Essential Qualities, Innate Disposition, the title of Reno artist Megan Ellis’ current exhibition at The Hub Coffee Co. on Riverside, is taken from a definition of the word “natura,” the Latin word for nature. It refers to the traits that unite a biological species, and the variations that allow that species to continue to propagate.
“Any given species has essential qualities in their genes that unite them as a species, with just enough variation … allelic variation in the genes to keep inbreeding from happening,” Ellis said. “There’s just enough variation but not enough to make them segue way off and become another species.”
Ellis herself belongs to a rather unusual species: artists with scientific minds. She’s finishing her degree in neuroscience from the University of Nevada, Reno in December and has a passion for the sciences, especially biology. Growing up, she kept her scientific and artistic interests separate, but two years ago, while taking an evolutionary biology class, she discovered a way to unite the two.
“At the same time that I got interested in the subject matter, I got interested in the colored pencil medium,” she said.
She likes colored pencils because she enjoys the challenge of taking a medium that many people might associate with juvenilia and using it to make something more sophisticated.
“The only way to make it not seem juvenile it is to put in hours and hours and hours, and detail and detail and detail,” she said.
Her illustrations are loaded with meticulous precision, all of which she plans out carefully in advance. She carefully plots out each drawing, choosing to lay out different insects, plants, fungi and animals in nearly mandala-like symmetrical patterns.
“I got into the symmetry because I was doing a lot of butterflies,” she said. “Often what I’ll do is make it almost 100 percent symmetrical, and then I’ll take a butterfly and he’ll be flying away or something. And it throws it off just enough to make it artistic.”
Many of the pieces focus on a large animal skull—a mountain lion, a ram, a fox or a bear—and living creatures, butterflies, snails and mushrooms, surround it.
“That is all math,” she said. “I like the idea of the mandala, especially because if you have just the skull, it’s a biological illustration, but when you add life to the skull, like butterflies … it’s more aesthetically pleasing than just looking at a picture of the skull.”
Usually, the butterflies and things included in the patterns of each drawing are life forms that exist in the skeletal animal’s own ecosystem, but Ellis will sometimes include something from outside of an ecosystem—a moth, for example—just because she likes its colors or patterns.
Again, she primarily approaches her artwork with a scientific perspective, but with occasional variations just for aesthetic pleasure.
She thinks her work has the potential to appeal to people who enjoy it as visual art as well as viewers with more scientific minds, who might enjoy it as scientific illustration. And, of course, some folks might enjoy both aspects.
“It gets away from the dichotomy of science versus art,” she said.
The exhibition is almost entirely the biological drawings—with one exception: a painting, titled “Three-eyed Crow,” which depicts a fantasy animal—a three-eyed crow. Fans of the Game of Thrones TV show of the A Song of Ice and Fire books might catch the reference to the mysterious creature that haunts Bran Stark’s dreams.
Essential Qualities, Innate Disposition is exhibition that consists almost entirely of scientific illustrations done with colored pencils, depicting animals found on Earth, but with the one variation of also including a painting of a fantasy creature. There’s consistency throughout the exhibition, but just enough variation to throw everything off, make the world more intriguing.