– Amelia Janes
We stalked them with our cameras in the redwoods. We honored them in illustrations on our conference T-shirts and totes. We consumed them molded in the form of chocolate. We studied their attributes as compared to. . . actual bananas! We even had one come to life at one of our evening events!
And. if you were lucky enough to serve on the Conference Coordinator’s Team led by the exceptional Robin Carlson, you received a slug wonderfully rendered in hand-blown glass!
Like our slimy mascot, many of us arrived sluggish from a day of driving, riding in shuttles and flying from all over the United States—and a few from places like Spain, Australia, Hawaii and Canada. Cooler temperatures and majestic redwoods on the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus revived us as we gathered for the Sunday night Portfolio Sharing. At our first west coast conference in five years and our first time back to the UCSC campus since 1997, we kicked off the proceedings sharing our accomplishments, reviving old friendships and making new professional connections.
This conference had a number of “firsts” for GNSI. The Sunday evening Portfolio Sharing started with our first venture into social media participation. Our 2016 GNSI Conference Social Media Mavens, Kirsten Carlson and Kelsey Jordan were front and center, tweeting quotes and quips from the membership and posting photos and videos. What a great resource for our membership who can’t make an annual conference, to see and participate in the action. If you aren’t already following the GNSI Facebook page or subscribed to the GNSI Twitter account, please jump in. We plan to continue sharing, posting and tweeting our activities.
Our core conference began with a change in our typical scheduling. Instead of one keynote speaker, we had seven plenary speakers over the three days of the core activities, a first for GNSI. John Muir Laws energized us with his views on the importance of sketching, especially in the field. I was very struck by his comments on how the brain processes differently when you snap a picture with a “there! I got it” point of view, compared to the more complex act of sketching and taking notes. Jennifer Fairman presented her broad experience running her business, a much-needed perspective, especially for people just starting out in their professions.
As president, I started the Monday morning day of talks and presentations with these comments:
“The act of drawing connects us to our imagination, and to the part of our minds that comprehends and communicates on a subconscious level. Drawing teaches us how to see, and how to learn. To illustrate science is to be in the service of communicating concepts and processes not easily observed. We come together to practice our story-telling, our conceptualizing, and our love of rendering. And we come here to do this using the simplest of tools, and the most complex of technologies.”
More “firsts” were in store Monday evening. The disappointment of not having an annual member’s exhibit was swept away by the excitement of our first GNSI Conference collaborative artwork event, in the form of three chalk murals. Large, loosely painted rolls of paper were surrounded by attendees kneeling on pads of cardboard, butts in the air, joyfully sketching with pastels in luminous colors describing marine creatures, plants, mammals, and other organisms of the Monterey Bay environment. A full review of this exceptional event follows this article. Excitement from this new activity was palpable, and we are hoping it can be a continued event for the future.
Our second core day started with the first banana slug sighting outside the plenary speaker’s lecture hall. Only scientific illustrators would hold up proceedings to be photographed next to a gastropod. Jane Kim started our morning discussing her impressive Wall Of Birds mural project at the Cornell School of Ornithology. David Goodsell took us into the abstract realm of microbiology. Environmental Specialist Breck Tyler made us fall in love with the albatrosses and their rare ability to mate for life.
We went back to our traditions Tuesday night with the Annual GNSI Auction. Guild members perused all kinds of interesting donated items to bid on and take home, including original artwork, art supplies, jewelry, books, prints, and quirky gift items in the silent auction, while sipping wine and nibbling on cheese and desserts. As the silent auction ended, a hush came over the crowd and out of the wings came a resplendent human-size banana slug, in reality our own Sara Taliaferro, complete with eye stems and a trailing train of “slime”. John Norton, in his vintage Hawaiian shirt, and our lovely slug auctioneer proceeded with the comedy and fun of the live auction. This year included a spectacular model of an octopus, a plum cobbler, and a 1960s Japanese silk rose printed kimono. Besides being a great night of fun, the proceeds support both the GNSI Education Fund and the GNSI general fund operating budget.
The wealth of plenary speakers continued on Wednesday as the core conference wound down. Wendy Hiller Gee got us thinking about how we actually interpret iconographic imagery, discussing the value of cartoons in instructional medical graphics especially for the illiterate, and examining the “eww” factor in medical illustrations. Creature animator and creator Terry Whitlach showed us how knowledge of zoology and anatomy makes the fantastical creatures of science fiction believable.
