Left Brain / Right Brain
Andie Velazquez melds studio art and neurobiology—perfectly
Andie Velazquez ’19 never imagined herself a painter. A biologist? Probably. A doctor? Maybe. But an artist? Not a chance.
The fact that Velazquez’s interests changed as a college student isn’t what makes her story worth telling. It’s how the eventual marriage of her two majors, studio art and neurobiology, gave her an edge in both the studio and the lab—and beyond.
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Velazquez discovered neurobiology early as a Colby student, taking courses with Assistant Professor of Biology Josh Martin and becoming fascinated with how the brain works. By her second year she was a research assistant in Martin’s NSF-funded neurobiology lab, studying how the praying mantis and other insects control their bodies.
She studied art early too, but only to fulfill a requirement. In that first drawing class, however, Velazquez exhibited traits that helped her succeed: consistency, hard work, and open-mindedness, recalled her instructor, Professor of Art Bevin Engman. Velazquez signed up for a painting course the following semester and loved it. “I haven’t taken a step back,” she said a month before graduating. By her junior year, her art minor became a major.
For a while Velazquez traveled both paths, keeping what seemed like disparate majors totally separate. Her oil painting, she said, was an oasis amidst the rugged terrain of science classes and research. She didn’t want them to meld.
In Martin’s lab Velazquez became an expert at brain microdissection, working mostly with praying mantises. Their brains are tiny, about two millimeters across, but also fragile and hard to identify among the surrounding muscles and bones. She experimented with techniques and equipment before settling on a technique using a confocal microscope, which uses a laser to illuminate fluorescent markers in the brain.
In the studio she spent hours at the easel and began painting figures. She also learned color theory and developed her own palette. “Andie had a tentative approach to color in the beginning,” Engman said. Eventually she became a “wonderful colorist and understander of light.” Before long Velazquez was using her studio skills in the lab.
“I have a steady hand and the ability to see color differences,” Velazquez said. “Both are great things I’ve learned from art.” And those little brains? “They’re a yellow, creamy color,” she said. “A warmer color than everything else around.”
Her ability to articulate color differences proved critical when training younger peers in dissection techniques. As part of the research team, she also created images and 3D models of the insect’s brain, bringing “a new perspective from her experiences as an artist and a biologist to our research,” reported Martin.
As a senior art major, Velazquez had become what Engman called an accomplished portraitist, drawing, in part, on her knowledge of anatomy learned in science classes. For her capstone project, she created three large paintings using fellow students as models. The portraits explore themes of gender representation and embodiment, a topic Oregon-native Velazquez wanted to explore as a reflection of the non-traditional roles her parents assumed.
Showing the pieces in Colby’s Senior Art Show made Velazquez feel vulnerable. But the portraits, and the entire process of becoming a painter, allowed her to use the artistic process to explore that part of her life.
And figure drawing? It’s not easy, said Engman, who described Velazquez’s final work as ambitious, not just technically but also emotionally. “In her willingness to try new things and to stare down her fears,” Engman said, “it turns out she was very courageous and quite bold in terms of her ability to sort of take another bite out of the process and try something completely different.”
On the cusp of graduation, Velazquez realized how far she’d come. “I think scientifically when I do my art, and I think creatively when I do my science,” she said. “I can’t keep them separate no matter how hard I try.”
Velazquez is open to whatever the future holds, including graduate school or scientific illustration. She’s learned that there’s a balance between being willing to change your path and doubting yourself.
“If you don’t ever question things, you leave out so many opportunities and options that you have in life,” she said. “But if you question yourself too much, then you’re at a standstill, you can’t make decisions.”