Bethann Garramon Merkle is not your average scientist. She’s also not your average artist. She agreed to talk with me about her business CommNatural and how she integrates science fields with art and the great outdoors. Can’t even draw a stick figure? No worries. Keep reading.
Hello, Bethann. Can you describe the meaning and relevance of science, technology, engineering, art, and math—STEAM? How does this relate to your business?
My interpretation of STEAM is that it recognizes the essential role creativity plays in successful science, technology, engineering, and math. These are commonly referred to as STEM fields, and there is a strong movement these days to reintegrate creativity/the arts into these domains. Fundamentally, we can’t expect to produce innovators and problem solvers if we only focus on formulas, universal theorems, etc. And, there’s also a fascinating and rapidly growing body of research that points to phenomenal benefits of doing art just for the sake of art.
All this is relevant to my business, because I get paid to help people learn to incorporate drawing into their professional or personal lives. For example, I teach teachers/professors how to draw and how to encourage their students to draw in ways that enhance learning experiences and provide meaningful ways of evaluating student engagement and learning processes.
I also work with people who want to tell a science-related story really well; people who know that customized visuals are key to making your point crystal clear and engaging.
That is so cool! What specific services do you offer through CommNatural?
My primary services are drawing-related. I love working on illustration projects that demystify some component of science knowledge or research efforts. I also do photography, writing, manuscript editing, and occasionally I take on communications consulting projects.
What is your background? And how did you come up with the services you offer?
Oooh, this is a complicated one. Since I was quite young, I’ve been interested in the natural world, reading, art, and sharing what I learn with others.
I have a major in Environmental Studies (emphasis in Sustainable Food and Agriculture), minors in Wilderness Studies and Studio Art, and am working on an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.
I’ve been a naturalist, artist-in-residence, outdoor educator, and a co-director of a sustainable living nonprofit. I’ve also contributed to research projects on a number of wildlife species, done photojournalism, and do a lot of communications consulting. Through it all, I read, wrote about, drew, and photographed the people, landscapes, and species that piqued my interest.
Most recently, I’ve focused on illustration and teaching how to incorporate drawing into research, education, and everyday lifestyles.
The sketching workshops you offer sound amazing…but I’m not a great artist. Can I still get something out of a sketching workshop?
That’s actually the whole point of most of the workshops and courses I offer. My sessions always include instruction in a basic drawing techniques ‘toolkit’ that equips anyone (even non-artists) to draw.
Beyond that, topics vary depending on the audience, and can include an illustrated lecture about the historical synergy of art and science (think cave paintings, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.), explore how to use drawing in the science classroom or research, or focus on keeping a nature journal.
Are your sketching and photography programs mostly geared towards adults or children or both?
Most of my programs are for adults, and I have a lot of fun helping adults get over the ‘I can’t draw’ hurdle.
I have done a lot of youth education, and really like doing combos. By that I mean I love doing a residency (even just a one-day session) with students, followed by a professional development session with their teacher(s). This is a great way to model how art-science integration can work, coupled with direct training and feedback for the teacher.
What advice do you have for women looking to start their own creative business? Was the thought of a “non-traditional” job scary for you?
Being an entrepreneur might never have occurred to me had I not moved to French-speaking Quebec. There, because of the initial language barriers, I was forced to re-examine my skill-set and interests in minute detail. And, in many ways, I was compelled to reinvent myself; my skills couldn’t be put to work without strong French skills.
Now, I would say that I don’t think being an entrepreneur is scary. What is scary is going into self-employment thinking that it’s easier than being an employee. It takes a radical mental shift to envision yourself as the boss, the chief bottle washer, accountant, secretary, press officer, janitor, and everything else that comes along with running your own business.
There are phenomenal resources out there, though – from institutions, the government, and a staggering range of websites – that are all available to help you assess the market viability of your idea and how you plan to run your business. Take advantage of them. There’s very little to be gained from failing on your own at something someone could have helped you do successfully.
In terms of being a woman, it really depends on what kind of business you’re planning to run. In some situations, being a woman can be a huge asset, and you should plan for it. For example, there are programs to help fund, plan, etc. businesses established by minorities. You may also be able to get extra press attention if you put the right spin on your work. In other instances, being focused on your gender could be a distraction. You’ll need to evaluate the market and see if what you want to do is typically done by men, or if you’re part of a pretty even split.
As for creative businesses, they’re at least as hard to run as any other. Again, there are phenomenal resources out there – look up your state arts council, the American Society of Media Photographers (best blog out there on running a creative business; asmp.org), and study others doing things that inspire, impress, or resonate with you. Also, networking is fundamental to success. Depending on the scale of your ambitions, you may need to engage with people in your community, your region, or even with international folks working related fields via social media.
Where can I find some examples of your work?
My website/blog is loaded with material, or, you can check out an op-ed I did on the benefits of drawing for scientists; Drawn to the West, my illustrated syndicated column; Frog in Pants and nest-building fish, two sets of illustrations I did for a cheeky SciComm website called BuzzHootRoar. I also distribute a monthly newsletter that focuses specifically on sketching and SciArt; subcribe to that here.
Thanks for talking with me!
Thank you! I am totally excited to see what you make of all my musings. Thank you for being interested enough in what I do to ask about it, too.
Find out more on Bethann’s website (www.commnatural.com) where you can find services, scheduled sketching workshops, portfolio, and beyond.
Sarah Helen loves to get her shoes muddy. She writes more about being a registered nurse, strange adventures to faraway lands, and other random stories on her blog: www.sarahssunbeam.com.