Mindy Baumgartner talks about her career in view of her upcoming solo show "Play Space" with Gallery 1064.
Let’s start with a small introduction. Who is Mindy Baumgartner?
Hi, I’m Mindy. I am known as the Crafty Physicist on Instagram, Etsy and the Chicago crafting communities. I have a degree in Physics, with a concentration in Astronomy and a minor in Museum Studies. I worked in science museums (both full and part time) for about a decade, mostly as an educator, inspiring folks to get excited about science. While it was a great job, I left it to start my family. While I was home raising my daughter, I began to deeply miss communicating science with others - I needed to find a way to creatively connect with other about science. I decided to learn hand-lettering as a hobby and in 2017 I started an Instagram account where I shared my lettering pieces, which often had a science connection. Over time, I broadened my skillsets to watercolor and other mediums. I sell my art on etsy, craft fairs and in a few brick and mortar shops.
Before working as full-time artist, you trained as a scientist. Can you tell us more about your path?
Yes, I trained to be a physicist, but figuring out how I wanted to use that degree was a journey.
I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. We had nice dark skies, so my parents would wake me up in the night for celestial events … things like meteor showers, eclipses, and the aurora borealis. That’s where my love of the night sky (and science) began to grow. In high school, my two favorite classes were forensics (public speaking) and chemistry. In college, I knew my job would be somewhere in the sciences, but I didn’t know where. It was at an open observatory night that I realized where I wanted to take my career… I loved talking to others about science. I loved the look on their faces when you shared some amazing science fact with them. I loved to think about how they’d go and share that fact with someone else… that maybe that fact would spur them on their own journey for discovery. I had an internship at a planetarium and that sold me. My passion for science, and astronomy specifically, would come to life within the informal education realm of museums. So, for my degree, I followed my love for Astronomy to Physics, and paired it with a Museum Studies minor to best prepare me for that career.
How did you start your art journey?
Being a mom is hard. While I had support, I felt incredibly isolated and like I lost a bit of myself. I needed to make time for something that was just for me. I have always considered myself a crafty and creative person, but I wanted to get better at art. Once I started lettering, I couldn’t stop. Whenever I had a spare minute to myself, I had a pen out and I was lettering. It was meditative. It was something I could practice anywhere. And there were such great communities on Instagram. There were lots of lettering challenges that gave you inspiration and opportunities to be featured and meet other lettering artists. That community kept me motivated and inspired.
Was it hard to do art with a science background? Does your “outsider” view help you in your daily work?
For me, it wasn’t hard to start creating science art. It felt like an obvious fit for me to focus on science topics as I practiced art. Where I did (and do) struggle is with the terminology and calling myself either a scientist or an artist. Finding a home for myself in either of these communities felt disingenuous, as I didn’t have a career in science, and I didn’t go to school for art. Finding out where I belonged was (and is) hard.
Science and art are often viewed as opposites. People are always surprised by me at craft fairs… like they can’t believe that someone with a science background would be making arts and crafts. But I believe science and art are much more connected than people think. Being creative helps immensely with science - like thinking outside the box and approaching problems in novel ways. And science helps immensely with art - observation skills, measuring, experimentation. Art and science are ways of looking at the world, one more analytically and one more emotionally, but by combining the two in sci-art, we get this beautiful view of the human experience.
You refer to yourself as science-educator and science communicator. What role does art play in scicomm?
Science sometimes has a bad wrap. Many consider it “too hard” to participate in. If you liked science, you were a nerd, and that was a bad thing. And that sort of stigma stopped a lot of people from getting involved in science, which is detrimental to our growth as humans. Science is interesting and fun. It requires creativity and out-of-the-box thinking - it’s not all dry facts. I try to showcase those sides of science in my art. I want to bring people in with beautiful imagery and then sneak in a fact or two, or get them thinking about their place in space. I want people to feel more comfortable with science and appreciate what it has to offer and how they can connect with it. Art has been an unconventional and wonderful tool for doing that.
What suggestion you have for a scientist that wants to improve their communication skills?
Just like any skill, you need to practice communicating to get better at it. One way I suggest to improve those communication skills is to take an improv class. At the museum I used to work at, improv was one of the core skills we built and focused on in our trainings. It really allowed us to be able to think more quickly, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and learn to have fun communicating with others. If improv feels like too big of a jump, I would suggest looking for other outlets to be able to communicate your science, like volunteering at a museum. The more you do it, the easier it will become.
Do you plan to change subjects in you art and move away from #sciart?
I make science art, because that’s what moves me. I find science beautiful and I am driven to share that view with others. My goal with my art is for others to find a connection with and appreciation for science. I want to break down the barrier that science is just for scientists.
Your work is mixture of masterfully crafted watercolors, elegant lettering, silhouettes and mixed media pairing paper cutting, embroidery and craft. How did you find your artistic voice?
My artistic voice is really just a collection of my creative whims and things that I find compelling and then combining those whims together. I love watercolor - it’s like a science experiment every time you put paint to paper. The amount of water, the minerals in the paint, the absorption of the paper… everytime you change one of those factors, your output can change really dramatically, and I love that. I love the tactile nature and dimensionality of paper-cutting and embroidery. Adding lettering to any piece gives an additional layer of emotion.
And I am constantly influenced by the imagery I see on my Instagram feed, be it astronomy photographs from Hubble or the Mars rover, links to science journals/articles, or the creative community there.
Do you have a favorite scientist? Who, and why? Do they also have an influence on your art?
My favorite scientist is Carl Sagan. His ability to communicate science and connect with the general public was unparalleled. He opened the doors to a whole generation of science enthusiasts. His beautiful words are my favorite things to letter.
What are you currently working on? What the next exciting thing on the horizon?
I have this vision, that I think I’m going to have to wait a bit longer on because of the pandemic, but it’s something I’d really love to get going sometime in the near future… science craft nights. I’ve seen it done in a few places before on Instagram, but I want to get something going locally in Chicago. What I’m envisioning is that we rent out a room in a bar for a night. I bring some cool science-themed craft, like nerdy embroidery, and I teach you how to do it. Then, you can work on the craft while listening to a local scientist give a lecture on their current research. Doesn’t that sound so fun? I really want to grow a community of creative science enthusiasts who go on to spread those “I learned something new” warm fuzzy feelings to other folks and we just keep inspiring others to keep making and learning and growing.