Sometimes people associate science with left-brain activity. Not so, says Patrice Corneli, who is both a scientist and an artist and asserts that good science needs creativity. “The really creative scientists have to be right-brained – you’ve got to think outside of the box and not assume that you know everything. It’s the same with art.” Corneli has always practiced both biology and art, and particularly when she is working with the mathematical details in biology, she gets into what she calls “the altered state” she feels when making art. It’s a completely focused, serene-yet-active experience.
Corneli grew up in rural Illinois with six siblings on five acres they could explore with the goats, cows and birds. “I hung out in an old orchard, dug my toes into silky prairie soil and watched clouds while lying in the itchy, fragrant grass,” she says. Her rural upbringing, where an interest in biology was easily nurtured, was enhanced by more cosmopolitan experiences that fueled her interest in art. Her mother, also an artist, would take the children on an annual visit to the Chicago Institute of Art 100 miles away. At age eight Corneli received a Jon Gnagy learn-to-draw set of charcoals and pastels for Christmas, and remembers using it right away to draw a boat pier in charcoal and a sunset with the pastels. She also recalls doing a free-hand drawing of a map of South America. “It was pretty good, actually.” She still has both drawings.
When it came time for college, Corneli chose to pursue a double major in art and biology at Beloit College, “where mornings in art classes with charcoal, graphite, printer’s ink and oil paints were followed by afternoons in the lab with skulls and microscopes and a drawing pencil.” At Beloit she knew three other students following the same course. While there she met her husband, Howard, a pediatric emergency doctor, and they eventually moved to Utah because he felt the best program for that field was in Salt Lake City. They raised two daughters in a charming old Avenues home, where daughter Katie’s bedroom eventually became Mom’s studio. Katie now works for the University of Utah’s Museum of Fine arts, and is pursuing an education in conservation and restoration. Brooke, the other daughter, is a graduate student of psychology in Oregon, and is very good in photography. Both daughters love their mother’s work and have it hanging in their homes.
Corneli’s current career is in theoretical evolutionary biology. At present, her project is to infer, through DNA sequences, the evolutionary history of animals. She describes both this scientific work and her experimentation in art as flowing from a kind of global curiosity, and as mentioned above, requiring “… the same cerebral contemplation of pattern.” Several of her current and past colleagues at the University of Utah, she says, are both artist and scientist. If you go to her website you will see two images on the main page. At first glance they look like colorful abstract paintings, and the one labeled “Art” is an abstracted landscape in gouache on paper — but the other, labeled “Biology,” is actually a biogenetic tree, without the labels, charting the comparative speeds of evolution and recombination of insect species. Both images are aesthetically very pleasing – art and science combining very compatibly.
How does Corneli pursue a career in science, which she began as a wildlife biologist, then as biostatistician and now as molecular phylogeneticist , and have the time to make so much good art? She was able to work three-quarter time in earlier years, and now basically works one-quarter time, sometimes teaching two classes in a semester, and doing research and writing papers. Except for teaching, most of the work can be done at home. She never wanted to go the “tenure track” route, preferring to have the flexibility to accommodate “… my very busy husband’s scarce opportunities…” for the recreational activities they both love — hiking, paddling, camping in the desert — and for pursuing her artwork.
The right-brained outside of the box thinking comes in handy here, as the level of involvement at the University varies from year to year, so that she can’t have a set routine at home as far as art-making goes. She sees having her studio upstairs as very beneficial – she can come to it at any time she feels inclined. Often she’ll be there working when her husband comes home late from an extra busy night at Primary Children’s Hospital.
Although Corneli was drawing even before she got that John Nagy set for Christmas, she says that she might not have gotten back into art had her husband not been so encouraging. The early years of their marriage were taken up with work and child-rearing, and she says that he never really liked the oil paintings she was doing back in college (one of her favorites from that time, a chiaroscuro self-portrait.