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Let the science draw your eye, the art exact wonder

Scott Chimileski Smithsonian great horned owl

In 1996 my dad was directing the move of the Library at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. My dad would always talk about the moves his company was doing in terms of miles of books. The Smithsonian was merging their collections, and ten miles of books had to be carefully moved–a job that would require a six week business trip. I was twelve at the time, and my brother and sister were ten and nine. Luckily for us, it was summer and we would be going this time, at least for one long weekend. What could be more exciting? The three of us, let lose, hanging out in the museum while my dad was working.

After the drive down from Connecticut, my dad showed us the area he would be working out  of, introduced us to a bunch of people he was working with, and took us through the Natural History Museum. After that, we were on our own. We walked through the long hallways with high walls, in and out of exhibits, even sneaking into a back hallway or two, and would meet up with my dad at lunchtime.

One particular memory stands out in my mind: the “Eyes on Science, Illustrating Natural History” interactive exhibit that my sister and I went to one morning.  We spent hours, that seemed like days, in this one room with long tables, bright lights, and 3D models of animals, filled with paper and color pencils of all kinds. My sister and I drew bumble bee’s. Her and I remember working hard on the fuzzy legs.  These many hairs on the bee’s appendages you might never see as it flies by, but become a main feature under high magnification. We were completely focused, recreating these creatures on paper the best that we could.  At the end, we both won a poster with an illustrated owl for doing well in the workshop, something that we felt truly proud of, a big honor for a kid! My parents had them laminated on foam board, and to this day in every place that I live it is one of the first posters I hang.

Below a watercolor Great Horned Owl painted by an artist named J.C. Anderson, with intricate brush stokes, and the perfect amount oranges and yellows, is a four line phrase: “Let the science draw your eye, the art exact wonder.” For me, it is a memory not only of this childhood trip with my brother and sister, but of one of the first times I came to appreciate that art and science are complementary, mixable human endeavors–not ways of thinking that come from unconnected parts of the brain.

Smithsonian owl JC Anderson

As humans, we are tuned to perceive color and aesthetic beauty, to feel awe, to sense grandeur, to declare magnificence. Our minds are driven by pattern and visual information, just as a bear or bloodhound is driven by scent. Each and every time I look at the owl, I am drawn into the eyes. I know the owl’s eyes are stunning examples of evolved organs of vision–made of millions of specialized photoreceptor cells, developed in the embryo with unimaginable precision, arranged exquisitely to capture light . But I was not yet a scientist the first time these eyes captured my imagination. The true measure of art is that everyone can appreciate and feel it’s power. There is no greater medium to express and share science, to attract people young and old to see a part of the nature that unites every living organism on Earth.

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  1. I was the co-curator of that exhibit and am truly delighted to see the impact that it had on you. John Anderton truly captured the sense of eyes that we wanted for that owl, to show the theme of the exhibit. I am so glad you found it of interest.

    • Thank you so much for your comment Pamela. This exhibit certainly did have an impact on me, back when I was a kid at the Smithsonian in the nineties! I have to add that the owl poster is currently sitting above my desk in Boston, where I now happen to be working on an exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History here! Best wishes, Scott