Anja Percival


My background

Although I am now totally committed to a career in art, for many years my education and employment took me along a very different pathway.

From relatively early on in my education, it was apparent that I was not destined for an 'office' job. Throughout my school years, I had a love for art which seemed to battle against my interest in the sciences, especially biology. Not wanting to turn my back on art completely, I took it as a fourth 'A' level alongside three science subjects. But my interest in 'hands-on' experimentation and a methodical working process finally swung the balance towards a scientific career... perhaps decided, in the end, by persuasive teachers who argued that art was "an uncertain career with no solid prospects".

So my science career began, leading me through a Human Anatomy degree at Edinburgh University, to employment as a Research Assistant in the department of Developmental Biology at Bath University. I was investigating the growth and development of the pancreas, and practical work included tissue dissection and isolation, tissue culture, and identification experiments using cell labelling techniques to determine which cell types grew where during the formation of the pancreas.

Although I enjoyed the manual work involved, I soon realised that the scientific scene wasn't for me. I felt out of place as I didn't share the enthusiasm for the research that my co-workers had such a passion for, and I began to think about what was missing. Essentially the job lacked flexibility ... experiments had to follow certain protocols and be governed by long established laws and rules of science, leaving no room for personal expression or creativity. I also realised that the aspect of the job which did fascinate me was the visual element of the research... I was frequently engrossed by the view down the microscope of the evolving tissue cultures, as the cell labeling techniques we employed revealed amazing images of tiny variations in form, texture and colour. Therefore the decision to shift career came from a slow subconscious realisation of where my interests lay within the scientific field - the aesthetics of nature - then a focus on my creative abilities to reflect this.

So in 1998 I left my job in science and began a fresh career at art college. For me, the study of nature became the bridge between my scientific and artistic careers. Both science and art examine the intricacies of nature, the difference between them lying in the motive and intentions behind the study. Scientific research is searching for explanations - to make the 'how' and 'why' more understandable. Art can hold many different fascinations with nature, but in my case I used it to reflect the aesthetic qualities in the world around us. I looked at the results of nature's processes, instead of looking at the origins.

My early work utilised motifs from nature to create pieces of work that emulate an appreciation of the rich variation in pattern, form, texture and colour that surrounds me. Subsequent work made more obvious references to nature's sublime quality... I wanted my work to touch on the aspect of nature that can not be explained by our laws and science. My scientific background had an effect on my artwork in other ways too: I frequently mixed scales from micro and macro climates, to result in somewhat ambiguous images, possessing alternative identities. Previous microscope work in the lab presented views that were often abstract, lacking identity... tiny details of the specimen often revealing whole new 'landscapes' under the lens.

My working process is still oddly reminiscent of my lab days, often beginning with writing; ideas, rough methods and hopeful outcomes, all with quite a methodical approach. And I will always enjoy the physical processes of printmaking, as I enjoyed manual work in the research lab - the experimentation, and getting my hands dirty. The one important contrast to my former career is that I can now enjoy the creative freedom to make my own decisions and take control over my own work. The results are individual, personal ... how I see and experience our surroundings.

I certainly don't regret my time spent as a research assistant. I learnt a great deal about self motivation and organisation, and if I had not had such strong reservations about my place in the science scene, then I may not have made such a drastic career change. In fact, it is fair to say that science laid the foundations for where I am today, by revealing what was important to me about my work.

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