Art in Bio- highlighting research scientist & woodworker Zanne Cox

Zanne Cox

With all the many difficulties that persist since the spring of 2020 in particular, we want to continue to take time to focus on the beauty that is still being created. We also recognize that with the increasing recognition of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) rather than only STEM, it’s important to highlight some of the scientists/ biologists who not only follow our journals via our social media accounts or subscribe to The Journal Of Integrative and Comparative Biology and our sibling journal The Journal of Integrative Organismal Biology, but also a few of our journal volunteers(Assistant Editors and social media outreach associates).

Our Art in Bio blogs include a pieces of artwork by scientists who are also artists, along with the artist’s thoughts on how their art influences biology and vice versa. This month we are highlighting Duke research scientist Zanne Cox

Zanne Cox’s chair from her site

Read her interview below.

You attended college for sculpture and design. When did you transition to being a scientist by day and was there a particular event that lead to that switch? 

Ahh, that’s a long story.  The short version: I got divorced and couldn’t support my two kids on a starving artist salary.  The longer story: At this point, I already had an undergrad degrees in physics, sculpture and philosophy and an ABD for a PhD in philosophy.  But none of my degrees were very useful for getting a job. This was 2009 in the heart of the recession.  I applied for hundreds of jobs in everything from applied physics to high school teaching and secretarial work, but no one would hire me. So, I decided to get practical and go back to school for engineering. 

While working on my masters in mechanical engineering, I met Sheila Patek and started a collaboration.  Fundamentally, it was meeting and working with Sheila that changed the trajectory of my life. I had always loved big questions; what is the meaning of life, the nature of reality, the relationship between mind and world.  Sheila made me realize that there were big questions in biology.  I was a naturalist by temperament (my art is often inspired by biological forms), so realizing that there was a field that could combine the two was amazing. She convinced me to do my phD with her and 11 years later here I am.  🙂

How do you feel art and biology intersect? (how your art influences your science and vice versa) 

I find that whether I’m doing art or science, I’m fundamentally doing the same thing: isolating and distilling some aspect of the world makes me stop and gape in awe. Then I do a bunch of work to put a frame around it so I can hold up to others to say isn’t this amazing? 

There was a quote from Alan Watts that always stuck with me: ” A philosopher, which is what I am supposed to be, is a sort of intellectual yokel who gapes and stares at what sensible people take for granted, a person who cannot get rid of the feeling that the barest facts of everyday life are unbelievably odd.” 

I’d switch out odd with amazing, but basically that describes me to a tee- whether I’m doing philosophy, art or science. It’s all the same thing with different tools, different content.

YouTube of venus flytrap inspired work:

I have been working on these new structures – furniture that moves.  It’s inspired by the elastic mechanisms that drives the fastest motions in biology. And most of these systems aren’t vertebrates with joints or hinges like we see in traditional furniture.  It’s got me thinking about how to make an enclosed form like a wardrobe or box that doesn’t have doors or drawers, but opens and closes by changing shape.  Below is a video of my first prototype. This is a bi-stable structure that snaps between being open and being closed.  This one was inspired by the venus fly trap.  

What other mediums have you tried aside from wood working and what keeps you returning to woodworking? 

I make in just about every medium you can think of.  I knit, weld, paint, throw pots, figure model in clay, draw, batik, cast, build houses, felt, blow glass, build electronic interactive sculptures, blacksmith, do CAD and 3d print, machine, and do printmaking.  I’m sure there’s a few others I’ve forgotten.  I keep coming back to woodworking because it works well with my brain.  I find most satisfying projects that take 35 steps which must be done in just the right order do end up with something amazing.  Especially ones where at least one or two steps along the way require some really tricky troubleshooting.  But unlike machining, or other mediums that also require that – wood has the additional appeal that it can be shaped by hand.  So, your brain is really involved in the planning but your hands get to do the knowing at other stages.  The hands know whether the curve feels right.  It is that process of hand shaping things that has me hooked.  The tiny shavings curling at your feet, the dance between the tool, the wood, the eye and the hands, taking a little off, feeling the result, stepping back and looking, seeing the way it is still a bit off, shaving a bit more, rinse and repeat.  That fine tuning with the hands is the difference between a piece that is dead and one that is alive.

What is your favorite part of the process of making a piece and why? 

One of the things that I love about furniture making is that it combines so many different skills and processes and I geek out at different stages in the process.   I love doing work that requires really looking at the world – not just skimming over it like we usually do – but taking the time to pull away all the simplifying categories and assumptions that our brain imposes – and really see what’s there.  Making furniture starts with scouting the world for beautiful curves or structures – the line of a branch, the curl of a flower petal.  I particularly love bones and muscles.  So, I walk around a lot just letting myself be drawn in by beauty.  Then I spend a long time drawing it – trying to abstract a bit to the essence of what caught my eye.  Then my engineering brain kicks in and I get practical.  What could this be in the world? 

I like functional art – so I try to think how that structure could be useful.  Then I draw more and do lots of CAD.  I need to think in 3d – trying out different shapes.  Then I build a full scale model – often roughing it out and shaping the details out of clay.  Then…. then I get really practical and try to figure out how to actually make it  -what 22 steps will get me there – given the wood’s strengths and weaknesses. What jigs would be necessary. Sometimes that involves a lot of engineering – or even inventing new techniques. I kinda love that part.  That’s certainly a piece that totally overlaps with my science.  We comparative physiologists are the MacGyver’s of the science world – always pushing the boundaries to measure something new by inventing some new device. So, I love this part and it’s a fundamental aspect of my science as well as art.

 Then there’s the fun process of actually machining it – screwing up 10 times first and then finally getting it right – also a part that overlaps with science.  And then the joy of shaping and sanding – seeing it go from clunky to elegant – smooth and finished  (much like the joy and pain of putting the finishing touches on a paper).  Different parts of the process light up different pleasure centers in my brain.  🙂  I couldn’t choose just one.

Zanne in her woodworking space

What advice would you have for early career scientists about partaking of other interests alongside their scientific work? 

Honestly,  I don’t know if I’m the best one to answer that.  I haven’t been able to make any satisfying art since I started doing science.  As a single mom, I’ve just been in survival mode for the last decade.  I can’t make art when I’m worried about scrounging enough money to feed my kids while living on a graduate student’s salary.  And the job insecurity and constant moving as a post-doc has meant that I haven’t been stable enough to set up my shop anywhere.  But when I can get some art making in – in any form – I find it grounds me. It connects me back with the world, helps me slow down enough to notice some beauty around me.  And that noticing is where so much good science starts. 

Connect with Cox via Twitter :


And read

Cox ICB co authored publication

The Influence of Visual, Vestibular, and Hindlimb Proprioceptive Ablations on Landing Preparation in Cane Toads

Cox IOB co authored publication

The Interaction of Compliance and Activation on the ForceLength Operating Range and Force Generating Capacity of Skeletal Muscle: A Computational Study using a Guinea Fowl Musculoskeletal Model 

Author: suzannecrmiller

Author of Queen, Wage, The Selections on Amazon, Fly on site and soon to be Souvenir through @Inkdedingray publishing

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