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Interview with Lindsay Olson

📷 Bree Corn

Journalist: Renu Rajamagesh

Renu: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to SciSection Radio at CFMU 93.3 FM. I'm Renu, and today I'm here with Lindsay Olson. She has the exciting job of bringing together the worlds of science and art, worlds that people say are diametrically opposed. So, hello Lindsay Olson, thank you very much for joining us here today.

Lindsay Olson: Thank you very much for inviting me. I'm delighted to be here.

Renu: OK, so I guess I just have to start out by asking you to tell us about the path that led to this unique career.

Lindsay Olson: Well, like many creative types, I spent most of my academic career avoiding science and math, but all this changed when I was on a canoe trip with my husband down the Chicago River. Now, earlier in my career, I had been painting idealized views of the waterscapes, but I was editing out everything in the built environment. So parking lot, wires, things like that. But one day when we were canoeing, we went past something called a SEPA Station. Now a SEPA Station is an engineered waterfall, and it's built to add oxygen to the sluggish canal. And finding out who built that structure and why led me to the world's largest wastewater treatment plant. And I was granted access to this facility. It's in Stickney, Illinois. And I know this is going to sound really weird, but...

Lindsay Olson: ...I actually fell in love with science in the middle of a wastewater treatment plant...

Lindsay Olson: ...and working there allowed me to tell the real story of water in a dense urban area.

Renu: That is so cool, so looking at your artwork, which you can all find on Lindsay's website, by the way, you do a lot of embroidery work and work with fabrics. So tell us about your favorite materials and techniques and how did you discover the style?

Lindsay Olson: Well, I've had a lifelong love of textiles, and I do a lot of work on paper as well. I grew up with a lot of stitchers in my family and that's where I learned a lot of it, and I went to school to learn it. But I would say that my style is rather fluid. I choose an approach and the artistic inspiration that matches each project. So, for example, when I was working on Fermilab's Project, I did a series of drawings in addition to the textile pieces and the drawing had some kind of wild use of wet on wet ink to kind of show the the strength and wildness of trying to use magnets to control particles. And I was working the wastewater treatment plant. I was working with found textiles. And I also wanted to kind of overcome the yuck factor. So I was using primary colors to make it a little bit more inviting. And, you know, when I was working in Fermilab, the color palette was a little bit more mysterious. So each one of my projects has a different approach.

Renu: That's so great to hear your thought process behind how you bring out the science in your works. So like you said, you have been involved with a lot of research centers like Fermilab and the wastewater treatment plant. What's the process of working with scientists like?

Lindsay Olson: Well, for all of my projects, I have three phases, so the first and probably the most intense part of the process is that I have to learn the science and it's absolutely important to me to learn accurate science and portray accurate science because...

Lindsay Olson: ...there's so much poor science reporting going around. I don't want to add to that.

Lindsay Olson: So out of the scaffolding of this correct science, I use my training as an artist to create works that express what I've learned. And then I show the work, I write articles and I speak about the projects to help connect the public to scientific research.

Lindsay Olson: And like I said, learning the science is always the steepest part of the learning curve. But that work of learning the science is exactly what inspires me to make a stronger visual statement. I really love the challenge.

Renu: Right. So you say that learning the science is the most difficult part, and I'm sure a lot of the students listening to this will agree that learning science is difficult. Do you have a particular approach to learning the science that you could share with us?

Lindsay Olson: Well, what I do is I start with definitions because it's the vocabulary that's always the big stumbling block for me, no matter which area of science I'm working in. And I feel like once I have a handle on the vocabulary, then I can move on to learning basic concepts, and from there it's a lot easier. And what I do in my process is I shift gears so I learn a little science. Then I work on some textile sketches or drawings, sketches, and I shift back and forth, planning the art, to learning the science. So if I get stuck on one side, if I get stuck on learning the science, I just move over to the art side. When I get stuck on the art side, I move over to the science side. And somehow this shifting of attention and skills and confidence really helps me put together a much stronger project.

Renu: That's amazing. I hope that maybe people are inspired to sort of, in their process of learning science, do something creative to hopefully help them understand the science better.

