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Why does artist Ipsa Jain want to live on top of a fig tree?

Artist and scientist Ipsa Jain focuses on making science and nature engaging and accessible to more people through art

As a science communicator, Ipsa Jain makes books, zines, images, and stories about science and its processes.(Shreyosi Biswas)

By Aisiri Amin

LAST PUBLISHED 11.04.2024  |  01:20 PM IST

In biology classes, most people have had extreme reactions to the act of making illustrations. Ipsa Jain, however, has always loved science illustrations. Today, as a biologist-turned-artist, she focuses on increasing the interaction between science and society by making the discipline accessible through art.

Jain always had the habit of doodling. Even while making presentations during her PhD at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, she would use the Freehand tool in Microsoft PowerPoint to include intricate diagrams. But it was during the student festival at IISc that Jain realised art was going to be the way forward for her. “It was the first time I showed my work to public, and it was surprising to see that many people were interested in knowing more, and even buying it," she tells Lounge.

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Ever since, Jain’s focus has been to use art as a medium to communicate science effectively and get more people to engage with it. As a science communicator, she makes books, zines, images, and stories about the many scientific processes. Jain is also the author of the illustrated book, Actually, Colors Speak. She currently works as a faculty member at Srishti Manipal Institute.

She talks to Lounge about her relationship with her current workplace, why she wants to live on top of a fig tree, and how her love for science inspires her art. Edited excerpts:

Describe your current workspace to us…

I have turned one of the rooms of my apartment into a workspace. These days, it’s a bit messy. I have two tables, one where I usually dump all the work-in-progress, and the other where I sit and and create. A large window ushers in a lot of natural light. You’ll find the pencils, scissors, and glue on the table because I’m not the kind of person who puts them in their place, and I like it this way. When I see these materials, I am able to think of ways to use them.

I also have quite a few notebooks in the workplace. Whenever I have an idea, I immediately jot it down.

How would you define your daily relationship with this place?

Since I also have a day job, sometimes it is difficult to step into this space daily. But the room is always inviting, with the sunlight streaming in and the tiny forest patch peeping through the window. It’s a space, which has the right mix of access to the outside world and the solitude that I need to create.

⁠Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

I was not particularly good at photographing and documenting my work. However, it was in this room that I started understanding how light interacted with paper and how that could be used in photography. Using that, I began to document my artwork. 

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In this space, I also started experimenting with a hand-held microscope to observe how paint got deposited on paper. Usually, we use fine pigments for drawing and painting. But using the microscope, I saw how coarse pigments worked with paper, and the way light interacted with it. 

I have used this understanding to paint some extinct and less-talked-about lifeforms using graphite and my finger.

Ispa Jain at her workplace. (Nandita Saha)

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

A few days ago, I was talking to someone about how I would love to live on top of a fig tree, where I stay hidden, and no one knows I exist. On a serious note, I would love to work in a place that’s surrounded by greenery.

What’s the one thing that will always be part of your workspace?

It’s a picture of my mom. I lost her a while ago. In the picture, she is holding my brother and me. It’s always been there.

Who was the first artist whose work you followed closely? What about them appealed to you?

For me, it was Maria Sibylla Merian. She was a natural history illustrator and kind of a trailblazer. She was one of the first few women to venture out of the comfort of the home to live in a forest and document the natural surroundings. 

Her work is just beautiful. She focuses on life cycles in each composition, which is something I enjoy. Often a lot of natural illustration work is like a snapshot. Her work was like taking a series of snapshots and putting them all together in one. I found that really interesting, especially as a cell biologist.

How does science inspire your art? And how can art make science accessible?

Most of the work that I do, if not all, is about sharing scientific knowledge and methods. While creating art, I am almost always thinking about either my existing understanding of biology or some existential questions around it. I also explore questions about the knowledge production method. 

One of the recent artworks explores human understanding of things that have happened prior to our existence. For example, how people use their knowledge about birds and flight today to understand dinosaurs that flew.

When you use a visual medium such as art to make people understand scientific methods or concepts or ideas, it just seems far less daunting.

Also read: A private workspace where art and meditation meet for artist Tara Sabharwal