We ended the core conference with our customary Awards Banquet. Wine, dinner and conversation started the evening, while we viewed another conference “first”, the Online Member’s Exhibit. This year our jurors reviewed a record number of entries to our first digital exhibit. The Exhibit is now viewable from the main page of gnsi.org; we hope you all take a look. We missed seeing our member’s exhibit “in the flesh”, but we are also excited that members can see the exhibit from wherever they are, creating an unlimited and repeatable viewing experience. We hope more online exhibits are possible.
Our Awards ceremony started with the announcement of our auction results ($4062.15!), and welcomed the new, incoming Board members. We gave a standing ovation to our retiring Board members, some who have been serving for over 10 years. Robin Carlson, our 2016 Conference Chair, graced her exceptional Conference Team and Volunteers with hand-blown glass slugs and warm hugs. I was happy to announce the recipient of the Special Projects Award, Kris Kirkeby, for her development of “The Soul of the Sketchbook”, her visual and audio exploration into the importance of sketching for GNSI members and for scientific illustrators.
I will admit that I did not take any of the Thursday or Friday workshops, opting for field trips instead. Our hard-working program coordinators scheduled equal opportunities for instruction in digital rendering and traditional techniques. Digital and traditional 3-D modeling, Photoshop, silverpoint, gouache and sketching made for an impressive selection. While attendees worked hard learning new processes, I jumped on board the shuttle to experience several fantastic field trips.
This year I volunteered to be a field trip leader, distributing tickets, counting heads and communi-cating with the shuttle drivers. I loved the task as it offered a great way to get to know new GNSI members. Our walk down the pier to the whale watching tour boat had us ogling at sea otters, pelicans and sea lions in the marina. We snapped on our anti-sea sickness wristbands and set off to find some humpbacks and orcas, and we were successful! A juvenile humpback was lazily diving and feeding, while a pod of female orcas and their young chose to surface next to our tour boat. As we watch the whales, so they perhaps watched us too!
Thursday night, we had out last “first” for the 2016 GNSI Conference: GNSI members gathered for an opening reception for the installment of our three chalk murals depicting marine and coastal life of the Monterey Bay environment. Longtime GNSI member Taina Litwak, the mastermind of the collaborative chalk murals, along with Robin Carlson, obtained the opportunity for our murals to hang in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center in downtown Santa Cruz. In amongst the Open-Ocean Mini-Theater and the Biodiversity-Submarine Canyon our illustrated animals, fish, invertebrates, and plankton looked right at home. A great evening of celebration!
The next trip was to the spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the historic Cannery Row. Is the plural of octopus— octopi? octopuses? octopodes? Their solitary nature may obscure the semantics, but the octopus living at the Monterey Bay Aquarium aren’t arguing the nomenclature. Other cephalopods — cuttlefish, nautilus, and squid — are on display in the fantastic “Tentacles” exhibit. Walking into the “Open Sea” exhibit with its blooms of jellyfish bobbing in slow motion in their tanks, I felt as if I too dissolved into spineless suspension in a salty atmosphere. The two-story kelp forest aquarium mesmerized in a way that no film or photograph can quite duplicate. Sea Otters paddled around their pool and preened their furry faces with expected adorableness. And what do you call a group of sea otters? Keep reading to find out.*
My last day of the 2016 Conference at Santa Cruz was the trip to Henry Cowell State Park to walk among the coastal redwoods, the Sequoia sempervirens. I came to think of these trees as immortal, as the guide showed us their growth rings going back thousands of years. We learned about the trees’ self healing abilities and unusual self propagation, by seed but also by creating family clusters whose shallow yet broad root systems intertwine and aid in supporting the trees amazing heights — kind of like GNSI members! Fires have frequently burned out portions at the base of the trees and, with the self-healing magic and continued growth, the tree creates a “room”. Legends abound of folks back in the 1800s camping in the tree rooms, complete with windows cut and potbelly stoves for heating, and stabling horses. I could believe it, as we proceeded to fit the majority of our tour group inside a living tree, about 15 GNSI members total. We shined our cell phone lights up the ascending height of the interior, and tested the acoustics with a group “om”.
I started this review talking about banana slugs, and I will finish with the same. Yes, we heard and saw songbirds. Yes, there were deer in amongst the redwoods. But nothing beats encountering banana slugs oozing along the forest floor probably looking for a mushroom or other decayed snack. We encountered a large hole in a redwood with banana slugs going up and down the bark, creating traffic lanes of glistening slime. The curiosity of what kind of party was happening inside the slug hole is still on my mind.
For me, the annual GNSI conference is like the slug hole, a place to indulge in the curiosity of our natural world with others who use their skills as illustrators to invite everyone to the party of learning.