People are Strangest

"I simply like the label, 'creative process.' It's a juxtaposition of terms. When you're creative, you're using the spontaneous, energetic, boundless part of your spirit."

Michelle Leveille is a freelance artist specializing in biological illustration and scientific graphics. Her work is featured at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and she is currently working on graphics for the upcoming “Dinosaur Mysteries!” exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.


Artists who collaborate with Creative Nonfiction generally read the essays first, then come up with their illustrations. How did this process work for you? Did certain phrases or ideas stick out? Do you have a favorite essay in this issue?

I loved receiving the essays in advance, and being given so much creative control over how I wanted to embellish them with illustrations. It was an ideal situation. However, due in part to time constraints, I took a rather straightforward approach and simply drew every animal that was mentioned in the texts. It seemed like the most consistent thing to do, so that the magazine would have a cohesive look, with lots of semi-scientifically illustrated animals.

With a little imagination, each of the graphics could be interpreted with an anthropomorphic twist as well, so that I thought they brought even more meaning  to the narrative. For example, the series of drawings depicting the life cycle of a monarch butterfly also seemed to me to echo the metamorphosis of the character in the accompanying essay, Jennifer Lunden’s “The Butterfly Effect.” Along those same lines, the graphic at the beginning of the essay section showing the development of the human embryo was intended to connect readers to our animal-like origins. This makes sense to me, in the same way that the essays about animals elicit reflection upon aspects of ourselves that we don’t understand.

I feel bad about confessing that I preferred some essays over others, but I’ll be honest:

My favorite essay was actually one that didn’t make it into the issue. It was  “Extinction,” by J. D. Lewis. The excitement of learning of Lazarus species was balanced by the grief over the loss of a parent. [Ed. note: Lewis’s essay was later published in issue #42.]

My favorite essay in the issue was “Natural Selection,” by Kelly Herbinson. It just spoke to me. And I was proud of how my illustrations tied into the story. They were about fertility, they were suggestive, and they involved fish.   

What initially drew you to biological illustration?

Originally, I studied at UC Davis to become an exotic bird veterinarian. Then I decided I wanted to be a human neurosurgeon. I was an enthusiastic student. But a freak accident in the gross anatomy lab one night changed my life. I got cut on the shattered ribs of a freshly donated cadaver—a victim of the 1991 Sacramento meningitis epidemic. I was sick for months, and lost some ability to speak. I knew I couldn’t be a veterinarian or a neurosurgeon anymore.

Fortunately, I had picked up a handy skill while visiting deepest rural Japan a few years earlier: the ability to communicate through sketches. Artwork can be universally understood by people regardless of their language or education level. I went back to my medical and veterinary professors and asked to illustrate their books with my anatomical diagrams. I’ve sustained myself through interpretive illustrations ever since.

What’s the role of an illustration at the zoo? How do you hope they interact with the actual animal?

Illustrations on the signs in front of the animals’ enclosures give visitors a clue about what to look for. Sometimes people don’t know if they are supposed to be observing the endangered Mandarin duck in the pond or the common mallard floating next to it. When we use illustrations, we can also show the animal exhibiting behaviors that they might not perform in their exhibit, such as a courtship dance, and we can show an artist’s depiction of the species in its natural habitat, which may have disappeared in the wild. I believe, also, that  illustrations psychologically add to the culture of a zoo environment in a way that photographs cannot. Illustrations show a support for the arts, and the depiction of the animal with dignity leads to respectful behavior by our guests.

What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?

I simply like the label, “creative process.” It’s a juxtaposition of terms. When you’re creative, you’re using the spontaneous, energetic, boundless part of your spirit. To make art, though, I have to combine being “creative” with the more mundane and technical “process” of documenting my ideas, logging my hours, using quality art supplies, minding my graphics techniques, maintaining my health, and keeping up on housework and bills, if I’m going to make artwork that is going to sustain me.

In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life’s story.

Saving the world through better graphics.

Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?

Great art is whichever piece supports my personal beliefs with an eloquence and technical virtuosity that I don’t feel I possess yet. It’s purely subjective.

Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece? Why?

Whichever piece I am currently working on is usually my favorite one. I really enjoy what I do, and I have an odd habit of believing that whatever I am doing is truly inspired, at least until I start working on something else and then I can say, “Wow, I was really going in the wrong direction for a while there!”

However, I have two favorite pieces. One, the painting of “God’s Nerves,” is my favorite just because I get complimented on it so often. The other, the painting of “Maggie,” is my favorite because it was just something I wanted to do, unconstrained by art directors or taste.

