Written by
Heida Ma with art

Dr Heidi Ma

Postdoctoral Research Assistant

27 November 2020

How art and science go hand in hand in lockdown and helped me survive

The first of a four-part blog series about the interrelatedness of art and science by Heidi Ma. 

Art and science are creative processes to observe and understand the world and our relationship with it. Studying both environmental sciences and the visual arts academically has allowed me to view human-nature relationships with interdisciplinary lenses. 

Heidi Ma with art

As an early career researcher and practitioner in conservation, I have also maintained a regular drawing and painting practice and have thrived on the pleasure and discipline that the art world has taught me. Even before starting lessons formally in my first year of primary school, I remember the subjects I was most interested in drawing were animals. 

Art has since been an inseparable part of my life and is especially appreciated now, while confined to another lockdown in the final leg of writing my thesis. I have found the most interesting drawing and painting subjects in the organic forms of animals, landscapes, the human figure- creations of nature- and as intellectual and emotional antidotes. 

Acrylic landscape paintings by Heidi Ma
Acrylic paintings by Heidi Ma

The surprising community of scientist-artists at ZSL

My time at ZSL has been inspiring not only because it has taken me to fascinating places at the frontlines of conservation, but especially because there is a thriving community of scientist-artists at ZSL. In 2017, colleague Valentina Marconi and I co-organised an art exhibition spanning all departments, after a small-scale showcase within the Institute of Zoology in 2015. We easily filled a room with over 70 works by 25 members of staff, students, and volunteers. What moved me the most were the short descriptions that accompanied the artwork- revealing the artists’ connection with the species, the places, and the experiences that left a lasting impression on them.  

ZSL staff and student art exhibition, 2017
ZSL staff and student art exhibition, 2017

Before the pandemic, my weekly routine would include life drawing sessions in the studio. Two hours of drawing is a mentally and physically intense because it requires absolute focus of the mind, eye, and hand. During lockdown, I worked from my own photos collected in travels, in museums, of spectacular sights and of mundane everyday life, both of which are no longer taken for granted. 

Left or right-brained?

A popular theory states that the right side of the human brain is more responsible for creativity and artistic endeavours, while the left is more for rational and quantitative thinking. However, this claim is widely debated, with evidence showing that there is not a clear distinction between the artistic and analytical in the left- and right- brain after all. 

Indeed, science and art share similar working processes: observation, description, and abstraction; they can also have the same objectives: narration, expression, and communication. To excel in either typically requires years of rigorous study and practice, both in solitude and collaboratively, and a great deal of perseverance. Both also thrive on interdisciplinary curiosity and learning that drive the creative processes. In fact, research has shown that creative people in science and art share strikingly similar personality traits, have comparable cognitive skills, and that practice of the arts is related to success in the sciences. Drawing a clear line between the two can sometimes be difficult, or rather, unnecessary. 

Acrylic painting of a puffin by Melissa Schiele

Well-known scientist/artists

Besides the famous ‘Renaissance Man’ Leonardo Da Vinci, there are many other examples of scientists who were also artists, and vice versa—naturalists John James Audubon and Marie Sibelle Merian, pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and inventor Samuel Morse. Naturalists and artists have common roots in a fascination with nature; zoologists, botanists, paleontologists, and geologists often draw from personal experiences of the environment to try to understand natural patterns and processes. 

Before nature could be observed and recorded with photography and satellite remote sensing, scientists had to rely on sketching. ZSL’s Library and Archives houses an extensive collection of rare and original zoological artworks, and our knowledgeable librarians often showcase unique pieces relevant to research and conservation work. The Natural History Museum also has a large collection, hosts platforms for art-science conversations, and engages with contemporary artists to communicate with the public. 

In our time of global ecological crisis and fractured societies, I am lucky to be inspired by colleagues in conservation who share the same passions for both art and science, and to be able to access years of art lessons to diversify the limited daily routine during prolonged lockdowns and keep my mind fresh. Creativity, the fodder of both artists and scientists, resists confinement.  

In the next article, I will explore how the history of art is shaped by the environment and scientific endeavours and reflects diverse human-nature relationships. 

Find out more about Dr Heidi Ma