Art: Artist gives expression to science

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2007 - 2:24 PM

A local artist combines science and art to make a most intimate self-portrait, based on a person's DNA code.

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Minneapolis artist Lynn Fellman photographed in her North Loop studio. Fellman creates DNA portraits that combine her subject's portrait, DNA sequence and ancestral journey out of Africa. In the background is Fellman's print "Mitochondrial Eve #1," which inspired her to explore the DNA portrait concept. Fellman also prints her colorful designs on silk scarves, foreground.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson,

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Artist Lynn Fellman has a different sort of self-portrait on her wall. It features a curiously repetitive sequence of the letters A, T, C and G, a map of several continents and the stylized visage of an African woman. There's no hint of Fellman's red hair or Swedish complexion, yet it is as personal as a self-portrait can be, for the sub-Saharan woman whom she calls Eve is at the root of Fellman's DNA code.

Two years ago, Fellman had her DNA analyzed as part of the Genographic Project, a five-year effort sponsored by National Geographic and IBM in an effort to track the human journey from its origins to us. It's an ambitious and fascinating project, so the prospect of participants' results ending up in a file cabinet rankled Fellman's artistic sensibilities, as well as her lifelong interest in science.

So she began incorporating DNA codes and individual ancestral paths from Africa into an art form. That led to her being welcomed last month by the American Society of Human Genetics conference in San Diego -- the first artist admitted to this gathering of scientists.

"When I show my science stuff, I really wanted to be in front of a science audience," Fellman said. Turns out they also have a right-brain aesthetic. When she asked organizers what items to bring, they suggested scarves and ties. So in addition to her DNA portraits, Fellman now has a line of DNA-printed silk scarves and ties, note cards and pillows for the discriminating geneticist.

"As an artist, I love it that I have a thematic idea that I can show in so many ways," she said. Example: The "new baby" cards that note how life on Earth began 3.5 billion years ago -- historical perspective for the sleep-deprived parent.

Amy Frantti of Minneapolis always had been interested in family history, but her curiosity spiked after her mother died four years ago. She researched the DNA project and decided to use it to trace her mother's ancestry. Her parents' roots are in Finland, "but obviously they didn't pop out of the ground in Finland," she said. "There had been a journey."

Her DNA report showed that her deep ancestry is in East Africa, 25,000 years ago. "I'm part of the human family tree called W," she said, referring to her haplogroup, or branch. "I remember just being very moved," when she learned of her ancestors' generations-long journey. "It's an almost overwhelming feeling to see the actual path that they took. And then to see my own genetic sequence -- it's just an amazing feeling."

Frantti, 43, hung her vividly colored DNA portrait in her dining room and is surrounding it with old family photos.

Bones and tools

Fellman, 54, of Minneapolis earns a living as an artist, mostly in commercial illustration, but always was interested in science. "Do you remember that book, 'The Naked Ape?'" she asked, referring to zoologist Desmond Morris' book about "the human animal."I bought that book in seventh grade." As a teen, she studied what archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey had done in Africa's Olduvai Gorge. "I was all about bones and tools, bones and tools."

Little wonder that she became captivated with what geneticist Spencer Wells was tackling with the Genographic Project, collecting DNA samples from indigenous people in Africa, Asia and Indonesia to trace what he calls humanity's "deep ancestry."He's doing what linguists try to do, learn a lineage before it dissipates," Fellman said.

Fellman's conversation is easily laced with talk of mitochondria and nucleotides. Yet she is an artist, talking about combining landscape, portraiture and abstraction within one frame. "Like a portrait by John Singer Sergeant, these can be deeply psychological," she said.

Fellman sells the $115 DNA kits to clients, who then mail saliva samples to a lab. After four to six weeks, they receive their data, then send it to Fellman, who incorporates it into one of three "template" designs for $650. For clients who want their actual likeness included, the cost is $1,800. For details about this and other DNA-themed items, go to www.FellmanStudio.com.

She's conscious of the perception her art could somehow trivialize, even exploit, the essential science. She's careful when speaking to a scientific crowd to explain that her interest is in population genetics, not in a hobbyist's family-tree genealogy. "I'm not trying to snow anybody or be a smarty-pants, but I really am deeply interested in the science," she said. "But I have the skills to bring it to a different level."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

  • WANT TO LEARN MORE?

    Fellman recommends these books for those who want to read more about human genetic origins:

    "Before the Dawn" (Penguin, $24.95), Nicholas Wade

    "Coming to Life" (Kales, $29.95), Christiane Nusslein-Volhard

    "The Ancestor's Tale" (Mariner, $16.95), Richard Dawkins

    "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" (Norton, $25.95), Sean Carroll

    "Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project" (National Geographic, $12.95), Spencer Wells

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