Name: Jennifer Hall
Occupation: Scientific Artist
Age at interview: 31
Country of residence: America
Languages spoken: English
Advice to other women: "Listen and really take the time to reflect on the things that people are telling you in the field that you’re interested in. Really exercise silence because there’s a lot of information if you listen"
Today I have the honour of interviewing Jennifer Hall who is a Scientific Artist. That's just one title of Jenn’s, she actually has a very long resume of artistic achievements - but I’ll let Jenn take it away now and tell us what it is that she does currently.
Yes hi there, thank you for interviewing me, it’s an honour. I’m really excited to talk about what I do. It is a little bit hard to give it one term because so many of the different jobs that I do as I’ve mentioned before are commission based. So depending on what the job is, I might be called scientific illustrator, a paleo artist, just an illustrator artist and sometimes even taxidermist. I do taxidermy work as well.
I wear a lot of different hats. I also work in a museum, the Carter County museum in Ekalaka Montana which is Montana’s first dinosaur museum. I do a lot of communications for them. My title here is 'Marketing and Communications Coordinator'. That involves a lot of outreach either through email, marketing, advertising and then the actual visual communication aspect that you will see in museum exhibits.
That’s fantastic it sounds really diverse. I guess 'scientific artist' isn’t a title that a lot of people will be familiar with. What is it about this aspect of art that particularly appeals to you?
My background is… I’ve always been an artist. I’ve always studied art. I went to art school but I really have had a hard time feeling super compelled to work without a more defined reason; why am I communicating? What do I want to communicate? What do I think is worth communicating? For me, the natural world became a very compelling thing to talk about in my work and not just to make beautiful pictures, which of course is one goal, but to help people learn valuable educational lessons through visual communication.
It is one thing to go to a museum and read the words or read a text book or a book or whatever it is, but visual communication, art for me is truly a universal language. For me there’s pretty much nothing I would rather talk about than all the incredible things that nature has made over the history of the universe from beginning to end. I find it all fascinating and my favourite way to talk about that is visually.
How did you actually come to be a scientific artist? Was there any particular path that you took professionally or academically to get where you are now?
Yeah. I can’t say that any of this was planned. My undergraduate degree is in fine art and I had a focus in print making. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the museum; it's the nation’s first museum, art museum and its first art school. It has a really long lineage of (great artists) … Mary Cassat went there, David Lynch went there, so we've got some really interesting artists that have gone there through the years. The more I began working in print making the more the natural world began to manifest in my work.
The school also has a programme with the University of Pennsylvania which is actually where I got my degree ultimately. I picked up a minor in geology when I was studying at UPenn. One of the things that I found about geology was that not just the study of rocks and things that are more static pillars of nature, but how the fossil record can talk about the history of life on earth and how much we can learn about that. I saw a real vacancy there for …Well, we can take pictures today. We live in this incredible age where everybody can really, we can all be more visually oriented. But for me I felt like the challenge of creating an image and communicating about things that there’s no way to take a picture of a dinosaur, there’s no way to take a picture of what the earth looked like 70 million years ago, 150 million years ago or a billion years ago. So to spend my time kind of thinking about how that might that have looked, talking to researchers - which is always a fascinating thing - I get to work with a lot of scientists.
When I was at UPenn, the more classes I took, I kind of got to the illustration aspect of my labs. I did very complex illustrations for my labs and then my last year there I ended up as kind of part of my course work illustrating one of my teachers publications. Through that, I was able to network. He introduced me to Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger who had done the dinosaur illustrations for the Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian in DC. They had done a lot of work in pre-historic visualisation. They were kind of my mentors and I learned a lot with them and just through networking and picking up the different jobs I just never said no. I wanted to do as many as I could to learn about this. That’s pretty much how I got in to it. It was kind of a very organic progression of events.
What about the art itself? Are there any particular topics within scientific art that you are interested in? Like do you like dinosaurs? Is there anything you focus on?
I have to say that I love going out into nature, I love going into natural history museums and sketching what's in front of me. Sketching from observation for me is one of the most therapeutic and educational ways to really understand biology. That said, I think what I do enjoy more is doing recreations of extinct animals. I wouldn’t say I’m as good as that as I am at life observation because it’s a much bigger challenge, but that is ultimately why I like it more. It’s a bigger challenge. It kind of compels me to go into work the next day and keep thinking and keep trying to do better and keep working on my craft and keep thinking about these kind of deep thoughts about deep time.
Have you done any kind of field work with the museums or even your university?
Yeah. When I was an undergrad, I did do some field work in New Jersey. New Jersey is actually, a lot of people don’t know this, but a very good place to find dinosaur fossils. So that was kind of my introduction to field work. Over the years I got acquainted with some palaeontologists at the University of Southern California and ended up going out with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on some digs in New Mexico. I’ve also done field work in Montana. I’m privileged to do field work on a pretty regular basis. So I do get to go out quite a bit and look for and study the geological record that is out there.
