Hopefully, with a new administration in place in the U.S., science will be given the weight it deserves once again. Artist Elizabeth Whelan is doing her part to promote science and scientists with her latest series of portraits, which she unveiled at Featherstone in 2019 and is now reworking for future exhibitions.
The series, titled “Women in Science,” features six Island women working in various fields. Whelan originally completed the paintings to include in the 2019 exhibit “Inseparable: Science and Art.” Since then, the paintings have traveled to various locations. When she finally found the work back in her studio, Whelan decided to update them to reflect her current approach to portraiture. “My technique has evolved over the past years,” she says. “At the time I was playing around with a looser style of portraiture. I just wanted to tighten these up a little bit.”
Whelan’s interest in the sciences dates back to her childhood. “My father was a research metallurgist,” she says. “We grew up in a pro-science environment.”
As an artist, Whelan is known for experimenting with a variety of media and styles, even installing her own printing press in her studio. She is a dedicated lifelong learner who has always had a fascination with science and technology.
“When I got the idea for the show, it seemed like science was really getting shunted aside,” she says. “Science itself is the study of the structure and behavior of the physical world. That can’t be pushed aside. I really feel that our ignorance of science will be our downfall.”
Whelan adds, “I wanted to put particular emphasis on women, who have traditionally been underappreciated in the sciences.”
Each of the portrait subjects is depicted in an appropriate environment. For example, surveyor Kara Shemeth, who works for Schofield Barbini & Hoehn, is shown on an Edgartown waterfront property digging for a marker buried beneath the turf. Biologist and zoologist Luanne Johnson, whose primary focus is on conservation biology and endangered species recovery, is shown at Fuller Street Beach, monitoring shore birds. Megan M. Carroll, a research engineer in the applied ocean physics and engineering department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is shown at that facility examining a large sea buoy used for oceanographic monitoring. Carroll has been commuting from the Island to Woods Hole, where she works on mechanical design, testing, and assembly for oceanographic applications, for the past 20 years.
The other portraits depict Shelley Edmundson, Ph.D., executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, and Amandine Surier Hall and Emma Green-Beach, co-directors of the M.V. Shellfish Group.
Whelan visited each of her subjects in the field, and spent a good amount of time talking to the women about their various areas of expertise. She was impressed not only with their knowledge and skill, but also with the dedication they bring to their respective fields. “This is my way of telling other people’s stories,” says the artist. “It’s very much about being able to bring people’s stories to the public.”
Each portrait is accompanied by a short bio written by the scientists. Whelan will be gifting the paintings to the individual subjects. “Scientists tend to be very quiet people who work behind the scenes,” Whelan observes. “Each and every one was happy to have a spotlight shown, not on them, but on their work. They are all very keen on doing a little more to promote their individual field of science.”
Whelan plans to continue the series, possibly adding female scientists working for universities and other institutions around the country. She welcomes any referrals, and is particularly interested in focusing on scientists working in areas of urgent interest these days, including epidemiology and climate science.
“I don’t have to stop at six portraits,” says the artist. “I can do these in perpetuity. I want to continue to shine a light on the scientists, and make it a particular cause of mine to honor women in science.”
You can find all of the “Women in Science” portraits on the website elizabeth-whelan.com. Whelan hopes to exhibit the portraits again once pandemic restrictions ease up. She also offers individual and family portraits by commission.