Art, biology intersect at Newdoll exhibit

By Anna Hankins

Macalester students often view art and science as mutually exclusive studies: you do lab reports or art projects, but not both.Artist Julie Newdoll, whose work is currently on display in the Smail Gallery in Olin Rice, has managed to bridge this gap. Her exhibit, “Dances and Ceremonies: The Inner Lives of Cells,” is a true intersection of art and science.

Newdoll’s pieces show the processes that make life possible, those transactions that take place inside of our cells everyday.

Unlike many of her artistic peers, Newdoll received her college degree is in Microbiology. She has had a passion for painting since she began working with oils in 1976 and went on to receive a Master’s degree in medical illustration.

“Science got into my work and never left,” Newdoll said of her art.

It is not just science that has penetrated Newdoll’s canvas. She also draws inspiration from the many peoples of the world, their deities, creation stories and traditions.

“Sometimes I come across stories and just know that they are perfect,” she said.

In her work, Newdoll creates parallels between the creation myth of the Dine people of the Southwestern United States and of the theorized RNA world. In another painting, she portrays the Hindu goddess Shiva as telomerase in order to demonstrate the “delicate balance between life and death.”

Newdoll uses cultural elements from across the world in order to represent that which is innately human: our genes.

“Dawn of the Double Helix” from Newdoll’s collection “Life Forms: Basic Structures of Our Existence” is particularly stunning.In front of a glowing red backdrop, she portrays the twisting double helix of DNA as a tug of war between men and women, each individual representing a single base. Here, Newdoll makes science accessible to even those who may feel detached from the subject.

“It just makes it feel so human,” said Callie Thuma ’10, a geography major who has never taken biology. “I usually think of cellular activity as so microscopic that it is irrelevant.”

As inspiration for the painting, Newdoll names a book written about Rosalind Franklin, a scientist who was instrumental in helping decipher the mystery of the double helix.

“I just wanted to demonstrate the male-female tension between scientists involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA,” she explained.

This work dwarfs her more recent project, a series of painted kimonos intended to represent the five senses. While inarguably beautiful, I found that the kimonos do not speak for themselves as loudly as her depiction of DNA does.

“You think we know everything we need to know about the senses but we are still learning more,” she said.

Her work, however, comes short in educating her audience. I found the connection between Japanese tea ceremony and the five senses to be too vague.

Whether she is using the Greeks, Africans or Native Americans as her muse, Newdoll certainly does her research. As she told attendees at the exhibit’s opening on Sept. 21, “I actually went to a Japanese tea ceremony while I was pregnant. It was the first time I’d had caffeine in a while.”

Newdoll’s use of electron photographs of neurons as a “jumping-off point” for her art is innovative.

Her work on the whole is invigorating and the bridge she has built between art and science is undeniable. Of the scientists who have aided her through their research, Newdoll said, “Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants-without them, I couldn’t do it!”

Whether you are a biology major who wanders the halls of Olin Rice daily or an art major who rarely sets foot near the building, “Dances and Ceremonies” is not to be missed. Classic majors will be captivated by Demeter as the goddess of cell division and Asian Studies majors will be drawn to the Indian Rug painting decorated with taste receptors. Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies students will take interest in the dynamics between the men and women of the double helix and Religious Studies majors will marvel at Shiva the telomerase.

Newdoll offers something for everyone.