I get a very intimate exposure to that part of it. Again it's kind of, if I’m not drawing or painting or sculpting or doing taxidermy, that is the next best thing - is to be out in the field looking for the evidence of these questions that I have when I’m working on these projects.
It sounds fascinating I think most people when they are kids can remember thinking of dinosaurs and playing with dinosaurs. I was wondering what it was like for you when you found your first fossil? Were you really excited?
That’s a great question. I have to say that my first fossil was… I don’t even remember what it was. It was probably like a shark tooth in New Jersey. Some people in the palaeontological community are just known. They'll step out and it's like the fossil crawls out of the ground for them and they just make these incredible (findings) ... I have hiked many, many miles and had kind of just nothing scientifically ground breaking. No discoveries like that. That said, I have been able to work on other people discoveries and that for me, while I haven’t had any kind of like I said ‘ground breaking discoveries’ myself, if I find a tyrannosaur tooth, that’s not scientifically ground breaking. However, it is extremely exciting to think that this thing that I’m holding hasn’t seen the light of day in 70 million years and this thing was actually part of an animal that participated in life. That’s pretty exciting. There is a rush there. I’m not sure I can point to any one single find or event in the field but I have to say that every time, it’s kind of like you find one thing and it’s addictive you just want to keep going out and going out looking. It’s like a treasure hunt. It’s very compelling.
I can image it would be. I think regardless of how big or small the finding, I can imagine the excitement or the rush that you would feel. It sounds incredible.
It is, it’s very satisfying.
You’ve mentioned it a few times now and I’m really interested in your taxidermy. What is it about taxidermy that captures your imagination?
When I moved to Los Angeles, my paleo art career, I was beginning to get a foothold in it. I was beginning to build up a resume that was passable as having actually done real work in the field. I realised that, as I said before my strength is drawing from life, and when you are doing any kind of scientific illustration, having something that is beautiful is really nice but having something that is accurate is much more important. I felt that my exposure to dinosaur biology which is really … I love doing any kind of recreation of an extinct of animal but dinosaurs especially because who doesn’t want to do that?!
Of course! (laughs)
I felt that there was really no better way to do that than to study the only living dinosaurs that we have which are birds. A lot of people don’t know that birds are technically dinosaurs. We call them avian dinosaurs. They made it through the extinction event. All other dinosaurs we call none-avian dinosaurs so that speaks for itself. I signed up for a taxidermy class with a taxidermist in Los Angeles named Allis Markham. I learned a lot with her. I ended up working with her at her studio ‘Prey Taxidermy’ in Los Angeles. We had a great time working together and she showed me a lot about bird biology. I learned so much that I just never would have been able to learn through a more theoretical approach.
There’s a lot of anatomical movement that I didn’t expect to encounter. There was a lot of just things that you become … When you work with a deceased animal and you work intimately with the anatomy like that, you get more of an intuitive sense of that biology. That really ultimately did very much help my paleo art as well. So it sounds like they're two separate fields but for me they are actually quite intimately linked.
This is just a question because I have worked in the animal fields previously myself; I was wondering how do you deal with these animals when they are coming in? I mean are you working with a frozen animal? I know they can deteriorate quickly. How do you mitigate all of that deterioration?
I have a freezer that’s really, really full. My roommate, I promised not to put in any dead things in our freezer so I have my own taxidermy freezer and that’s the best way at first to kind of preserve that when an animal comes in. I don’t normally skin something fresh, I like to freeze it. That kills any flees or ticks or whatever kind of pests you might find on the animal. Once it begins to thaw, it is a bit of a race against the clock. Once you get the body out and you are just left with the skin, it’s not a real problem with decomposition. Even when you do have to spend a few hours with the body, as long as you are not sitting out in the hot sun letting the sun bake your specimen, you get a little bit of a window. You don’t kind of have to rush which is good because the scalpels are very sharp.
So yeah there’s this perfect window where things are still cool from the freezer, they don’t smell. Sometimes you do end up working with … Somebody brings in road kill that is just hitting that point where it’s beginning to smell but the specimen is good enough that you are going to do it anyway. Worst case scenario, wear a respirator to block out the smell. It’s ultimately not the most unpleasant part of the taxidermy in my opinion.
I don’t know the technical term for it but what about the moulds that the skin goes on? Do you make them as well or are they supplied to you?
