My friend Jesse works in a neuroscience research lab at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his lab mates explore traits of neuron de and regeneration in Zebrafish. Their lab is a place where big questions are answered on a very small scale, an institution handling the exquisite delicacy of biology. Looking at that delicacy takes a lot of arduous and repetitive labor. Jesse spends his days coaxing bacteria to grow strands of DNA, which are then separated and implanted in the Zebrafish. The fish are zapped with lasers and the scientists observe how different traits of the DNA handle the regrowth of damaged neurons. The Zebrafish are bred to have a nervous system that glows in the dark to make observation easier.
Jesse and I have wonderful conversations that hop back and forth over the garden wall that separates science from art. From either vantage point the other’s pursuits are valiantly brushing up against the wonderful mysteries of the universe. We marvel at each other’s work despite the fact that we are usually relating the frustrations about our work and not the highs.
Recently Jesse described a very bad day in the lab. He had spent upwards of four hours preparing a solution in a test tube that would be injected into his Zebrafish. As he transitioned from one task to the next he made a hasty gesture that resulted in four hours of hard work decorating his lab coat. Following the scientific method, Jesse reacted with what is known in the field as a Hissy Fit. When I heard about this mishap I was pretty concerned. I knew this was how superheroes often receive their super powers, but it was also how unstoppable flesh-eating contagions get their big break. “What was in the test tube”, I asked. Jesse said in a dismissive huff, “Oh, it was just water, some alcohol and a little DNA.”
If a sequence of tedious scientific tasks goes smoothly the end result may be a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s Disease, but the moment a test tube spills and the sequence of study is interrupted, the science can dissolve into its’ ordinary ingredients. A cocktail of important information suddenly becomes simply some water, alcohol and DNA. The size of one’s labor reduces in a crisis. That’s a daily sensation in the studio for an artist.
The studio experiment begins with common enough ingredients; oil, pigment, brush, knives wood and fabric. Initially I scrape my palette down and lay out fresh paint, observing the quality of surfaces and consistencies. But the material nature of my supplies is quickly suppressed and they become extensions of my thinking. The surface of the painting similarly begins in a physical two-dimensional state, but as the illusion develops the more my thoughts inhabit a space inside and beyond the painting. This is where paintings tend to grow. Establishing value in that phantom real-estate is what makes a painting radiate a sense of size. This isn’t measurable size but the size felt in the presence of confidence and vitality. For anyone who has picked up a dead bird this distortion of scale is felt. A dead bird looks and feels far smaller than it appeared in life. As a project accumulates the belief of its’ creator it becomes bigger than its’ materials, it comes to life.
Doubt, however, will inevitably take over during an experiment. This might be doubt brought on by a mistake such as an errant paint stroke or broken test tube that breaks the illusion. But more often than not it’s doubt born of the demons of self-judgment and distraction. The illusion deflates and one is left with those common materials. Just like Cinderella, whose resplendent outfit and carriage turned back into mundane artifacts whence the fairy godmother magic wore off, we live in terror of our work being exposed as fraudulent. When the magic wears off it feels like we are seeing the reality of things and the tragedy of its’ ordinariness tells us we weren’t being honest with ourselves. But doubt is as dishonest as the illusion. Doubt conceals the blessings that aren’t at risk.
Jesse’s setback with the Zebrafish was real as was his frustration, and I sympathized with him. But at the end of the day he still works with glowing fish! It’s hard to see magic if its’ not moving, if its’ not changing the size of things. Its’ the humility which comes when our hard work shrinks that allows us to see the natural beauty of our situation. We all eventually see our coaches turn back into pumpkins and fret the return to reality, but its’ important to take stock of our fairy godmothers and be thankful that we made it to the ball.