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Artist-in-residence at Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument discusses scientific illustration

Science Illustrator Serena Richelle is the current BLM Artist-in-Residence at Hyatt Lake.
BLM artist-in-residence Serena Richelle at Hyatt Lake on June 4, 2024.

In her current role as the BLM’s artist-in-residence at the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Serena Richelle discusses the role of scientific illustration in conservation and its ability to accurately illustrate species and create awareness with the public.

Richelle recently discussed her work with JPR's Vanessa Finney. Her work will be shown June 7, 2024 at 5pm at the Ashland Food Co-Op Community Center. She’ll also lead a nature illustration workshop at Hyatt Lake on Saturday, June 8 from 11am to 2pm. Registration is available at cascadesiskiyou.org.

Vanessa Finney: Serena, what did the BLM ask you to document as this year’s Artist-in-Residence?

Serena Richelle: The prompt was very open, so I've just gotten to pick what I wanted to focus on, which has mostly been botanicals and a bit of the general landscape. It's very much a process-driven process for me, being in the environment and seeing what I'm drawn to. Getting flowers is an easy one because they're these little gorgeous pops of color everywhere that I'm just drawn to. Sometimes landscapes - water is definitely a big one. Wherever there's water I gravitate towards.

VF: How did you get your start in art?

SR: I feel really fortunate enough that I have been supported in art making my entire life. There are pictures of me in a highchair. And there's paint everywhere but the piece of paper in front of me. I am coated in it. So I just always got to pursue art. It wasn't until college that I kind of did that questioning of whether art is a real thing you can do or not. But I was always, you know, in every yearbook, the artistic kid, the most likely to become an artist. So it's just always been a part of me. And I'm really thankful that my family supported that.

VF: And did you study it in college formally?

SR: I did, I spent my first year kind of trying to figure out what I was going to do. And then I realized that I, for my soul, needed to pursue art academically. So I did my major in fine art, and a minor in anthropology. And I did mostly printmaking and painting with my major.

VF: Describe your art today, you have an Instagram account, @serena_richelle. So what might we see there?

SR: It's gonna be a lot of what I call science illustration, what's widely seen as science, illustration. I like to illustrate things hyper realistically. So that's what led me to science illustration, specifically. I love abstract art, I love people who can do abstract art, but it’s not for me, I end up going into so much detail that it just ends up being these hyper-realistically rendered images anyways.

VF: So that brings up a question. Some people might ask, well, in Darwin's day, it's fine - you know, at the Galapagos - but why now when there's photography, what is the merit of drawing something hyper-realistically?

SR: I think the merit of drawing something hyper-realistically is, you get to decide, one, the best way of creating the average of whatever species you're drawing is, I think of how many times I try and take a picture of a flower. And I think I've gotten a great picture until I get home. And I'm like, that wasn't the best, and maybe the petals don't bend out the way correctly that I want them to, or it could just be done better. And so I think, especially with identifying species, specifically, it's really nice to have an illustration where all of those pieces that make a species identifiable can be illustrated correctly and accurately. So there's a lot of times where I'll take an image of something, and once I'm home, I'll realize that it's not the best representation of its species. And so with science illustration, being able to illustrate something, you're able to make sure that all of the identifiable characteristics that mark that specific species can be represented in the final piece.

VF: How did you get educated on scientific illustration as part of your academic program?

SR: So the first time that anybody told me about science illustration was my high school art teacher. And he had mentioned that he had a friend who had to draw flies over and over and over again, to create the best example of the most average example of that species of fly. And I was like, “That's weird, but also kind of cool.” And I carried that when I started applying to colleges, and had that in the back of my head. And then I came back to that concept, maybe my junior senior year of college. And that's when I found that so I went to school, I did my undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They used to have a program there, the science illustration program, and it had actually moved across the bay to California State University, Monterey Bay. So my senior year, I ended up applying to that, and I wanted in so bad, and I'm so glad that I got in. It's a fascinating program. It's a one year certificate program in science illustration, specifically. And so there's 16 People that get admitted to it. And I think that it's a boot camp of science, illustration. It was definitely a life changing experience just getting to be part of that niche group.

VF: What about the other students? Do people come from all around the country, from around the world?

SR: Absolutely. From all over the world, they come to this program. And what I found fascinating was that in my year, everybody except for me had a major in science. I was the only one that came in with a major in art. Besides, illustration is definitely the combination of those two. And so I got to learn from my more science-inclined peers, their approach to illustrating versus my art approach to illustrating science.

VF: What are some things that you were taught about the history of scientific illustration?

SR: Ooh, that's a good question. I think a big part of it is the question of, “Well, why draw it if you can photograph it?” and just kind of continuing to show that illustration does hold a part in capturing our world around us as a big part in those details that I mentioned earlier. One of my favorites is H. Isabel Adams. She was a botanical illustrator in England. Maria Sibylla Merian was also a pretty fascinating female science illustrator. She did, again, a lot of botanicals, but she also included pollinators in her pieces. Darwin is a classic one, just these early science illustrators that really set the groundwork for this field. And I mean, I'm obsessed with their art, which is pretty much why I pursued this, this direction with my own artist. I was like, Well, I'm fascinated with it. How do I make that too?

VF: So at home, do you have lots of framed science, illustrations from other artists?

SR: I do. A lot of them are like old calendars that I've gotten to that are out of date now. So I've taken and framed the pictures of them, my art spaces surrounded by them, because I like to use them as inspiration.

VF: Okay, so illustrator and fan girl?

SR: Yes, exactly.

VF: What's rewarding about this work?

SR: I find it the most rewarding when I get to capture something accurately, and then that gets to be used for the public to see and to create a conversation about conservation about the species that we get to share this earth with. I find it the most satisfying when my art gets to be used for conservation and conversations. And that sounds so cheesy, but that's that's really what it is.

VF: So I understand about midway through your residency, your two-week residency here, you're going to be giving a presentation to the public at the Ashland Co Op Community Room. So tell people about what they can expect to see there. SR: Yeah, this Friday, June 7th, I will be getting to talk about my art, kind of how I got here and what I'm working on here - which has been mostly a lot of botanicals. I've been observing some of the birds, although I haven't started drawing any yet. And I will be showing what I've gotten to work on so far and what I plan on working with because the talk will be halfway through my residency. So I will have another week afterwards to keep making art. It'll kind of be a checkpoint: “This is what I've made and this is what I'm planning on making.”

VF: Thanks, Serena!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Vanessa Finney hosts All Things Considered on JPR and produces My Better Half, a podcast and Jefferson Exchange segment that explores how people are thriving in the second half of their lives.