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The art of science
A small art gallery on Milwaukee's south side is probably the least likely venue for most genetic scientists to display and discuss their latest work.
But Hunter O'Reilly is no ordinary scientist.
The San Franciscan native, who earned her doctorate in genetics from the University of Wisconsin in December, loves to create as much as she likes to examine.
"Radioactive Biohazard" a new exhibit at Walker's Point Center for the Arts, 911 W. National Ave, displays O'Reilly's most recent forays into the merging of art and science. At the intersection that O'Reilly arranges between these two worlds, HIV particles are beautiful, a lab workstation is aesthetically pleasing and cells and organs weave through oil paintings with stripes and swirls.
"I guess you would say that some of my work (is) not typically considered art," O'Reilly said. "But, by taking something like a lab bench and removing it from its context, it can take on a whole new meaning. You can see it for what it is."
As a child, O'Reilly had a great curiosity for everything, which led her to focus on science while in college. However, as her education became more intense, she began to turn to art and photography as a means of relaxation.
"The more I got involved in science, the more I needed an outlet," O'Reilly said. "This led to my great interest in drawing and later painting."
Before long, O'Reilly's two great passions converged as she integrated genetic elements into her artwork, starting in 1997. However, the meeting of this "odd couple" was not only due to O'Reilly's interest in both but also her desire to bring biotechnology to audiences that are uninformed about its significance.
"A lot of books on genetics and biotechnology are dry, they're boring," O'Reilly said. "I try to integrate science with art to make it entertaining ... and interesting."
O'Reilly's work not only brings the physical beauty of genetics into the art world, but also deals heavily with the social issues surrounding biotechnology.
For instance, the controversial issue of human cloning is brought to the surface in many of the works in the "Radioactive Biohazard" exhibit, including "Madonna con Clone," a vibrant oil painting that presents a woman and her cloned daughter. Although the daughter is nearly identical to the mother, O'Reilly explained that they each have their own souls that define who they are as people.
This idea of a clone's independent identity appears in much of her work on account of her feelings about the advances being made currently by genetic researchers.
"(Cloning) could be something very positive for couples who are infertile and couldn't otherwise have a child," O'Reilly said. "But I'm concerned with clones being considered sub-human. I want to debunk these myths that they won't have a soul."
Despite the statements O'Reilly puts forth in her work, she welcomes any interpretation a viewer may have of her paintings or digital prints. She asks only that a visitor look for the beauty in the genetically derived pieces.
It may be hard for some guests to witness the beauty in "The Art of Death," which is quite possibly the most interesting work in the exhibition. Five electron micrographs of the viruses that produce illnesses such as herpes, ebola and HIV are blown up to enormous sizes, colored in electrifying reds, greens and blues by O'Reilly, and then highlighted by neon lighting provided by Electric Eye Neon.
"These works show that viruses can be visually beautiful although intellectually horrifying," O'Reilly said, responding to some viewers interpretation of the images as candy-like.
O'Reilly explores this idea at the human level with "Contagious Beauty," the smallest oil painting on display but easily the most eye catching with its warm hues of red, orange and yellow flowing throughout. The painting depicts a woman with long beautiful hair in profile set against an abstraction of a glowing HIV particle.
"Many of the people infected with HIV are now living with the virus for more than 15 years without any great change to their health because of the treatments available," O'Reilly said. "So this woman here is beautiful, yet contagious with a deadly disease."
Works like "Contagious Beauty" and "The Art of Death" are unmistakably meant to provoke a response, and O'Reilly testified to having received a great deal of positive reactions to her work.
"Some people have come up to me and thanked me for bringing up these genetic issues," O'Reilly said. "I mean, there are a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise think about this stuff."
Of course, O'Reilly isn't without her critics either, who include one of her former teachers.
"There are people in the science community who say 'just do science, this isn't serious,'" O'Reilly said. "I get criticized for not following the typical path."
With plans to lecture on biotechnology and continue her artistic endeavors, this artist with a Ph.D. doesn't look like she will "just do science" anytime soon.
As O'Reilly and her work earn more and more recognition, it is evident that the only path she will follow is her own.
"Radioactive Biohazard" will run until June 2 at Walker's Point Center for the Arts. The gallery is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information call (414) 672-2787.
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