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Jean Polfus: Bridging the gap between ecology and art

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Jean Polfus has found a fairly creative way to combine the aim of ecology with the impact of art.

Jean is an artist, but that’s not her full-time job. She’s actually an ecologist, who looks at the ecosystem and inhabitants of the Northwest Territories in Canada. It’s how she connects creative thinking in art and the science-minded attitude behind ecology that is surprising.

After a traditional path of pursuing evolutionary and environmental biology at Dartmouth College, Jean came to discover that working with the various cultures and languages of her studies presented a unique problem. How do you bridge the communication gaps as well as beliefs of tribes, scientists, and the needs of animals and their systems?

Jean realized that art – specifically drawing and photography – is one answer:

One of my goals is to find innovative ways to bring art and science together through drawings, explanations, illustrations and photography. Though many similarities exist between artists and scientists, I have found that there is a fundamental lack of visual creative thinking in academia. This problem is apparent on all levels of scientific exploration, starting with the initial conception of a project to exchange with other academics, and of course worst of all, communication with the general public.”

“One of my goals is to find innovative ways to bring art and science together through drawings, explanations, illustrations and photography.”

To empower the science behind her work, Jean introduces drawings and paintings into her presentations and brainstorming sessions.

When the people she meets with during her work either don’t speak the language or are leaning too far down a scientific mindset or a historic (or cultural) one, the ability to draw allows everyone to meet in the middle and see the same picture. It’s an effective way of communicating ideas without losing their meaning. In-fact, Jean explains, drawing and presenting photos often develops ideas further.

Using artwork to present concepts and bridge communication gaps has greatly benefited Jean and her work. It’s the type of creative thinking that seems like a no-brainer once you know of it, but (as she’s pointed out) is still very absent in scientific academia and exploration.

“I have learned that appealing visuals have the potential to help local people, who are most affected by management decisions, depict their own understanding about wildlife and understand the western scientific data and results that affect their way of life.”

Jean also explains how her ability to present data in visual formats makes taking action on the information easier:

“I’ve had very good success with using informational graphics to explain the genetic side of my research to the community. Over time I’ve developed better analogies to use as well as clearer visuals that help describe genetic relationships. This has been a crucial part of my research because I want people to understand why I am doing the research and feel confident enough to provide suggestions for how I can improve my sample collection methods and the interpretation of the genetic results.”

Creativity isn’t about art: it’s about using different concepts to bridge the gaps in communication or thinking.

Jean Polfus has done just that by combining her research with her love for art. The result is effective communication and better understanding by those she works closely with and for.

How can you use Jean as an example in order to combine approaches that are usually polar opposites in order to generate creative insights?

Learn more about Jean and her work right here, and follow her on Tumblr at jeanpolfus.tumblr.com.

This article is part of the Creative Something Footsteps series, exploring the stories of creatives from around the world to share insights and wisdom. Submit your story here.



Pick the tool that allows you to creatively work how you work best

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“Choose the tool that allows you to follow the process you want. Don’t let the tool dictate how you work.” – Randy Hunt

It’s easy to get distracted by the sheer amount of tools and resources that are available to you today.

Artists get to decide between the types of brushes they use – wooden, plastic, or metal handle, and what about synthetic or natural fibers for the head? – in addition to the canvas and material type.

Writers have ample decisions to make around their tools as well: hand-written, with a computer, or a trusty typewriter? What software to use? iPad or desktop?

The same decisions can easily be spotlighted for any of us.

How do we know which tools to use, which to avoid, and when it’s time to change what we’ve been using?

Some of the best advice I’ve received (and given) on the subject is simply: use what works for you and your process.

It’s extremely tempting to seek-out the latest and greatest tools. But ultimately what makes a tool useful is whether or not it helps you accomplish the tasks you need it to. Anything else is unnecessary and should be viewed as a step away from what you actually need in order to get the work done.

You can’t afford to get distracted by the tools everyone else is using, or what everyone else is talking about. You must instead be diligent in finding a tool that helps you work the way you work best.

Your focus in selecting and working with any tool should be around the process you use to do the work and whether or not the tool at-hand is the one that can accomplish it.