It really depends on the project. I do prefer to sculpt; they are called forms, so taxidermy forms. You can buy them commercially from places, commercial taxidermy supply companies that are easy to find online; McKenzie, Van Dyke’s, Research Manikins, all these places that have really fantastic sculptors working to make these forms and you can order them in different sizes. That’s very convenient if you need to get through something quickly. Personally because I like the artistic aspect and also it's a money saver, I prefer sculpting my own. It’s more of a challenge. Again it’s learning experience so I feel that it’s the process of taxidermy in which I get the most satisfaction. The end result is always fun so it’s fun to have something that you are proud of to give to a client that they are excited to have. But for me it’s the process so yeah I like to sculpt my own forms.
This is similar to a question I asked about the fossils but it’s interesting to me. What was your first taxidermy model that you completed? It must have been quite an achievement for you?
Well, yes and no. So in that first class it was called Birds 101 and she still offers it, we worked on European starlings which are pest animals. They are invasive and so they are culled especially at airports and things like that. So we were working on European starlings, I did actually make my own form for that. Luckily, bird anatomy is interesting in that the shape of a bird is really more about what the feathers are doing. If you’ve ever just seen like a naked chicken or something like that, it doesn’t look like a chicken, the shape is completely different, the form is completely different. It was a little bit forgiving in that I could mess up and make something that wasn't quite so perfect and still get away with it. If I was grooming the feathers properly you wouldn’t know, you can kind of make this potato shaped thing which is more or less what a bird body is. It's kind of like a football potato shaped thing. So that was very satisfying.
I’d say that probably the most satisfying form sculpt that I have done, I did a reconstruction of a dinosaur called the Micro Raptor, which is a feather dinosaur that had flight feathers on its hind legs. So I did a recreation of that and that involved a lot of measuring and sculpting and talking to palaeontologists, who are familiar with the creature, about the muscle anatomy and how it might have naturally posed. Would its femur have been at a more perpendicular angle to the ground? Would it have been more parallel? What are the angles that we can achieve here that would indicate a realistic life pose? That for me, that was a good feeling of accomplishment for sure.
Who supplies the animals to you? Do you work on commission? Do you work with museums? How did that come about?
Once I started working at Prey, my museum work really increased at that point and here in Montana I do quite a bit of taxidermy for the museum. I do it commercially and privately as well. I’d say that most of the animals that I work with they are natural deaths. I don’t necessarily participate in taxidermy in which the animal has died for the art. Most times it’s pest work so there is a fox killing somebody’s chickens or there is coyotes messing with somebody’s ranch or again, an invasive species that has to be culled to protect the ecology, or again, in Montana especially, we get quite a bit of road kill.
I don’t need to go hunting to get my specimens because they come in the door so quickly. Everything dies. It’s really surprising how easy it is frequently to get specimens in the door. I just kind of put a word out that if somebody has a dead thing that they find and they want it taxidermied or they don’t want a taxidermy but they think I might want to do it. Still born births out here are a big thing in the ranching community, calves that are still born, I do sometimes get those donated.
It’s all sorts of different places and a lot of people kind of get nervous about the sourcing of dead animals but I think that there are ways to do it. Everybody has their own ethics. There are ways to do it that comply with just a respect for nature and the animal and the life it lived and what it does for education posthumously.
Absolutely and I was actually going to say that as well; not only are you taking ethically from the environment, but these animals are going on to be education tools which is fantastic.
I try to make sure … Even with private commissions where people want something in their home, I think that there is a lot of education in keeping something scientifically, a visual scientific reference in your home. I think that we’ve put a lot of junk in our houses and to have something that is just such a homage to biology and to nature's beauty is a really good way to just casually provide science education in your own space.
Just a slight tangent now but I noticed when we were trying to organise this interview, there was a reference to a ‘Dino Shindig’ (laughs). I was wondering what that was. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah I can. So the Dino Shindig is an event that the Carter County Museum that I work for, we hold it at the end of every July. This year it’s July 29th and 30th and it’s … The best way to describe it is a big dinosaur party in the middle of nowhere. It’s a lot of fun. On Saturday we have palaeontologists come in from all over the country, all over the world in fact. We have a palaeontologist come in from china this year Jin Meng, a very accomplished palaeontologist in the field. We've got Kirk Johnson from the Natural History Museum in DC Smithsonian. We’ve got Tyler Lyson who works at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science so we’ve got … And just the list goes on.
They come and they do a bunch of talks at the museum about what they are studying in their personal palaeontological research or we'll also have people come from … We have somebody that comes from the Bureau of Land Management' to talk about ways that the federal government protects the land for us; finding fossils on public land, doing so ethically. So it’s all this different approaches to palaeontology. At the same time we have kid’s museum activities, we’ve got games and crafts, we have robotic T-Rex that crushes coconuts. It was built by our curator. It was actually his high school project. He is now studying for his PhD at the University of Southern California, his name is Nathan Carol.