My all-time favorite piece is one titled “God’s Nerves.” It’s a painting I created when I graduated from college two decades ago. I had studied to become a veterinarian and a neurosurgeon, but I was suddenly pursuing a career in art. So I needed to build up an art portfolio. I chose to take a model and dissect it, like in an anatomical atlas. I wanted to depict a woman because we are so neglected in medicine. But it looked gory and cruel. After some heady consideration, I settled on Michelangelo’s famous depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I painted him medially bisected, with just his bones and cartilage, and showing his subdural fascia. It took a lot of time and research. I started to paint his nervous system, but I only got about halfway done before I found a job. I never finished the painting. I like it nonetheless because I still receive more compliments on that piece than any other.

The “Maggie” Answer: About five years ago I painted a piece just for my own pleasure, on free time that I eked out between freelance jobs. Now when I look at the painting on the wall it makes me recall a happy time when I had the rare privilege of doing something for myself. On the surface, the painting appears to be a silly portrait of a sexy opossum. But the painting was more than that to me. The possum was based upon a real pet, Maggie, who was not pretty or sexy at all. She was a deformed rescue, missing half her tail. I took care of her when I was a young newlywed, trying to start a family. My husband and I learned through trial and error how to nurture the marsupial and the marriage. I thought I was better at it than he was. One of his mistakes led to the death of poor Maggie. I found out I was pregnant soon afterwards. My husband started rejecting me in my bloated state. The marriage only lasted seven years. I painted Maggie as a sexpot in loving tribute to her sacrifice and the inner beauty of ugly and unwanted creatures.

Do most of your art pieces have stories behind them or do you start creating and see what happens?

Almost all of the artwork that I create is for other people, and so it is either devoid of emotion or else it tells their story. And I’m okay with that; that’s what I’m paid to do. On the uncommon occasions when I do have time to create art pieces for myself, there are always stories behind them. Sometimes they are spontaneous doodles that are reactions to a current situation. Other times the creations take years to coalesce on canvas. I’ll mull graphic solutions to psychological problems over in my head until I feel I’ve reached an epiphany, and then I begin the physical process of creating the artwork.

What book or work of art do you find yourself returning to?

Pancha Tantra by Walton Ford. It is a compilation of work that I aspired to imitate, without even knowing about it yet. Walton Ford creates life-sized illustrations of animals in the classic style of a natural historian, with a twist: every picture tells a poignant story. When I discovered the book, it was like a gift from heaven. Never before had I seen illustrations so perfect in every way. I’ve owned the book for a couple years, and it has been a constant source of entertainment as I glean more meaning from Ford’s painted parables, and inspiration for what I hope will be my best work to come.

In your illustrator’s note to Issue 40, you mention striking a balance between aesthetics and truthfulness. I couldn’t help but notice, though, your centaur drawing in the issue. If you could create your own imaginary creature based only on what would be most fun to draw, what would it be?

I am very fortunate. I like drawing dinosaurs and birds. The imaginary creature that I would create based purely for the fun of drawing it, would be something like a feathered T. rex. I recently worked with Dr. Luis Chiappe to draw all of the bone maps for his new Dinosaur Mysteries exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He has helped unearth much of the fossil evidence that shows many dinosaurs such as T. rex and velociraptors did indeed have feathers. It’s always nice when your fantasies become reality like that.

Do you get special access to the zoo when working on illustrations for them?

I actually have a desk in an office there, with regular hours, which I wouldn’t qualify as “special access.” But when I’m illustrating an animal that I don’t fully understand, the keepers sometimes allow me to go into the exhibits with the creatures to observe them. Like once, nobody could answer my question about the number of bones in the Indian flying foxes’ pinkies, and another time I couldn’t quite visualize the Baird’s tapir’s three-toed feet correctly, so I was escorted into their enclosures. The animals are often tame and I get to spend some time petting them. That’s probably the best part of my job.

On one of your illustrations, I noticed your signature “carved” into a tree. Do you, or are you ever tempted to, slip Easter eggs into your work?

The signature carved into the tree is a type of trick that artists play to keep their name associated with their work. A signature at the bottom is too easy to erase or crop out of an image now. Incorporating the artist’s mark into the graphic ensures that it is more difficult for that work to be manipulated and/or stolen.

What’s the strangest animal fact you’ve learned?

People are strangest.

And finally, what art forms or artists do you wish more people knew about?

The selfish part of me doesn’t want people to know about any art forms or artists, because then my work seems all the more unique and special to them.

Then the other selfish part of me wishes more people knew about the Arts and Crafts movement, because I just got inspired by the work of William Morris and redesigned my website, and some people don’t understand the visual references.

About the Author

Michelle Leveille

Michelle Leveille is a freelance artist specializing in biological illustration and scientific graphics. Her work is featured at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and she is currently working on graphics for the upcoming "Dinosaur Mysteries!"

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