Exploring Science and Art Simultaneously

Mark Benton interviews
Kristian Brevik


Art editor Mark Benton recently had this exchange with Issue #37 featured artist Kristian Brevik. Here’s what he had to say about 2D versus 3D art, the intersection of art and science, the joy and challenge of working with natural materials, and more… 
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Art editor Mark Benton talks with featured artist Kristian Brevik about 2D versus 3D art, the intersection of art and science, and the joy and challenge of working with natural materials.

Do you consider most of your art utilitarian?

I do. Whether it functions as a lamp or not, I want my pieces to be more than something to just gaze upon. That median between objects that are merely decorative and objects that have a function is something I think about quite a bit. The full embodiment of the piece rather than the form and aesthetics viewed separately is something I end up being concerned with—and the beauty of something is also important, since that beauty contributes to the utility. That is one reason why the materials used are so crucial. For example, the whale ships are constructed out of wooden planks as you would construct an actual ship rather than a facsimile of a ship, or a drawing of a whale/ship.

I am also concerned about our over-accumulation of objects. In this age of capitalism, so many things are discarded whether they are utilitarian or not. I want to create objects that will be used over and over again, and passed down to the next generation—rather than put out on the curb.


What has inspired you to create these animal hybrids that we see?

I have always been interested in the way that humans and other-than-human species interact, and the relationships between them. That comes across in the form of the objects and its materials.  My bone armor, for instance, is a good example of the way humans and animals have interacted throughout history. I studied animal domestication and the way we have changed animals and how they have changed us. It is interesting to see this impression of strength or protection imbued on us from certain creatures to the point of using an animal’s inner skeleton as a protective exoskeleton for ourselves, much like most insects and arthropods wear their skeletons on the outside.

I also think a lot about the interactions between humans and whales as far as whaling is concerned. I was inspired by the predator/prey relationship of the two to create a shared form, as well as from the shared ocean environment. The visual continuity of the throat grooves of a whale with the lines of the planks on a ship’s hull served as the initial inspiration for these whaleships.


Do you have any background in natural science, considering your interest in animalism?

I draw a lot of my work from biology, evolutionary biology, entomology, ecology…a lot of “E” sciences I guess. When I begin to tackle the natural forms of these creatures, I tend to encounter examples from these sources represented in high realism. I am, personally, more concerned with whether my representation feels right, rather than being anatomically accurate. If you want accuracy, look at a photo. What I want is a more interesting gesture of form so that the viewer has a more interactive experience with a different species. There’s an Alan Moore quote that I often stand by…“Fiction can be more real than nonfiction.”


Does your work carry with it a commentary concerning current issues and beliefs?

When I think about how we relate with other species, or lack thereof, I’m reminded of our many ecological impacts on the world, such as climate change, bringing me back to the predator/prey relationships and how that balance is so tenuous. You can’t have one without the other—predator and prey create each other. Something seems off in the balance on our part of that relationship.  Another example from my series that is a little more positively explicit about this idea, are the kayak lanterns. For me, they are tied to specific places, like rivers in Vermont, and how we relate to those places. The kayak is a representation of how we interact with the river and its inhabitants and our impacts on that ecosystem.


Tell me a little more about this parallel you ride between art and science. How does one benefit the other?

I’m not sure if they do benefit each other. Sometimes I feel as though I’m outside the art world and the science world, being pulled in two different directions, which can make it difficult to make the connections I’ve set out to make. It’s hard to feel like I belong in either place because we’re talking about two different ways of thinking or approaching subject matter that are often closed off to each other.

So, certainly, finding the common ground between these worlds can open up possibilities for my work, but this is always a challenge. In Dungeons and Dragons there is a class you can become called the Spellsword, which allows your character to use swords and armor and also cast spells—but you don’t develop your skills as quickly as a straight fighter or wizard would. This feels reassuring to me—that it might take me awhile to get where I am going, but hopefully there is something cool there that I might not find if I studied just science or practiced just art.


