Give us some background.
When I was a kid I was always the "class artist"—drew a lot, did contests—and everybody said that would be my claim to fame as an adult. As I got older, I started doing illustration commissions, especially after art portfolio websites became a thing. Everybody was fascinated by "art made on the computer" for a short while.
But, every so often, I'd have moments of "rebellion": I've never liked doing just one thing and feeling boxed in by a title and, subsequently, having to do the same sort of thing repeatedly. Multiple times in my life I've stopped drawing or "quit art" entirely to do other things: modeling, photography, coding, writing, futurism, math, science, and currently I'm gardening. I've always loved the idea of the "Renaissance Man" or polymath.
Science is particularly important to me. I didn't fully realize how crucial it was, objectively, as well as personally, until sometime in college—art school. There wasn't really a way for me to take serious science courses and still graduate on time so I did whatever I could—read on my own, took science-for-artists type courses, online courses—finished up my BFA and started looking for ways to return to school.
The best advice I got was something like "show the work you want to be doing" and I have to say, it doesn't happen overnight, but stick with what you want to do and try to find opportunities to do it, and eventually something might come of it. Some people like to call that "intention", but there's no special secret or magic to it. Mostly it's being tired a lot and looking for ways to solve your puzzle.
Now, I work at Quanta Magazine, which is super cool.
Edited by Alicia DeWitt
When margins approached artist, designer, "botanical dilettante," and Enlightenment enthusiast Olena Shmahalo about sharing her work and process with us, it was clear we agreed on something big. Design is all about synthesizing.
Designers have always worn many “hats”, and at margins, we look for designers that embrace a number of identities. Shmahalo does both with an enthusiasm and curiosity that drives her beautifully rich, magical work.
We learned about her path, a mix of “rebellion”, investigation, and negotiation, between art and science to where she sits now as the art director at the science publication, Quanta Magazine. There she’s tasked with transforming the abstract and esoteric into the visual and the accessible.
In learning a lot of topics and working at intersections, what do you see as your strengths? What are struggles?
Being stubborn and persistent. Especially when you meet opposition from people who have no idea what you're capable of, but want to impede your progress for any number of reasons: they think you don't look the part, or that you can't possibly do it because of your gender/race/educational background/pick a thing, or because they want you to be doing something else. There's so much of that all along the way; even when it's well-meaning it can be daunting.
Other struggles: the older you get the more difficult it is to be a polymath. Depending on your situation, of course. More like, finances—or lack thereof—make that path narrower.
Can you think of any elements of your work or education that you’d like to bring back as a trend for the design world?
Hmm. Which field? Hah!
Playing off of what I said before, if I could bring back trends [they’d be from] the Renaissance and the Enlightenment through Victorian eras. Those were times of discovery, polymathy, and excitement about science. People wanted to learn, engage in the arts but also explore the natural world. Think curiosity cabinets, coffeehouse meetings, art nouveau, Orchidelirium and the first botanic gardens, seeing the Sublime in nature, the World's Fairs, and so on. Not to glorify the past too much; there was a lot wrong in those eras as well. But, it seems that the everyman could be excited about and involved in naturalism then. Sadly, maybe in the wake of WW2 and the atomic age, people seem to be retreating back into darkness. Anyway, rather than me rambling on I'll just recommend watching Sagan's Cosmos as a starting point.
“Some people say 'practice, practice, practice, but I prefer the efficient variety: absorb and build on existing work.”
So much of this feels like it needs to be analog. What do you think about digital curation and exploration with a tool like Pinterest or via Tumblr?
I don't value physical collection [and] meetings over digital. The opposite actually. I prefer for most things to happen in the digital realm. Some of that comes from environmental anxiety: for example walking into any store and seeing millions of objects that will eventually need to be discarded. Digital relieves a lot of that since data can actually be recycled easily.
You’ve talked about being influenced by historic eras—who are some designers and artists that you feel have impacted your practice? People outside the fields of design and art?
Outside! Look outside! Sometimes, during art school, I'd come across design or art teachers who'd basically tell you to ignore classes not immediately related to your major. Maybe that's an effective time-management strategy, but it makes for a bland soup, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, the artists I think of right away: Buckminster Fuller, Yayoi Kusama, Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymous Bosch, Neal Stephenson, Richard Feynman, Lee Bonticou, Ernst Haeckel... many more, I'm sure, but that's it for now.
I have trouble with categories, can you see?
Tell us about your thought process when working through a favorite project. How did you develop your way of working?
It's difficult to choose a project. Right now, my garden makes me really happy. I think it's a kind of art. Categories shmategories.
It's a mix of things: visual in the identification, arranging, pruning, and photography of plants. Scientific, obviously. And it's physical. I guess it's deeply engaging for all of the senses, and the mind and body as a whole. It's starting to make a lot of sense philosophically, as I write this. Ha!
Developing this practice—and any other, really—is being a good hunter-gatherer. Some people say "practice, practice, practice", but I prefer the efficient variety: absorb and build on existing work. Gather a bunch of great stuff and make a synergistic soup.
Do you feel like the “hunter gatherer” or “physical relationship” to creativity changes when you work digitally?
The internet makes it too easy to get into a loop of hunting down and collecting things! I have wondered if it's some primal instinct kicking in when I've been scrolling and saving things for hours.
All that said, though, I do enjoy physical works—both creating and seeing/experiencing—like sculpture and installation. I suppose that by gardening I'm subconsciously trying to use more of my senses than would otherwise be employed. It's an environmentally-friendly way to do [or] make physical things. And, having beautiful plants cluttering up space is much better than most other types of clutter, I think.
Lastly, what do you wish the world/general public knew about design?
I remember a Christmas party where some older friend of the family joked that I was "selling out" when I said something about taking science courses. He knew me as an artist. Which, jokes aside, is ridiculous—they're really similar practices. They’re just different ways humans express curiosity about our world and explore it. Both require creativity to do well. Both also require technical skills. You need to know how to do a thing properly to be able to reconfigure it into something new, whether said thing is an equation or a type of art.