We’ve got kind of this big dinosaur educational extravaganza during the day on Saturday. On Saturday night we do have a street dance. It's the ‘Shindig’, part of the Shindig where we have a live band. People put on their cowboy boots and we do get hundreds of people to a town that really only has a few hundred people as its population. It’s quite an event. Everybody in town looks forward to it every year and I think that the people that come in are pretty stoked every year to be a part of something that is so authentic.
One of the reasons that we are able to get so many people to come to this rather remote location is that we are in the middle of something called the 'Hell Creek Formation' which is a late cretaceous of the last age of dinosaurs, just the very, very end of the Mesozoic when dinosaurs were kind of the “rulers of the earth” as they say. This area, the 'Hell Creek Formation', is very well known for its dinosaur discoveries. Many of the dinosaurs that you see in the Natural History Museum, in the Field Museum, in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, all these museums, they all have fossils that come from our area - Carter County Museum - and in certain cases the town here Ekalaka, specifically from this town.
We have excellent exposure with some really incredible dinosaurs kept in pretty good condition over millions of years, like it’s preserved here. Because of that, on Sunday we have a paid dig. It used to be $50 now it’s $75 so it’s pretty much the cheapest paid dig that you are going to be able to do anywhere ever as far as I know. We take families out into the field, people who want a taste of a palaeontologist life and we give them an authentic palaeontological experience. They get to come out, they could do actual prospecting for dinosaurs. If they find something that we end up displaying in the museum, their name goes in the didactic material for that.
They get credit for that but we take them to a number of different sites. As I said, Nathan Carol from the University of Southern California, he is studying amber right now so we do have participants that come out into the field and they help us look for amber. We are looking for traces of animals preserved in amber just like in Jurassic park but much tinier. Then we have actual excavation.
Last year we brought out a triceratops frill. We've brought out ribs, really nice big bones and people get a little bit of a taste of every part of what field work is like. So that’s a really fun thing that we provide that isn’t necessarily available by every natural history museum, so we are very fortunate to do that.
I must say that sounds, actually amazing and I’m a little bit jealous! I wish I could participate in something like that!
You can! Get on a plane and I'll save you a spot!
I’ll keep that in mind absolutely! (laughs)
Yeah every year at the end of July.
Every year, okay then I’ll put that in my calendar then – honestly, that sounds incredible.
It is like I said a very authentic palaeontological experience. There's no hand holding, we don’t plant any fossils and it's a blast.
I’m sure everyone has gathered this from the conversation so far. But what you do really sounds like the perfect mix between science and art. How important do you think it is to have that scientific knowledge and biological knowledge in what you do currently?
I think it’s pretty important as with anything, you've got to love what you do. If you aren’t totally obsessed with every aspect of it, if you're just obsessed with the art but the science is just meh, then you are not going to take that scientific trajectory. Likewise, if you like the science but the art is just meh, there's a very little chance you are going to be a paleo artist. People's passion for what they do does shine through. I’d say the more into the science you are, the more accurate your images are going to be, the more, kind of … You know, people say that … I’ve heard it said frequently that science and art are very different disciplines. One requires creativity and the other doesn’t. But scientific process is a very creative process. It requires very creative thinking about problems that nobody has an answer to. It’s creativity and problem solving and science and art are for me, are very intertwined. So, I say it’s pretty important but that said you can hone your interest in the scientific process. For example, I’m not so great with dinosaur names. I’m not one of those people that can just rattle them off but I’m pretty interested in behaviour, colour and some of the field work that goes into trying to figure out when somebody finds a dinosaur and the skin texture is preserved. That for me is very interesting. You can kind of tailor your craft into your specific interest but I do think it is important to be on top of your science.
And I think that's a really interesting and valid perspective actually about science itself. You are right. I think people do put a big gate between science and art but as you just said, you're right, it requires abstract thinking and thinking about things differently which obviously overlaps.
What about being a woman in your field specifically? Is it a supportive environment? What does that environment look like for women?
That's a really good question and I get that question a lot. I have had an overwhelmingly, supportive, welcoming reception in to this field. In any field, you are going to have people who are closed off or cast you a sideways glance and maybe are guarded, but the truth is that palaeontologists and geologists I have found to be really gregarious people and it’s one of the reasons I liked the field.
It’s not enough to like what you do, you've got to do it with friends or else it’s going to be a really sterile experience. I would say that me being a woman in the field, yeah I’d say that there … If you look at taxidermy it’s a traditionally male dominated field, if you look at science illustration, yeah probably male dominated as well but you get females and very successful women in all of these fields doing really, really incredible work. Emily Willoughby comes to mind as a paleo artist who just has these fantastic illustrations of different dinosaurs and birds and things like that. I’d say that the community is very welcoming, it’s very forward-thinking, it’s very modern as far as the reception of women and I think we’re kind of hopefully moving towards an age when it’s becoming far more balanced.
