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On Wisconsin, Spring 1999

The Many Hats of Hunter

by Michael Penn

Hunter O'Reilly wears many hats, both real and metaphorical. Of the headgear variety, she owns more than thirty, a repertoire so versatile that she has developed a reputation as the "Hat Lady" in her circles. Her collection of figurative hats - the ones that descrive the roles she plays - is almost as large. Among them: graduate student, illustrator, genetics researcher, and oil painter.

O'Reilly is on her way to finishing a PhD in UW-Madison's genetics department, where she is researching the intricacies of human hormone receptors and gene expression. She recently traveled to Cambridge, England, to present a paper titled "Regulation of the SV40 Late Promoter by Nuclear Receptors and SV40 Large T-Antigen." But she also communicates as an artist - an oil painter who has exhibited her work around Madison as well as in New York City and England.

To some, this nexus may seem strange. Art seems decidedly left-brain, while science, bound by logic and fact, belongs to the right - and never the brain twain shall meet, right? But O'Reilly doesn't see this rigid distinction between the two activities. In her mind, science and art meld together like the abstract, amoebic faces in her artwork.

In the laboratory, O'Reilly analyzes thin layers of cells as part of her research to detect how genes regulate the production of proteins in the body. What she sees in her microscope often fuels her artistic mind. "Sometimes the cells form different shapes and curves that give me ideas," she says. It is not unusual for an irregularly shaped cell to inspire one of the brightly colored, sinuous shapes that characterize her art.

While her interest in genetics traces back to high school, she didn't take up painting until about two years ago, although she admits to being a lifelong doodler. A trip to Paris inspired her to commit to canvas her unique vision of the world. Although O'Reilly has has only one class in drawing and one in oil painting, she has now produced about twenty paintings and filled six sketchbooks.

"I like research." O'Reilly says, "but I think painting is something that I was meant to do." She has taken to calling herself an "artist/geneticist," and hopes to continue her artistic moonlighting while eventually landing a faculty position in genetics.

Not only has science helped influence her art, but art may be helping to make O'Reilly a better scientist, especially in the highly conceptional world of microbiological research. "When you're in school, you're always memorizing formulas. But at the edge of science, where things are not so defined, it helps to think creatively," she says. Much of her lab work, for instance, involves working with strands of DNA invisible to the unaided eye. Having the ability to visualize what's going on inside the petri dish helps her to understand the secrets of microscience.

O'Reilly has recently finished a round of shows at several small Madison galleries and keeps a Web site updated with her latest work. Some people have said that her art reminds them of Picasso and Miro, as her paintings often seem abstract, yet full of discernible figures at the same time. She's even invented a word for it: hunterism, which she says involves using a single line to define two or more shapes at once.

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