Aside from science, what or who are your artistic influences?

Among a few contemporary artists, Lee Bontecou stands out for me, especially with her use of canvas and cloth, but I am also very drawn to art of antiquity…ancient Mesopotamian…ancient Egyptian, focusing on the representational forms of early sculpture. I feel as though they were also more interested in the feeling of the subject rather than the detail.

I draw a lot of influence from the crafting of materials, sewing, woodworking, etc… I’m driven more by the materials I’m using, and the way they contribute to the concept.


Which brings me to my next question: as far as being a 3D artist, it seems you hold many different skills. Your medium purposefully differs so widely, from woodworking to fiber arts, as you say. Which ones are trained and which ones have you had to improvise with?

I’ve definitely taken a lot of classes in my graduate and undergrad experience, revolving around sculpture…woodworking…different paper mache techniques, but there are a lot of things I’ve picked up along the way. I learned to sew with my mom, growing up, for example. A lot of the stuff I’m doing now involves a great deal of trial and error and developing the method as I go along. I’ve had to draw from shipbuilding techniques, and then sort of twist those techniques to my own design in order to create the hybrids that you see. I’m often after something that is tangential to what the original methods were developed for, which is maybe a reason why I’m less interested in the painstaking detail of a ship or a creature.


What are some of your preferences towards 3D art as opposed to 2D art?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about lately. It is very important that my work is embodied by the materials that would originally define the subject, and also bound by the constraints of the interactions of myself and the materials. Whether I’m depicting material from a wasp’s nest, tree bark, or bones, it’s important to use the actual bones of the creature I’m depicting. Plus, I’ve never really been able to visualize or think two-dimensionally unless I’m working digitally with Illustrator or Photoshop. It’s just more satisfying for me in trying to get the wood that I use for my ships to bend the right way, rather than trying to render the wood two-dimensionally.

I also enjoy the challenge of finding the ways in which 3D art fits into the world. I just had a conversation with a friend about how different forms of art benefit from different subsidies of the way we live. For example, empty walls are sort of a subsidy granted to 2D art, whereas with 3D art, you have to think outside the box as to where it fits.


How do you feel about your work being experienced in a digital format, like here, for example, as opposed to its intended venue in the round?

I don’t think I have it as bad as other large-scale sculptors or artists working with interactive installations, whose work is usually more difficult to photograph. When I look at a photo of one of my pieces, I can remember or imagine the piece as a whole, but I’m not sure if other people are getting the same experience, which is why it is important to have multiple photos of different vantage points. I believe for the most part that my overall concept or message is conveyed through photographs, but again, that’s only from my perspective.


As an exhibitor, what has been your best/worse experience professionally?

Well, one thing that has come up a few times that took a little while for me to figure out what was going on, was the dominance of 2D art in a space. Of course, most of my work is meant for the middle of the room and when it is surrounded by walls taken up by 2D art, it sort of becomes lost. With the predominance of paintings and other 2D work, I think we are basically trained to know how to interact with it much more than we are with 3D art. Sculpture can be harder to engage with and can become an afterthought when surrounded by wall hangings. So I’ve come to learn that I prefer a blank wall behind my work or that it has a spotlight within a dark room.

I’ve really enjoyed showing my work when there is a small gathering of viewers that provide feedback or in any environment with an open critique. It is important to hear what is evoked for other people from my work whether it’s positive or negative.


Do you see your work ever evolving away from this interaction with nature?

That’s hard for me to imagine. I don’t even know how that would come about. I think there is so much more for me to explore within the realm of my current concept, and that could keep me busy for quite a while. Like the Spellsword, with magic and martial ability, I will keep exploring science and art simultaneously. It is my hope that this concept will evolve into something more.

By Kristian Brevik

Kristian Brevik studied sculpture and evolutionary biology/ecology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he began to combine artistic and scientific ways of knowing. Kristian currently researches insect evolution and genetics at the University of Vermont, studying the impacts of human activity on insects. He continues to walk the border between art and science.