That’s fantastic. Would you say that even in the time that you’ve been doing it, you think that there’s more equality there?
I think so and I think that the internet has a lot to do with that. I would say that, I’m 31 years old so I’ve been able to witness the progression of the internet as it pertains to the sharing of information and artwork and visual communication. I think that women more than ever are realising that there is absolutely nothing to stop them from succeeding in this field where the more we communicate the more we realise there’s no reason why I can’t be doing this as well.
You’ve also touched on this a little bit previously but I was interested in how important you would say networking and making contacts has been for your career?
Another really good question. I’d say that networking and making contacts is supremely important - and that’s not to say that I support a field of nepotism or anything like that. Just to say that when networking and making friends for me, sometimes I feel bad because I get to go to these conferences and I get to make money making friends. I’m like, “Uh! That feels weird.” But the truth is, if you want to be successful, two heads are better than one, three are better than two and if you can be part of a team of people that support each other, it’s kind of your zombie apocalypse team. You don’t want to be in the zombie apocalypse alone. You don’t want to be in any field alone. You get somebody who is special at this, somebody who is really interested at that and together you can rally and form something that elevates everybody and everybody helps each other.
So I’d say that networking is important not just for this kind of community spirit, which helps the field overall but networking is important because you might be the right person for the right job and unless you’re getting your name out there, if they don’t know you exist, you are going to have a hard time. I’d say that networking is pretty important, but that I don’t always necessarily think of it in that cold sterile sense because it does make it kind of sound kind of skivvy like, “Hey. You want to be my friend so you can give me money?” For me it’s more like, “Let’s talk about what we both love and maybe end up doing a project together.”
It’s quite intertwined, isn’t it?
Yeah. So putting your art out there and yourself out there requires confidence. In fact I think with art in particular, you’re literally creating something that has your name behind it and basically getting people to look at it. So I was wondering how you encourage confidence in yourself. Has that come naturally for you?
I’d say an artist or anybody who does anything really, if you want to propel yourself forward, you have to be your own biggest fan and your own worst critic at the same time. The metaphor I like to use is, if you’re 31 years old and you are running races against 5 year olds, yeah you’re going to win every time. If you’re running against marathon runners, you may never win but you will get faster every time because they are … You have to become okay with not being the best but being the best that you can be. I’d say that for me, that a lot of what helps me build confidence is, well every once in a while you get a slam dunk, a home run and you just have to give yourself a pat on the back but more frequently you think, “Man, I would do this differently next time but there will be a next time so I’m just going to take these lessons and go forward.”
Especially over time, it takes time to build a portfolio but you begin to see a progression and then you realise, “Yeah. I’m not stagnant and I’m actually getting better,” and that helps your confidence as well. I’d say that. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have days where I feel like, “Ooh. I’m the worst and I should just give up.” There are certainly those moments as well but I think that’s just kind of, that’s when I open the sketch book and start drawing from life honestly. I go back to the thing that I love and I remind myself why I love doing what I do and then I go back into the arena. Then I go back into trying to do something that’s truly challenging.
You must on occasion be confronted with criticism potentially about art that you’ve done or work that you’ve done. How do you cope with that?
There’s a song, ‘brush your shoulders off’, I kind of try to adopt that attitude but it’s not always possible, we are only human. I think that there was a time in my younger life, in my younger career when I would get defensive and come up with all these reasons why my critics were wrong. Then you get down the road and you get better and the problem goes away and you go, “Oh well my critic was right but I figured it out on my own.” There’s a lot of ego in that and so to just say like, “Okay. I don’t really like the way that this is being said to me or about me or my work but there might be substance in it and what do I want more? To feed my ego or to feed my craft?” and so to kind of let go of the ego.
Sometimes people are just going to be rude, mean and awful, that happens too. In that case, yeah you really have to just brush your shoulders off, let it roll off and go on with your day. But every once in a while you’ll get ripped apart and beneath whatever is going on in that person’s day, there might be valid criticism and so if you can use it to grow, then you’re going to be a winner every time.
That's a very honest and valuable answer I think because criticism is something we all have to deal with on occasion. So I think it’s good that people know that it’s okay to receive criticism and it’s how you deal with it that determines whether it’s productive for you or not.
Absolutely. There are artists out there who I personally think are flawless but they receive criticism. Everybody receives criticism and I’m sure that they have their own ways of dealing with it. But I can guarantee you that one of the reasons criticism hurts is, it hurt’s because it’s true sometimes. You don’t have to wrestle with it. Once you kind of realise, “Okay. I’m not going to wrestle with this criticism. I’m just going to work on that thing and I won’t get that criticism again hopefully.”
