELLMAN: Andre Breton call that automatic writing, right, automatic drawing, yeah. Surrealist?

FLATOW: And we have seen all these cases where scientists have crossed over into the arts. There's Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann and all these people who have gone into the theater, in the arts that way. So it is possible for those two cultures.

You know, we're in the 50th anniversary of the "Two Cultures," that famous essay, and there can be a bridging.

Ms. FELLMAN: Oh, absolutely. I think both of our work does a bridge…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FELLMAN: …but don't you think, Daniel, too, that scientists - all the ones I've met - have a high sense of the aesthetic? Their work and their ideas - we live in a world of ideas, as they do - and they have that sense already and really embrace the arts, mostly.

FLATOW: Yeah. They do love seeing order and disorder, you know, in certain ways. (Unintelligible) where's the disorder, where's the order in it, so…

Mr. KOHN: I mean, also a lot of scientists are artists and have a practice - I mean at the Broad they sort of come out of the woodwork on a regular basis. You can, you know, you meet someone and they go, oh, I'm a violinist or I'm a painter, and I'm a - but often what is lacking is an understanding of the connection between them.

And that's where, I think, there's some exploration to do in this place of interface in trying to - I think it's not only that they can communicate. It's that it's absolutely vital at the moment that science and art communicate in order to understand. We're entering a very complex place. You know, we're looking at - I think the shift has been that we're entering a time in which we're looking at complexity and trying to understand the world from the perspective of complexity.

And that means evolving new sets of tools and evolving our representational system to deal with these new challenges. How do you represent complex networks? How do you represent n-dimensional space? And you know, in the same way that the perspectival system as we know it evolved at a particular time in the Quattrocentro to sort of accompany its time, you know, with the rise of bourgeoisie and the kind of shift of power structure and the rise of Protestantism.

So you have the system that came all of a sudden instead of having something mediated by hierarchy, you have all of a sudden representation as this picture plane that comes between you and infinity. And it's Protestantism, right? You have a direct relationship to God.

And now we are in a time where we're trying to evolve a new system of understanding. And some of the old - I mean, we always understand the new through old tools, and we have to evolve those tools. And I think this meeting of science and art is one of the contemporary attempts to evolve these new tools.

FLATOW: Any final comments about that, Lynn?

Ms. FELLMAN: Well, that's so true. And something else that really happens -it's, I think, for me is most exciting is when my art gets in front of people, they stop, they look, and they say, wait a minute, and they start asking questions. And even more fun - then they start talking amongst each other and thinking about their families and connections to the past and what this means for the future. It's a wonderful way to get people engaged in science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, if you want to check more of the work of Lynn Fellman, who does your DNA portrait, and Daniel Kohn, who's an artist who does work with DNA and genetic research, you can check out our Web site at And also - just, again, you'll be exhibiting here in New York in…

Mr. KOHN: I have a show opening next Thursday, June 4th. And also I wanted to invite people. We're having a discussion on the topic of the interaction of science and art with Harold Varmus and Todd Golub, who is head of the cancer program at the Broad. And I would love people to come and participate.

FLATOW: What date?

Mr. KOHN: It's June 17th. It's a Wednesday, from 6:00 to 8:00.

FLATOW: Okay. We've run out of time. And Lynn, they can get your DNA portrait in your Web site…

Ms. FELLMAN: Simply go to my Web site and just watch for shows that I've got coming in Minneapolis and around the country.

FLATOW: And your Web site is mirrored on our Web site in case people need to find it.


FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. KOHN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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