Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Interview with Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon Comics

Artists and scientists have something of an uneasy alliance.  Both pursuits find kinship in being frequently maligned by the public for their high-mindedness, but true bonds are hindered by the openness and aloofness that characterize artists, and the density and seriousness that characterize scientists.  To use a completely random an unnecessary analogy, they're like Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour: perceived opposites forced to join up to compete against larger foes.

Anyway, into this fray comes a peacemaker: Rosemary Mosco.  Rosemary is an artist and she's also a science communicator, someone who, in her words, works to connect people to science through creative communication projects.  Very cool.

Rosemary's comics - which are collected at Bird and Moon -  bridge the gap between biology and art with joy.  She does for biology what XKCD does for math and Hark! A Vagrant does for history: pull out the humorous voice from a field not known for expressing itself with much gusto.  Rosemary agreed to answer a few questions for me about her comics and the gaps between science and art.  (By the way, her brand new "Birding Is My Favorite Video Game" piece is my favorite of all things.)

Did your passions for science and art develop at the same time?  Did you ever feel that you had to choose between the two?

I think I've always been into both science and art. As a kid I liked to learn science facts and then tell them to people (my parents were really patient!). Drawing was just another way to share these facts, and I could do it in a way that made people laugh at the same time.

As I got older, I definitely felt like I had to choose between science and art. When I was starting college I asked my advisor if I could major in both of them, and he looked at me funny and said "Absolutely not". I've always tried to squeeze space for both of them into my schedule, which can be tough at times, but it's always rewarding.

Which choice did you "officially" decide to take?  Do you think it's best to a scientist with a passion for art or an artist with a passion for science?

Heh, I wish I could say I have it all figured out! Right now I'm doing several small jobs at once, both sciency and artsy. Another way to blend science and art that I've done in the past is to get a single
full-time job as a science communicator. Both are good choices, I think, with different drawbacks and benefits; right now I prefer the flexibility, because making comics is really time-consuming for me, but I'm sure this'll change over time!

I think it's best that both scientists and artists have the time and access to material from the other field. I think it's just good to be passionate in general.

You've done a lot of work at the intersection of science and communications - one of your comics directly addresses the battle between science and art - do you see a big schism between artistic people and scientific people?  What do you think the difference is?  How big of a problem is it?

There's definitely a schism between science and art, and it's a very old schism that people have tried to address in various ways throughout history. Many people have written about it way more eloquently than I could; there are some great books and online articles. In my cartoon about science and art, two characters that representing each side sneak out hand-in-hand. I feel like that's what I do -- I work on bringing them together quietly in my own way, using my twin backgrounds in ecology and in doodling incessantly during my ecology classes!

One of the biggest problems, to me, is that many people expect scientists to do all the public outreach for their research subjects. Some scientists are great at outreach, but we can't expect them all to be interested in public relations, or to have the time for it! I think there should be more go-betweens -- people called "science communicators" -- who can help both sides. And art can play a part in making science clear to laypeople.

Can you tell me about a time you were able to reach someone through your work as a science communicator who might have otherwise been unreachable?

I ran a bi-weekly strip on a web site called Torontoist for a while. Each strip presented an urban plant or critter. Someone told me that after reading my strip about pigeons, they'd stopped trying to kick
them. I wasn't thrilled about their previous pigeon-kicking attempts, but it felt great to be able to get across the complicated nature of this urban bird. People don't realize that pigeons are huge romantics!
They typically mate for life. It's hard being a hopeless romantic in a gritty urban setting.

Were you inspired by other scientific artists?  By other comics artists?

The modernist artist Charley Harper blows my mind. He made incredibly simplified paintings of complex animals. Jay Hosler's comic book Clan Apis is also terrific; it's an entertaining book about the biology of bees that also happens to be pretty deep. And then of course there are all the amazing webcomics artists who kick so much butt -- Jeph Jacques, Ryan North, Randall Munroe, Erika Moen, etc etc etc!

Do you have any larger projects in mind?

Not right now. It'd be fun to put all my comics together in a book some day, once I draw enough of them!

In your Bird Sound Mnemonics comic, you have the White-throated Sparrow saying "Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada."  I was always taught it was "Oh sweet Peabody Peabody Peabody."  I don't really have a question for that I just thought it was interesting.

Hah, good point! I did that for two reasons: 1. I have a Canadian background, and 2. I couldn't figure out how to draw a Peabody ;)


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