That’s right. You are obviously very, very talented but you also work very hard. What has it been like for you developing as an artist? Have you always had that natural ability to do art or is it something that you had to work on and develop?
I can say that I’ve always been an artist, it’s never been a question for me. It’s a part of my identity. One of my earliest memories is an orange crayon, my dad showing me what a crayon was. I mean that really stuck. When people say, “When did you get into art?” I came out like this. That said, I wasn’t always the best, I’m not the best by any means now and I never will be, but the more hours you put into your skill, into your craft, the better you’re going to be. They say that if you do something for 10,000 hours, you‘ll be a master. I don’t know how many hours I’ve logged on any of these things but I do know that the more I do, the better I get. That’s a pretty simple recipe. Just keep doing it.
There are times when it’s like, “I don’t want to open the sketch book”. It’s like working out. Going to the gym. You may go to the gym and you don’t see any noticeable results but you just go to the gym to maintain it. Your brain is this fantastic muscle that just has to be exercised. I do notice if I draw every day, I’m happier with the results. I can kind of metaphorically weight lift more but if I let myself watch TV too much -which I do - or if I’m travelling and I don’t get a chance to really do what I do, then you come back and you get rusty but then you get back into it. Breaks are good as well. You don’t want to kill yourself, you don’t want to overdo it. I’d say that anybody that’s ever been good at anything, they weren’t born that way, they worked their butts off and they put the time in. It’s easier to put the time in when it’s something that you love to do. There is that consolation.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I do so much. I think that the thing I enjoy the most in any project is, when you’re an artist you’ll work alone a lot, you’re in your head a lot, you’re thinking … I listen to lot of podcasts and stuff like that but it’s just you and the work and the hours can kind of … you lose sense of time but every once in a while something happens. You do a drawing or you do a part of a drawing or you put together an animal and the feathers are just coming together just right or you meet somebody in the field and you find a dinosaur. All these little moments of gratification, that’s my favourite thing, is these kind of tiny celebrations every day, that’s my favourite thing.
Criticism is hard but compliments are even harder for me because I don't want to come off like, “Oh well, thanks. I know it’s good.” That’s always nice to hear too because it indicates that what you’re doing it’s entertaining somebody, it’s bringing them joy in some way. That’s also really gratifying. But I’d say that those little celebratory moments where the work you put in, it’s right there all of a sudden and maybe you won’t have a moment like that for another day or another week or another year or month or whatever it is but those tiny celebrations, that’s my favourite thing.
That’s a fantastic point and thank you for bringing it up - about receiving compliments and not being able to take them necessarily easily. I think that’s a very, very common thing that people encounter. It’s like you feel when you receive a compliment, you can’t accept it because that says something about you, but really we should be accepting these compliments.
We should. I’ve been more recently putting a more concerted effort into being better about taking a compliment because I love giving them to other people because it’s my way of saying like, “Man, yeah. Hell yeah. Good job. Keep going.” To kind of turn that down as an artist, to miss out on these moments that, when you get that bad criticism, then you can think, "well that guy said I was great so" (laughs) … Yeah. You’ve got to listen to your cheerleaders. That’s a really nice thing. I started (taking compliments) with my clothes, the things that I don’t make, as easy to (start with) “I really love your ear rings.” “Thank you. Me too. That’s why I’m wearing them.” To kind of turn it into a fun interaction. I’m working on that with my art but again, to receive a compliment especially getting compliments on things that you’re not particularly proud of or they’re just not your favourite thing, you’re not proud, that’s another challenge. That’s something I’m working on and hopefully get better at.
Yeah. I think it’s just a continual process, isn’t it?
Yeah and just you’re wanting people to know you truly are grateful. So I try to express genuine gratitude when somebody gives me a compliment.
Today, is there anything that stands out in your mind that you’re most proud of?
I’m going to give an example of something that I am proud of for the level of accomplishment it reached but it’s also one of those things where I wish I could go back and do it again because I know I could do a better job than it! A palaeontologist named Ken Lacovara who is just a really fun guy, he and I have worked together on a number of projects. He discovered a dinosaur called Dreadnoughtus. He named it Dreadnoughtus. There is something really kind of fun in that name and it was discovered in Argentina and it was the biggest dinosaur that had ever been found. This really huge long neck thing. This things humorous. It’s kind of the first bone in its arm, if I stood next to it, I think it’s taller than me. This just behemoth of a living creature. He published on it and asked me to do an illustration of it and it was a challenge for me but I didn’t know the kind of recognition the discovery would get, but it was everywhere.
