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Cell Inspiration

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Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus is featuring the work of local artist Michele Banks in an exhibit called Hidden Universe. Her art show will be on display from Sept. 5 – Nov. 3 at 9605 Medical Center Drive in Rockville. All art exhibits on campus are free and open to the public.

Banks is a self-taught painter and collage artist, whose work is inspired by science. As she explains on her website, her subjects include microbes and global warming. Her artwork has been exhibited at the National Institutes of Health, and has been featured in scientific journals.

Hopkins Happenings asked Banks to tell us about her colorful and eye-catching work.

Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about yourself.

Banks: I'm a full-time, self-taught artist. I've been painting for about 17 years. I live in D.C., and I've been showing around the area at festivals and in galleries since 2001.

Hopkins Happenings: What kind of art do you do? What materials do you use?

Banks: Almost all my work is watercolor-based, but I do branch out a little. I mainly do regular watercolor paintings on paper, but I also like to mount some of my paintings in petri dishes with resin or layer them as collages. Because of my science inspiration, I've done a number of pieces using lab equipment, such as petri dishes, pipettes, test tubes and beakers.

Hopkins Happenings: How’d you get into art and decide to become an artist?

Banks: It's kind of a long story. I started out as a management consultant, but I ended up with some career downtime when my husband took a job in Bermuda, and I couldn't get a work permit. So I started experimenting with art there, and I showed in a gallery on the island. When we got back to the United States, I decided to give it a go as an artist.

So I started showing my work at local festivals and gallery shows around D.C. In 2010, I was asked to join an online marketplace called Makers Market, which wanted to be a sort of etsy for geeks. Unfortunately, Makers Market didn't last long, but I got some good publicity from it, which helped launch my online business. 

Hopkins Happenings: What is your approach for creating a work of art? What is your inspiration?

Banks: Honestly, professional artists don't usually sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. I usually have pieces to produce for shows, on commission or for my online shop, which are often variations of things I've painted before -- for example, bacteria or dividing cells. People often ask me to make art based on the specific organisms they study or work with, so I do some online research, read up on the particular bugs and usually do some practice watercolors before I make the final piece. Sometimes I nail it the first time, but sometimes it takes many tries. One of the tough things about working in watercolor is that there's a minimal amount of repair work you can do if you mess something up. Usually I just have to start over, so when I get to the last parts of a big piece, I get stressed out.

I don't mean to make it sound like it is drudgery. Painting is fun, and light-bulb moments do happen! Sometimes I'll read a great article or have a fascinating talk with someone about a topic, and I will just get inspired to paint. Sometimes it's a new organism that I've never heard of, and sometimes it's a new way of looking at things. The painting "Hosts and Invaders" is a good example - that was really inspired by reading an article about the microbiome that re-cast the gut microbiota not just as disease-causing organisms but as something like a whole society. Some live full-time in your gut for generations; some move in aggressively and attack the long-term residents.

Hopkins Happenings: How did you start using microbes as an art subject?

Banks: I actually started making abstract watercolor images, and people kept telling me they looked like microscopic creatures! So I did some research and started painting them on purpose, and I gradually became more and more fascinated by the unseen world.

Hopkins Happenings: Do you have a science background?

Banks: Nope! Degree in political science. 

Hopkins Happenings: How do you make sure your art work is scientifically accurate?

Banks: I don't, really. I'm not creating textbook illustrations. I make sure to tell people that while my work is inspired by scientific ideas, I'm not trying to do something that someone with a scanning electron microscope could do better than me. I do a range of work, from fairly representational, like paintings of specific types of neurons, to more metaphorical and abstract, like my paintings of brains that have roots and branches or flowers or coffee stains.

Hopkins Happenings: What is the wet-in-wet technique that you use?

Banks:  It's a traditional watercolor technique. I put down a background color, and while it's still wet, I add dots, lines or swirls of another color. The wet colors bleed together and form cool patterns, ranging from general fuzziness to incredibly detailed branching patterns. It works really well for scientific images because it gives you the transparency and soft-edged look that a lot of things have under the microscope.

Hopkins Happenings: What do you hope viewers of your art experience upon seeing the exhibit?

Banks: I hope they're intrigued enough to take a good long look! And maybe they'll think a little about the microscopic world that's all around us, and inside us. One of the things that always kind of blows my mind about painting something like cell division is that I'm doing it right now. So are you, and your cat, and your potted plants.  That's really kind of amazing.

CATEGORY: The Arts, In The Community