If you’re a writer, that means the best tool for you is one that allows you to write wherever you are when you need to write, anything else should be viewed as completely unnecessary.

The only time you should start looking for new tools is when the ones you’re using now don’t help you accomplish the new things you’re trying. Maybe you’re trying to use a new type of paint, or you’re wanting to format your writing as you go so it’s easier to publish, in those instances it’s worth looking at different, more powerful tools. But unless those tools can help you accomplish just those tasks, there’s no real need to switch?

Yet the call of exploring new tools is a constant one we must battle with. Simply because new and shiny things are prime distractors from the often daunting task of work.

One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from author and productivity genius Merlin Mann, who compared looking for new tools to buying new running shoes. Mann explains:

“There’s a big difference between buying new running shoes and actually hitting the road every morning. Big difference. One is really fun and relaxing while the other requires a lot of hard work, diligence, and sacrifice….as you start to choose one new, dedicated tool to improve your productivity…don’t fiddle endlessly, just because it’s fun. That’s not running; that’s just playing with your shoes.

Enjoy this article? You’ll like: Why does creativity seem to come and go?

Photo by William Warby.



“Creativity is this nebulous thing. Creativity can be a spark of inspiration, perhaps, and if you haven’t had that in a little while…then maybe you start to feel like you aren’t good at it…”

Lift interviews designer Ayla Newhouse on why creativity takes practice.

Posted at 11:40 am



Why everyone isn’t creative all the time

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Why isn’t everyone creative, all the time, if it’s an ability we’re all born with?

Creativity means going against the grain of how we expect the world to be. It means we have to push against what we believe, how we act, and what we think.

Because the nature of creativity is to go against everything we’ve been led to believe, it can make us uncomfortable. Creativity is scary for the same reason, it’s also easy to look at it as bizarre or weird.

To be creative, we have to question how we think, often at the risk of being wrong (one way or the other).

Who wants to do that?

Fortunately the benefits of being creative – of questioning what we think and how we think it – often outweigh the risks, the weirdness.

Without creativity we wouldn’t have airplanes or automobiles, let alone iPhones, re-heatable meals, New York architecture, instant coffee, the Mona Lisa, or blogs. We have those things because someone, somewhere in time, questioned how we think and do things. The result was innovation, artwork worthy of museums and history books, and a better quality of living overall.

We’re not all creative, all the time, because creativity is a big, scary risk.

That doesn’t mean being more creative isn’t worth pursuing, of course. Just that you’re going to encounter a lot of pushback along the way, even from yourself.

When you do come up against the push back, just keep remembering the benefits that come with new and valuable thoughts, with questioning assumptions and perceptions.



Here’s an exercise for thinking creatively

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How do you get better at thinking creatively?

The answer is how you get better at anything: practice.

But what does creative practice look like?

If creativity is your ability to come up with unique and valuable ideas, practicing creativity is doing that without the context of what makes them unique or valuable. Anything goes.

It can be doodling for 10 minutes or free writing for 5, it can be sitting in a crowded area and making up stories for the people you see, or closing your eyes for 15 minutes to imagine yourself in another country.

To become better at thinking creatively, you simply need to exercise your imagination.

Some of my favorite creative practices involve imagining things in completely different context. For example: while driving to work, I’ll wonder what similarities the cars on the freeway have to toy cars in a child’s play room. I imagine giant hands sweeping across the road and moving cars one way or the other. Or while walking around the office and looking at the tiles on the floor, I’ll think about what would happen if the rules of chess applied to navigating the office, how would that change our interactions here?

To become better at creatively is to make new thinking patterns in your mind. And to do that you simply need to adjust what you see or think about on a regular basis.

Your homework assignment for today is to find one thing and change the context of it. What if it were 100 times bigger? What if the rules that apply to a game applied to that thing? What if there were 1,000 more of that thing?

Blog or otherwise write about how the practice goes for you today and what you learned.

And remember:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Read this next: Seven steps to creative breakthroughs



“You have to be burning with ‘an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right.’ If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”

Steve Jobs

Posted at 6:34 pm