Jennifer Kenyon and I are creating a graphic novel to tell the story of her research. Jen, a chemical oceanographer who is looking at the carbon cycle, uses radioactive elements, like thorium, to measure the amount of carbon that sinks into the deep ocean.
Many of the concepts that figure in her work are powerful forces in nature such as radioactivity and the carbon cycle, but fairly abstract and not particularly visual. During our initial discussions, as we considered various suitable forms for this content, I mentioned that in my studio practice I was working with another artist on an installation in the form of a 3D graphic novel. That’s when Jen revealed she was a huge graphic novel fan and, as they say, the rest is history!
We decided she would write the text and I would illustrate these very non-visual forces. We tried different approaches and styles to create our “carbon cycle” story. As much as we wanted to fit the trajectory of her research into a “Hero’s Journey” template, the carbon cycle proved to be not quite dramatic enough. But in trying, we came up with the idea of personifying these different forces, embodying them to create characters and situations.
We also agreed from the start that our graphic story should be used as an educational tool, and to that purpose, we created a girl scientist character who would be seen diligently taking notes and observing nature.
With those parameters set as goals, the following are some of the images I created: (1) carbon is personified as a juggler in a snow globe-like sphere. He’s dressed in black with white suspenders so he’ll be recognizable as carbon in other iterations throughout the story, and he’s tossing carbon atoms into the air. (2) radioactivity becomes a pair of mechanical hands gripping a hammer and chisel, chipping away at atoms, engaged in infinite decay. (3) thorium, the radioactive element that Jen uses to track and measure carbon has a half-life that can yield valuable data. Thorium is depicted as a time keeper, irradiated like an x-ray and dangling a stop watch. (4) the ocean is envisioned as a sleeping woman, breathing carbon in and out.
The palette throughout is appropriately white, black, and all the shades of grey in between, since there is no light, and therefore no color, in the deep ocean. I also use a recurring motif of a circle and sphere to compose and unify all the imagery and emphasize the notion of a cycle. We plan to print a small edition of books. We, however, see the digital format as the ideal way of expanding the distribution and widening audience for educational use.
Laurie Kaplowitz, Artist
Jennifer Kenyon, Scientist
April 20, 2021