At the time he was at Drexel University and Drexel University did an analysis of how many people on the planet saw this image; because it was on the front page of newspapers, it was next to Brian Williams head on the NBC News, it was all over the place. I was kind of like, “Wow!” That’s all the more reason to make every piece you do great because you never know which one is going to blow up. I was really proud of that. I was really proud to have worked with a palaeontologist who was leading in his own game. It was just really exciting and proud to have been chosen by him and proud to have worked on a creature that was being introduced into to the world through his research and my image. That’s incredible. I was really proud of the accomplishment and then of course looking at the piece now years later I’m like, “Uh. I would have done this totally differently today.” But it’s the reflection of the artist I was at that time. So that’s probably one of my prouder moments in a very complicated way.
Rightly said. It sounds an amazing thing to be part of and the fact that that’s etched in history now too, I think that’s what I really find fascinating about what you do. Your art is going to be there as a point in history for people to look at, something which is incredible.
Yeah. That’s part of why I really love getting into the museum work. Doing private work is fun and bringing people that joy is great but museum work, it’s so valuable. I really do believe that museums are going to be a very essential part of how humanity goes forward with education, especially in the internet age of "fake news". So to have these resources, museums are incredible educational resources. They’re not like the public schools, they’re not even like the private schools. They’re a truly unique experiences so to be part of that is quite an honour and like you said, at least somewhat timeless and that makes it seem very important.
Are there any misconceptions about what you do that you would like to set straight?
When I tell people that I work with dinosaurs and dig up dinosaurs - and a lot of palaeontologists get this as well - somebody will say, “Oh you’re an archaeologist?” On a very base level, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Palaeontologists study extinct creatures, dinosaurs, mammoths things like that. Archaeologists study humans and the history of human life. Not that they’re totally separate. You probably do get a little overlap, for example looking at mammoths as a palaeontologist but looking at why they went extinct could be… that does overlap with archaeology. I’d say that that’s one misconception.
As far as the art goes, I think the biggest misconception is that I don’t have to work on this. That I’m naturally talented and I was lucky to be born this way and that’s just not the case at all. The biggest misconception is that this doesn’t require just as much, if not more of the refining of the skill and craft than being a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that. It requires a lot of work. That’s what I would say is probably the biggest misconception.
I think the problem with the word 'talent' is it is a compliment to be called talented absolutely but sometimes that word can completely overshadow the amount of hours and the dedication that people put into it. I really like that you’ve highlighted that.
Absolutely. There are some people that they are wired differently. They’re an 8 years old and they are doing Da Vinci paintings. I don’t know anything about that but I can guarantee you that they’re working really hard too.
Looking back now with experience, this has been your career since you had a career basically, is there any advice looking back now that you would give to your younger self?
I did actually have a career in pastry art. I was a pastry artist for a number of years and got super developed in that. That was a really gratifying career as well but one of the reasons that I held back on doing something like this is because I thought the idea of being a successful artist who was creating work that might go in a museum or a textbook or a publication, that just seemed really too adult for who even I was in my mid-20s. One piece of advice I would give myself is start now, it’s never too late. You want to do what you want to do, start now. Go pick up a book, go write somebody an email, how can I get in on this even just a little bit. So I would have said start now. Start earlier. Start even if you think it’s too late. That’s one thing. Another piece of advice I would give to myself is get off Facebook.
Realise those hours they disappear quickly and you need those hours if you really want to be great. I would say, put the distraction down. There’s a time and a place but really moderate it and find enjoyment in what you do so that it’s not even a chore, it’s just from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. I draw and then I get on Facebook. Although you’d find frequently you don’t. You just keep drawing because you get lost in it.
Are you off social media now or do you just moderate it?
I try to moderate it. I’m on Instagram from time to time because that’s how I get the most eyes looking at the work I do and that’s the point. Facebook I have a work account. I did deactivate my social account after many, many years last year because I just … I did in my head a loose estimate of how much time I had wasted and I could have gotten a whole other degree with that time! I could have created a masterpiece! That’s not to say that I didn’t develop other great things like an appreciation for memes and silly internet things, but it’s like a drug. I think there’s even a study that say it’s like a drug! So I think people should exercise more moderation there.
That’s going to be an increasing problem as we move forward. It’s becoming such a big part of our life that the fact that we’re even receiving news off these social media sites that are not moderated is terrifying.
Yeah, and there’s really … People aren’t discerning … That's the reason why I like museums, because they promote peer reviewed science. Because what you find on Facebook, unless you can trace it back to a scholarly article, the origin of some sort, that’s pretty critical to the educational experience and science and literature and whatever it is. You want to have something that has been tested. Like you said it’s frightening to think that people are walking around with the pseudo-information.
So what is next for you? Do you have any particular goals that you are working on? Is it just honing in on your art within the scientific field?
