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March 18, 2010

Bio-artist interprets science through art

“Art can unlock the door to science,” a bio-artist told an audience here at last month’s lecture, “On the Confluence of Art and Genetic Science.”

The relationship between art and science today “is a little bit like romance,” said Lynn Fellman. What’s being learned about our species and about each other “is like getting to know someone new,” she said. “It’s surprising; It’s a sense of discovery,” one that artists, who speak through a visual language, respond to. “You know that there’s beauty in the idea of evolution,” she said, adding that art can express that beauty.

The Minneapolis-based artist, a member of the bio-art movement that seeks to bridge the worlds of art and science, uses recent discoveries about the human genome as the basis for portraits and other works that offer a glimpse into our roots.

Minneapolis-based bio-artist Lynn Fellman works in her studio. On display are examples of her DNA portraits.

Minneapolis-based bio-artist Lynn Fellman works in her studio. On display are examples of her DNA portraits.

Fellman’s genetic portraits superimpose the anthropological story of ancient migration routes on maps to illustrate what science has uncovered about human ancestry. “Portraiture of the genome is all about who we are in amazing new ways,” Fellman said.

Stressing that she is an artist, Fellman acknowledged, “I have big gaps in my education. I am not a trained scientist so I really need to do more studying.” She told her audience, “My dream is to work more with you — geneticists, evolutionary biologists in particular — so that I’m smarter.  … I really like that collaboration where I can really dig deeper into what you are doing.”

Looking back on her upbringing, she recalled being fascinated as a child by the National Geographic accounts of the paleo-anthropologic discoveries that emerged from the Leakey excavations in Africa. The questions of where humans came from seemed out of reach. “I always thought we’d never know,” she said.

Her interest was rekindled as those questions began to be answered through DNA evidence that has traced human history to early origins in Africa.

After reading early accounts in Newsweek in the 1980s that traced human lineage through mitochondrial DNA to a common female ancestor in Africa, “I connected it right away to those fabulous fertility figures,” she said.

“We don’t know exactly where in Africa we were originally — maybe we will someday — but this is the launching point,” she said, noting that all women share this common female ancestor known as “Mitochondrial Eve.”

Fellman’s interpretation of Mitochondrial Eve is a curvy figure with African features and an Asian eye, posed low to the ground on a background of colorful petroglyphs and bits of the DNA helix.

Similarly, drawing on the work of population geneticist Spencer Wells’s “Genographic Project,” which traces the Y-chromosome lines to men’s ancient forefathers, Fellman created a representation of “Eurasian Adam,” basing her portrait of the common ancestor of all non-African men on a man from the African Bushmen, or San, people.

When she first discovered Wells’s work about five years ago, “I realized there’s some interesting graphics and mapping that I could really use,” Fellman said.

Wells’s project involves obtaining genetic information from indigenous peoples to plot the genetics for different haplogroups — people whose genes connect them to a common ancestor deep in the past, Fellman said, likening it to studies on disappearing languages.

“He has that same sense of urgency that the window is closing, everyone’s moving to the city and we’re losing languages,” she said. “His study is very much the same because people are on the move and coming to the city.”

Haplogroups are people who share a common ancestor based on a common single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genetic mutation. Some groups can be defined through the male line via Y-DNA while others are found through the female line in mitochondrial DNA.

The genetic groups can be traced back to geographic regions that indicate ancestral origins dating back thousands of years.

Using these scientific discoveries and DNA testing, Fellman creates individual “DNA portraits” that trace a person’s deep lineage through the migration routes of his or her ancestors.

In her presentation, Fellman displayed several examples of her work:  One is a portrait of a woman whose maternal Norwegian ancestry is represented by runes superimposed on a map of her female ancestors’ migration routes.

Another depicts a man of Chinese ancestry whose haplotype indicates his forefathers came to South Asia from Africa tens of thousands of years ago.

Another portrays a man with eastern European Jewish roots whose ancestors were lost in World War II, leaving him little information on his own history. “It captures a piece that’s missing,” Fellman said.

She creates the portraits by taking information derived from DNA kits — her subjects submit a DNA sample to a lab that determines the individual’s haplotype based on the subject’s choice of mother’s line or father’s line.

While many of her clients are interested in the portraits as a connection to their family tree, Fellman admits she’s captivated by the bigger picture.

“Genealogy is really our current time,” she explained, adding that she’s more interested in the science that enables us to trace our roots back to prehistory. “This connects us to our past in really interesting ways,” she said.

In addition to individual portraits, Fellman uses ancient human migration routes to illustrate broader concepts, including one piece commissioned by the medical school at the University of Minnesota.

The 4-by-8-foot  “medical school hap map” is based in part on admissions data that showed the diversity of the school’s population as part of the migration of many groups over time into Minnesota: Native Americans, groups from Europe and later others including Somalis, Hmong and Laotians.

In turn, a “bursting effect” spreading outward in all directions from Minnesota indicates the school’s impact on the future.

Some of Fellman’s work could someday have a home at Pitt. Department of Human Genetics faculty member Susanne Gollin, in her introduction of the artist, said she hoped faculty here will commission a piece of art for the department’s student lounge.

Fellman described her DNA-based works as “almost like a talking book, a talking picture, where people can come and get pulled in by color, shape and form and if that’s all they want, that’s fine with me,” she said. At the same time, for those who are interested in more detail, the symbols can foster deeper study of the science underlying the art.

“Not everyone’s going to like my art, not everyone should like my art,” Fellman said. “But mostly, people respond to it and start to ask questions — and that’s the best. … They leave, they’re curious, they want to know more and they really do start to do some research. It’s a really wonderful way to engage people,” she said.

There are those who respond in a negative way. “I’ve had people come right up to me and be angry,” she said. For those who reject the concepts of evolution, “I’m not evangelical and I’ll stay out of religion. … I’m not clever enough to go confrontational — but I can talk to people in these ways that maybe make it a little bit easier,” she said, adding that she hopes her work can help to “make an impact and maybe influence a mind, change a mind, get them on another direction to really appreciate science. … Science and technology are important for the survival of the species.”

More of Fellman’s work can be viewed at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Lynn Fellman’s “Medical School Hap Map,” which is 4 feet by 8 feet, hangs in the University of Minnesota’s Mayo Building.

Lynn Fellman’s “Medical School Hap Map,” which is 4 feet by 8 feet, hangs in the University of Minnesota’s Mayo Building.

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