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Seeing Science

08/22/2014

As Serena Wu 15 IL enters her senior year, she’s looking to her concentration in History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences (HPSS) to keep her grounded as she experiments with her studio work and career plans. She has chosen the Scientific Inquiry track – one of 10 within HPSS – because, she says, “animals and nature are hugely inspiring to me as an artist.” And after taking Biology of Animal-Human Interactions, a course taught by biologist and large animal veterinarian Lucy Spelman, she was hooked.

As an Illustration major doing a Liberal Arts concentration, Wu says that she’s able to view her studio assignments “through a different lens” and to create work that is “more convincing. It’s like taking classes in anatomy,” she explains. “You can better use your imagination to draw the human form after you’ve studied anatomy and developed an understanding of how the body works.”

Wu thought seriously about going into scientific illustration after graduation but at this point feels that she wants to do something more team-oriented and more conducive to telling a complete story. “Becoming a freelance illustrator sounds like a lonely career,” she says. “I feed off of other people’s energy and prefer to work in a communal environment.”

She appeared in several of the films her roommate created as a Film/Animation/Video major and got hooked on the group energy. “Everyone depends on each other and goes through horrible times together filming at 2:00 in the morning,” Wu says. “And I was part of it! I loved it and as a result, have decided to go into visual development and character design.”

That said, Wu is happy with her decision to major in Illustration – rather than animation – because she feels that her style is geared toward creating individual images to tell a story. Although she occasionally worries about running out of time to complete her studies, she feels that RISD is the perfect environment in which to discover and rediscover her true passions as an artist. And the liberal arts classes she’s taken along the way all contribute to the “visual library” she taps into as an illustrator.

In addition to the mentoring she’s received from Spelman, Wu says that she’s also deeply indebted to Associate Professor of Illustration Nick Jainschigg 83 IL, whom she considers a role model. “Nick has an infinitesimal amount of brain space and he’s a huge science geek like me,” she says with a laugh. “He’s part of the reason I don’t think my year focusing on scientific illustration was a waste. I hope to use my HPSS concentration to tie together science and art the way that he does. He’s very inspiring.”

Another Illustration faculty member who is helping her to define her style is watercolor master Joe McKendry 94 IL. “I like the way my work slowed down and progressed with Joe,” Wu explains. “First you have to think and build the structure, and only then do you have the freedom to go crazy with colors and mark making. Understanding that allowed me to clean up my work and make it more complex, rather than muddy, which is particularly important if you’re trying to communicate specific scientific information to the viewer.”

Still, Wu has been concerned about not having her own personal style as an artist and came away from last year’s Design Portfolio Review day determined to narrow her focus and create “a more memorable” portfolio. “Illustration is so free that it’s easy to lose your way – to get watered down by a bunch of disparate classes,” she explains. “I plan to spend my senior year really discovering my own voice as an illustrator.”

To that end, Wu has signed up for an independent study project with Senior Critic Fred Lynch 86 IL, during which she intends to create hundreds of illustrations and determine what her personal vision is really about. “I’m excited to see what I can create from my own imagination after having spent my junior year observing and learning,” she says. And one thing she knows for sure is that her HPSS concentration and broadened visual library will help in clarifying an artistic vision that’s truly her own.

Simone Solondz

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tags: interdisciplinary, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, Illustration, research, students, diversity

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.