That’s a good question. I turned 30 last year, I’m 31 now and that’s an interesting age to turn, for anybody I’m sure, but it has been for me … I spend a lot more time consciously thinking about what I want the next 5 years to be like, what do I want the next 10 years? Currently I am working on my graduate degree in museums studies at John Hopkins. That’s a big goal. Once I get that done, I’m not sure, that’s just something I just want in my toolkit - because I don’t know that it’s going to change my trajectory too dramatically. I’d like to continue inspiring people. I think that the next step now that I’ve began to really find my footing, hone my craft. Besides paying my bills, paying off my loans, besides that, to bring this kind of satisfaction and inspiration to other people. How I do that, whether it’s with the visuals, having just people look at my work or whether it’s actually getting them engaged with their own creative process, helping them find out what that means for them. I hope that that’s part of the next step.
That sound amazing to me and that’s the beauty of it though, you know life throws you curve balls because sometimes you end up in a … well most of the time, a lot of the people end up in a completely different place to where they started out and that’s continually changing. Life certainly doesn’t stop after 30. There’s a bit of dialogue there that when you’re young you need to know what you’re going to do and that’s going to be what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life but that’s certainly not the case.
Absolutely not and I can tell you everybody is like, “Oh you were one of those kids that loved dinosaurs?” I didn’t know anything about dinosaurs! I didn’t care about science! That was something that developed when I was in college. I guess that’s the other thing. You asked me earlier about advice I would have given to myself as a younger person and therefore advice that I would give to the younger people listening would be, if you haven’t found what you love to do or you haven’t found exactly what makes what you do lovable, keep looking, introduce new elements until… let it stew. Introduce new things, let it stew. I think just keep trying new things.
Thank you so much Jenn. It’s been absolutely wonderful talking to you. I have one final question and this is the question I always finish with and that is, what is your advice to other women hoping to follow a similar path? You’ve touched on reflecting back, on what you would say to your younger self and obviously that applies to people listening - but do you have any more specific advice that you would give people?
Yeah. I could pine on all day on things I wish I had done differently and things I want to tell people. It’s not that I didn’t hear these things from other people, but to truly appreciate it... So I would say first off in that vein, listen to the advice of your peers and your mentors. In young people there’s a strong urge to prove what you know and it’s great that you know things. I’m sure you do. But listen and really take the time to reflect on the things that people are telling you in the field that you’re interested in. Really exercise silence because there’s a lot of information if you listen. That would be the first thing.
The second thing would be, realise that there’s no formula. Even if you’re in a more generic field, let’s say you are not in paleo, you are just in art. Whatever your course is it’s going to be determined by storms that haven’t developed yet, it’s going to be determined by challenges you don’t know exist yet, it’s going to be determined by opportunities that you’re going to be totally elated and surprised by. So I’d say make room for those things and realise that you can look to your inspiration, you can look to the people that you admire and that have been successful, and don’t study what they did specifically, study why they did it. Look at the bigger pattern, look at the bigger motivations and then take those lessons. Don’t try to say, “Well, that person is really good at doing reconstructions on the computer and then adding, painting.” You could get really specific and think like, “Oh I wish I had thought of that first because my work would have looked like that and then I would be.” Your work is going to look like what it’s going to look like eventually, if you make room for these other things, these other opportunities, challenges, mistakes. Mistakes are the best thing that are going to happen to you because you’re going to do things when you are dealing with these mistakes that you never would… It’s part of the problem solving that you find in art and science. The way you’re going to try to problem solve your mistakes, they’re going to bring techniques, they are going to bring aesthetics, knowledge, whatever it is into your practise that are going to help you … They are going to be secrets that only you know. I would say make room for mistakes.
Also I think my dad would agree with this one, like the final thing is, have fun. If it’s not fun, you’re not going to be able to maintain the stamina, you’re not going to be able to go the distance. Make sure that what you’re doing in some way is fun, that it brings you some sort of joy and that you can kind of share it with other people and share that joy. So have fun.
That’s very valuable advice and the great thing about it is that it transcends beyond the world of art. That can apply to anyone in any field which is great.
Absolutely. If it’s schooling, you’re going to get off the track. There’s no doubt about it. So make sure that it’s fun and if it’s not fun, make some adjustments and see if you can change that.
Thank you so much again Jenn for speaking with me. It’s really been so insightful. I’ve loved hearing about what you do and I know people listening would have equally be in love with what you do. For those listening there will...obviously to get to the link for her you would have seen the pictures... but there will be pictures of Jenn’s art on her profile and also a link to her webpage as well...So please go on and check that out.
Thank you so much. This has been a blast to talk to you and thank you so much for giving me the time and the platform to share what I’m passionate about.