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Stowers Institute scientist finds beauty in the lab and transforms it into art

Stephanie Nowotarski finds inspiration for her art in her laboratory. One of the instruments she uses in the creative process is a 1914 microscope (right) that was a gift from her partner when Nowotarski achieved her Ph.D degree in 2014.
Stephanie Nowotarski finds inspiration for her art in her laboratory. One of the instruments she uses in the creative process is a 1914 microscope (right) that was a gift from her partner when Nowotarski achieved her Ph.D degree in 2014. kmyers@kcstar.com

In a world of analytical left brains and artistic right brains, Stephanie Nowotarski, an artist and postdoctoral science researcher at the Stowers Institute, uses her full brain.

By day, she plunges into the microscopic world of Planaria — better known to most of us as worms — looking at cells with a high-resolution electron microscope to study how the worms regenerate tissues and organs after injury. On evenings and weekends, she uses tools of science to create art inspired by a visual smorgasbord of unusual shapes, mass and space seen during her work week. Find her art at minted.com.

Q. Since you exercise both your right and left brain equally, do you happen to be ambidextrous?

A. I never thought about that before, but yes! I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid, and I would shoot a gun and practice archery left-handed, and play tennis and draw with my right hand.

Q. How do science and art make sense together for you?

A. The two complete an outlet for me. They’re outlets for each other, oddly enough. When science constricts everything into details, I need to make art. When I need to fill my creative well with images, I go back to the microscope.

I find as I make art that I’m using the same thought process as I do with science. I’m looking for organization and relationships and how we can construct meaning or pull out meaning.

Inherently, art is about experimentation, too. I put different experiments together to tell a story.

Q. Is your art purely science-driven?

A. I am leaning more toward that, and my style is still evolving. I have an idea for my next series on food because I like to cook.

I want to experiment with things in stock, like celery, onions and carrots. When you slice them thin enough, you can see individual cells and how they are organized. Dried garlic looks amazing under the microscope.

Q. What tools do you use to create your work?

A. In the “Departure” series, I use a petri dish. The ink makes a nice statement in areas where it doesn’t transfer completely.

The “Raster” series uses tip racks. In the lab, tip racks are used for holding tips, which dispense small amounts of liquid for experiments. The plastic racks are recycled at work, and I use them at home for small, repetitive spacing.

The pieces “Calculation” and “All of the Things,” which used to be sold at West Elm, both used a test tube rack for spacing.

The framework of these tools creates order but also leaves room for individuality. It sounds a bit “Sesame Street,” but it gets at the universal truth that things can be like each other yet different and that we’re better together. It’s a bit of a commentary.

Q. How do you choose which colors to work in?

A. I just finished a series for West Elm in blue, a color that has a lot of range and it’s also calming. But generally I like color to be intense and loud. I prefer primary colors, but I do a lot of small works in black and white.

Q. Your home is your studio?

A. Everything is designed to be modular so it moves easily, and things are multipurpose, like my dining table, which was my great great aunt’s and I don’t have to worry if I stain it.

I can spread out and do large-scale paintings, but by the end of the weekend, there is paper all over the house just drying. I’m pretty good about getting the house back into shape for the week, but I really need a separate space.

We’ve been talking about building a studio shed in the backyard, and we want to do it ourselves, but we’re trying to figure out if that’s worth our time.

Q. You’re new to not only this house but to the Midwest?

A. My partner, Linda, and I are both from Pennsylvania. We met in college then moved to North Carolina for grad school.

When I came to Kansas City for my interview at Stowers, we both stayed a week so we could make the decision. We rented a car and looked at all the good places and all bad places so we knew what we were getting. We felt like it was a very realistic place.

I was also offered postdoctoral work at Princeton, but we would go broke with the cost of living there. We wouldn’t be able to afford to eat healthily, and there would be a lot of commuting. A good home life is important to us.

Q. What do you like about Kansas City?

A. We’ve lived on the East Coast and looked at the West Coast and the South, and in the Midwest, y’all are really nice and you mean it — it’s not backhanded like in the South or ignoring someone you see every day in an elevator for years up north.

Q. How did you choose the Waldo area to settle in?

A. We first moved to an apartment on the Plaza, which was just not for us, but at least the sunsets were gorgeous.

When we were looking for houses, we narrowed our search to neighborhoods where I could ride my bike to Stowers so we could keep to one car. Brookside homes were giant and too expensive. We wanted something that was not too big and had lots of windows.

This was the third house we put a bid on. The first loss was heartbreak, so when this one came on the market, I was the first in to see it and Linda couldn’t make it that day. I told her I wanted it, and she trusted me to make the offer sight unseen. This is the right house for us.

Q. How do you describe your style?

A. It’s modern eclectic. It’s all things we like: some that go together, some that don’t! I love midcentury and clean lines; Linda’s style tends to sprawl more.

When we moved from North Carolina, we pared down a 1,200-square-foot house into a moving pod. That was helpful to finding value in our belongings. Everything in our home has a purpose and meaning, and it looks good.

The science part of me is all about functionality. For things other than that, there’s Ikea.