Leslee Lazar on the unholy union of science and art

Matter + Form

As a lover of the animal kingdom, Gandhinagar-based Leslee Lazar was bound to write a book. An obsessive interest in how knowledge can be shifted, changed and evolved has pushed him over the years to experiment with different forms and mediums to share his ideas. A trained neuroscientist, a part-time artist and a visiting professor, he has spent innumerable hours developing visual aids that communicate complex scientific information. His background has informed not only his creative practice, but also his values as a designer.

We caught up with him over email to discuss the ways in which he brings together science and art:

Hello! To start with, let’s recap all the different things you do. You are a professor, an artist and a writer. Each of those is so profoundly different, how did you get started with each one?

Well, there is no short answer to it. Things just happened, circumstances, opportunities, etc. I am teaching now because I have been interested in research and understanding human behavior and how the brain works. This interest started when I was in my masters program and this is a logical conclusion – a PhD and teaching.

The writing part is also related to the first passion, science. Someone has to simplify the cool scientific concepts and show it to a larger audience. I have always been a big fan of literature, so putting the two together, I try to write about science.

The art is more recent. About 4 years back, I found myself with no job and nothing to do, so I did what gave me a purpose and satisfaction. I found it deeply satisfying as it soothed a blind spot that I was unaware of. Since then, I have been trying to juggle all of these things.

Do you compartmentalize different aspects of your life, or do you feel like there is an inadvertent crossover?

I purposely try to avoid compartmentalization and try to interconnect between different domains. Knowledge does not do well if it is within boundaries of specialization, mostly because it is an artificial boundary. Where does chemistry end and biochemistry start? Where do cubism end and visual psycho-physics start? They are all trying understand the same thing, and the boundaries are human-made. Throughout history, many leaps in human knowledge have been made by people who shuffled between disciplines. I know that many are uncomfortable with it, but there are people who try to make an unholy mix of these and enjoy the chaos.

Tell us about your book: Super Animals and their Super Senses.

It’s actually a re-release of an old book. It talks about the diversity of sense organs in the animal kingdom. It's targeted to young adults and describes how our senses are limited and many animals have an extended range of perception with weird sense organs.

Your work is inhabited by a lot of animals. Could you explain that choice?

It’s a carryover of my training as a biologist; I have a bachelors and master’s degree in zoology. I am also a big fan of evolutionary theories and trying to understand human behavior through the lens of biology. I do not believe in human exceptionalism (I am aware of the irony as I type on a “human-only-made” software on my “human-only-made” laptop). I think many of our puzzling behaviors is just something coded in the genes and we react to the environment. Of course we do have “cognitive power” and work differently than animals, but the core is the same. So thinking about animals and genes and how they behave is a natural way of thinking for me.

Could you take us through the mundane process of creating a book?

I did not make the art for this book. It was a friend of mine who was working as a publisher at that time who suggested that I write. So the process was a little after that point, it was rather systematic. I made a blue print, broke them into smaller goals, did the research and then filled in the details gradually. Then, it went through a couple of edits and voila it came out!

Could you also talk to us a bit about your art?

The art form I started with was collages. It's difficult to explain why I was interested, it was just a natural attraction. The way meanings can be recycled and edited is endlessly fascinating.

As I understood the medium better, I realized it was the perfect protest art, an instrument of thought. It was also one of the first forms of post-industrial art, where objects had a defined purpose and expiry date. Collages subvert that and makes objects and images immortal. With that excitement, in each cut and transformation, I explore topics that are on my mind. It could be a combination of ideas from science, politics or anything else.

For the last year, I have been fascinated by the printing process, an amalgamation of human creativity and technology. It is at the same time technical and wildly creative. Currently I am working on a series of woodcut prints reflecting the ideas of circuits and connectedness in our brain.

How do you think your educational background has leaned in to your creative work?

One cannot stop thinking like a scientist. It's almost like we have our own language. We have signs, behaviors, jokes and stereotypes, so it becomes a sub-culture. We are a bunch of people obsessed about the beauty of the brains and neurons and how they explain behavior. If you've been a part of that world long enough, it is going to affect other parts of your life. I'm sure that the issues that I chose to tackle, the method I used, it must have been influenced by my scientific training.

I didn't sit down and plan it, but in hindsight, I can see some connections. I try not to think about it too much. But this has been an interesting question, even historically. There have been a few people who have been both great artists and scientists, who is to say which was a bigger influence? Was Nabakov’s prose influenced by his work as a lepidopterist -  or vice versa? I remember writing a small piece about this.

Your path to where you are now - designer, writer and teacher - has been meandering. Do you feel like it was necessary to take the long route? Was there any particular turning point?

I cannot think of a particular turning point. These things are a culmination of many years of thoughts and secret scribblings. So it has been a gradual evolution.

Collage Art by Leslee Lazar

Do you think that the places you’ve lived and the people you’ve met have influenced your way of looking at things? At the way information can be communicated, for example.

Definitely, we carry over the influences of the places and people we encounter throughout our lives. I know that my choices are a result of my upbringing and peer group to a certain extent. But, admittedly, I am at a loss to explain how each experience influenced my life.

What has been the most validating experience of your career?

The most validating experience is teaching. To finish a class that has had a good discussion, or to have put across a nuanced point and changed how people see things is an amazing feeling.

What’s on your mind these days?

There's a lot of chatter going on up there. I have been thinking about how technology, especially social media is undermining a lot of knowledge instead of facilitating it. A decade back we were sure that we knew what truth was about our relationships, the economy, jobs - what the real good and bad were - at least we had a vague idea.

Now paradoxically the interconnectedness of the world is shaking the foundations of who we thought we were and why do things. It is making us more regressive, hate-filled and isolated. I do not know what effects this is going to have on our cognitive and sociopolitical nature of being. We will just have to wait and watch, it might be an app that sparks WW3.

Images by Leslee Lazar.
Edited for clarity.

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