Lindsay Olson: I would hope so. You know, one of my teachers at Columbia College, Chicago, said to us when I was in school, if you know, when people are talking about getting stuck or something, he would say, move your hand and it helps you move your mind. And I actually think that's really true for science as well. At least it has been for me and it might be for others.

Renu: So out of your collaborations, which one would you say was the most fun and exciting for you and which one took you the most out of your comfort zone?

Lindsay Olson: Well, I have to say that all of them take me out of my comfort zone, but I'd have to say the one that brought the largest mix of both challenge and fun was going to sea for three weeks, working with ocean acousticians from the University of New Hampshire. That was a really thrilling project and the adventure of a lifetime. So I've done these projects long enough to know that when I'm in them, there's sort of these phases that I go through. So, you know, there's the wobbly beginnings where I'm struggling with the science and what kind of color scheme I'm going to use and what design approach I'm going to use. And then there's the phase where I stop all that dithering and say, OK, it's time to make the work. And then, you know, as I'm progressing in the project, there's always a phase where I go, oh my God, this is the worst idea I've ever had. What made me think I could work on this project? This is just not going well. And if I persevere and get past that hump, the golden phase is when I've completed the work and I get to show it to the scientists and the public. And that is the most exciting part of the project. It's so thrilling.

Renu: Have you ever faced a creative block in one of your projects?

Lindsay Olson: You know, I have to say that one of the greatest gifts that working with scientists has brought me is that I really don't get blocked anymore.

Lindsay Olson: I used to get blocked when I was making art about my own life. But now that I'm making art about science, it's just it's the best use of my training. And it's taken me a long time to figure it out. And I'm so grateful for the scientists who take time and share what their research is with me. It's just been wonderful.

Renu: So science inspires without fail.

Lindsay Olson: Yes, exactly, that's true.

Renu: Well, can you tell us about a scientist and an artist who's inspired you?

Lindsay Olson: OK, so one of the scientists that inspires me and you actually may know him, is Dr. Ray Davis. I don't know if you've heard of him or not, but he was an experimental physicist and he was working with neutrino research. And when he announced his findings to the scientific community, they found them so unusual that they thought there must have been something wrong with his experimental design. There must be something wrong with his math. And they just didn't take his results very seriously. And it took many, many years for his brilliant work to be recognized. He's the one that first suspected that neutrinos change flavors, and that was why his results were skewed and so odd. So I really admire his perseverance and his steadfast trust in his own experiments and his own ideas about how to do this. The artist one, I have loads of artists that inspire me, but one of them that's really inspiring is William Kentridge and he is a South African artist and he's worked on issues of apartheid and injustice. And his work is so powerful. He's also worked in a number of media. He's worked in opera and animation and drawing. And one of the things that he said that really has stuck with me is that... He said when you have to say a difficult… when you have to deliver a difficult message in your project, in your art, try to say it as beautifully as you can. And what I tried to do is I know science can be intimidating. I used to be intimidated by science, so what I admire about William Kentridge is that he says difficult things in a beautiful way and it inspires me to make science more accessible in my art when the public is looking at it. So, another artist that actually inspires me too, is Jeanne-Claude and Christo. They're projects are enormous, and they work with municipalities, state and local governments. They have huge hurdles to go through, they inspire me because sometimes it's really hard, to get into a place like Fermilab, or the wastewater treatment plant. So I'm inspired by those artists.

Renu: Your art really does bring out science in such a beautiful way and they're so intricate, but also, and this is something you don't often see in art, you have mathematical equations and chemical equations on there, but they all just work so beautifully. So to finish off with a little delve into philosophy, what is art to you?

Lindsay Olson: I am going to slightly dodge this question, and I will leave it to scholars to answer what art is, because this is a huge academic discussion. But what I will say is that art and science are very powerful ways to express our humanity. The amount of commitment and passion, for both professions is akin more to a calling than a career, so when I talk to scientists, I'm drawn into and inspired by their passion, the work they do. And this passion is exactly what I feel about my work. I'm passionate about expressing science using my training as an artist to bring that message forward.

Renu: That's such a great answer! Thank you very much for telling us about your unique career, and taking us through the process of what it's like to transcribe science into art. It was a pleasure meeting with you.

Lindsay Olson: Thank you, it was a pleasure to be here. I really enjoyed our time together.


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