Insect-based hors d’oeuvres were served at an Art Science Gallery opening during the East Austin Studio Tour last November — hardly the standard art gallery canapé of cheese cubes and crackers.
But for an exhibit of insect-inspired art, an invitation to experiment with entomophagy (bug eating) proved popular. So did a class on how to crochet hyperbolic planes and a lecture by artist Emily Bryant, who creates collages from invasive plants removed from parks.
Though it occupies a sleek white-walled space among other galleries and artists’ studios in Canopy, the East Austin warehouse arts hub, much is not typical about Art Science Gallery nor its founder and owner, Hayley Gillespie.
In the few short months it’s been open, the gallery has celebrated the images capture by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, staged the collaborative "Darwin Day Portrait Project," hosted an exhibit of the international "Periodic Table of the Elements Printmaking Project" and offered a printmaking demonstration by Inked Animal, the artistic collaboration of fish biologists Adam Cohen and Ben Labay who have expanded traditional Japanese Gyotaku printmaking with fish.
With a doctorate in ecology and animal behavior from the University of Texas — her dissertation was on the endangered Barton Springs salamander — Gillespie, 33, didn’t follow the usual route to art gallery stewardship. And she doesn’t harbor the usual notions of the difference between art and science.
"To me it’s all about curiosity," says Gillespie. "Both art and science involve wondering about the unknown, hypothesizing a new interpretation, distilling a complex topic. Someone doesn’t have to be categorized as an artist or a scientist. They can intuitively blend both."
Indeed, it wasn’t until the last century or so, Gillespie notes, that art and science took divergent paths. Essential drawing has been a necessary means of scientific documentation since ancient times. Inventions for flying machines, anatomical drawings as well as the Mona Lisa — arguably the most famous painting in the world — are all part of Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable output. And naturalist John James Audubon’s watercolors of North American birds today are remembered as much for their aesthetics as for their ornithological detail.
"I’m fascinated by when that integration of art and science disappeared in our culture," says Gillespie. "Somewhere along the way the two got separated."
Gillespie grew up in Fort Worth, and that city’s plethora of museums served as her playground. And with a family evenly steeped in art and science (her immediate family includes both engineers and art-makers), Gillespie found equal inspiration in the dinosaur skeletons at Fort Worth Museum of Science and History as she did in the masterpiece paintings at the Kimball Art Museum.
"At a science museum program when I was about 8, I got to hold an iguana in my lap and I thought it was the coolest thing ever," Gillespie recalls with a smile. But then art classes ignited her creativity as did the natural beauty of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
She landed at UT after completing a bachelor of arts in biology with minors in environmental studies and studio art at Austin College. And after finishing her doctorate in 2011, Gillespie began blogging about the intersection of art and biology, sussing out scientific art-makers and creative scientists, interviewing them and publishing their work on biocreativity.wordpress.com, a blog she still maintains.
"I think that scientists have a responsibility to let people know what they do — and let people in on the fun of discovery," she says. "Otherwise, how will people know about the importance of what scientists are doing? Scientists have an obligation to be good communicators."
A year or so of organizing pop-up exhibits and programs (among other events she staged was the "Art from Ashes" benefit for Bastrop fire relief) led to Gillespie finding temporary space at Canopy last fall just in time for the East Austin Studio Tour. That move became permanent not long ago when she signed a lease, and fittingly on Earth Day, Gillespie celebrated the grand opening of her gallery in its permanent space.
Couches in the gallery provide a place for visitors to peruse publications. A small gift shop offers prints, postcards, original artwork and other artist-made science merchandise.
And if most galleries stage the occasional artist talk, Gillespie fills her calendar with informal courses for adults. This summer, she’ll teach courses on salamanders, general ecology and climate science. She’ll give a free lecture on the Barton Springs salamander on June 7.
"I want this to be a place for adults to learn about science," she says. "There’s a real hunger for science education, and there are current issues like climate change that make understanding science more important than ever."
On Saturday, a group exhibition of salamander-inspired artwork opens by 22 artists from around the world. The show dovetails with the Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation designation of 2014 as the "Year of the Salamander," but it’s also a tidy tie-in with the amphibian at the focus of her academic research. And in a bit of scientific playfulness, thanks to her connections with the city’s captive breeding facility, scientists will bring some Barton Spring salamanders to Saturday’s exhibit opening for a public appearance.
(And as much as she loves them, Gillespie doesn’t have a pet salamander. She and her husband, psychiatrist Cole Weatherby, live in South Austin where they share their home with cats — and a few pet golden topminnows, a fish common to East Texas rivers.)
In September she has a "Women in Science" group show planned. (Gillespie’s portrait of animal scientist Jane Goodall was recently featured on Scientific American’s website.) And on Día de los Muertos and Halloween, she’ll stage the "Comparative Anatomy Skeleton Zoo" exhibit of anatomically correct skeletal sculptures and calaveras.
"Art and science are symbiotic," says Gillespie. "Really, they always have been."