Post by Ruthanna Gordon
Welcome to MASI’s new occasional series highlighting work by our favorite science-inspired artists. We’re starting with Glendon Mellow, AKA Flying Trilobite. Mellow builds fantasies from fossils, ranging from the namesake piece that heads his blog to fuzzy pink dinosaurs. I talked with him about two of his more unusual pieces.
Evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane was not known for his patience. At one point, a Darwinian doubter suggested that evolution wasn’t specific enough to be a good theory—that it could be stretched to account for any conceivable set of findings. He asked Haldane to describe any imaginable evidence that would falsify evolution. Haldane’s terse reply: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”
Haldane’s Precambrian Puzzle, done in oil on 9 pieces of shale, at first seems a whimsical depiction of this never-found evidence. But as Mellow points out, there are clues that this is the wrong interpretation. The trilobites, for a start, don’t match up properly from section to section. And the rabbit is suspiciously un-fossil-like. It’s made of bone rather than rock, and it’s not in the typical back-arched pose.
“Scientific results,” Mellow points out, “can appear to mean one thing at first, but then turn out to mean something else.”
Put together properly, most of the “rabbit” becomes integrated into creatures you’d expect to see in the Precambrian. And the trilobites now add up. (Mellow admits a goof—one trilobite works in both configurations. Call it the sort of coincidence that keeps data analysts awake at night.)
Mellow describes the piece as an artistic challenge. Both configurations needed to work, and be plausible at first glance. He intended to play with the “debate” over evolution—with the idea that people can make arguments both ways, but if you look carefully at the evidence, one way is clearly right. In retrospect, he says, the white bones may stand out a little too much in the second configuration, and he’s considering modifications. So this piece may yet mutate and evolve.
This unusual, multi-layered piece plays with the history of the landscape around York University in Toronto. During the Cretaceous period, the area was covered by an inland sea. Most fossils that survived later glacial incursions were ammonites and other sea life. Later—much, much later—the land was used for farms. Many of the remaining fossil stones were removed when the land was tilled, and used for walls and garden boundaries. “So the idea I had behind this was to think about farmers, and then think about the fossils themselves.”
In the top left, a farmer sows flax and fossils by hand. To the right, a seed splits to release tentacles. This is reversed in the bottom left, as plant fronds grow from an ammonite. In the remaining corner, shale holds the simple image of a shell.
As a child, Mellow loved the discovery boxes available for exploration in the Royal Ontario Museum. Thinking of these, and of fossil strata, he built in additional layers to be removed and revealed. He describes the text layer as combining comments about the process of making the piece, scientific facts, and occasional bits of nonsense.
York University’s motto is “The Way Must Be Tried,” and Mellow followed that instruction by taking an experimental approach. The bottom left square is made from an acrylic polymer, mixed with ground pumice, that dries to a rocky surface. The pencil transfers were done with a gel medium, and worked particularly well with the hand on the wooden square. The piece used more materials, and more layers, than his usual digital artwork and sketches.
Reactions to the two pieces have been positive, and not always limited to the scientific art community. The Haldane piece, for example, was used to illustrate an editorial on fossilized ideas in economics. “It was interesting that an economist was looking at basically outmoded and wrong ways of thinking about his field, and using Haldane’s Precambrian Puzzle to illustrate it.”
Mellow has described Sowing Seeds as “evopunk.” A steampunk fan myself, I asked him about the term. “I believe the term was coined by Sean Craven, who blogs at Renaissance Oaf. He was directly thinking of things like cyberpunk and steampunk. I think he was talking about a sort of post-biological technology story… about a world after genetic engineering has come into its own and been normalized.”
He continues: “I think one of the hallmarks of both cyber- and steampunk is making things. They add an element of craftsmanship even with mundane items. Evopunk incorporates both of those, and also found biological objects.”
Finally, I asked Mellow about his interest in the mutual inspiration between art and science. This blog often explores that connection, particularly the way that art can be based on, and communicate, scientific findings. Mellow is constantly on the look-out for examples of the reverse—science influenced by art.
His favorite example is, of course, from paleontology. Researcher Andy Farke has described seeing, his whole life, illustrations of triceratops smashing their heads together like bighorn sheep. Finally, he decided to find out whether they actually did so. He built replicas and simulated those clashes, and discovered that they were indeed possible. Then, checking the originals, he found denser bone at the most common impact sites. It’s a terrific example of science learning from art.
Mellow’s portfolio, full of winged fossils, gothy trilobite-human hybrids, and startlingly cute dinosaurs, can be found at http://glendonmellow.com/.