The Face of STEAM: a sit-down with artist-scientist Stef Walker and Lightwood’s Amber Mason

I’m someone who always believed that the arts and sciences go hand in hand. Both involve creative thinking, problem solving skills, a strong imagination—I could go on and on.

The focus on STEM—that is, the fields of science, technology, engineering & math–in high schools in the early 2010s was great and all, but there was an stark imbalance in our studies. There were so many students who were talented in both the STEM fields and the arts, but were met with this pressure to pick one or the other—or simply risk burning themselves out to make time for everything they were interested in.

On top of scheduling challenges, we were often met with visceral, often exaggerated descriptions of the “starving artist” trope to scare us away from our artistic endeavors. At the same time, we were often reminded of how lucrative of a field engineering is—but were never told just how rigorous of a program awaited us once we reached higher education with the intention of becoming an engineer (or something similar). In fact, my graduating class was the first cohort to be offered NYS STEM grants, which covered tuition at a State college in full (yay!), but boxed students into a STEM field of their choice upon acceptance of the grant (at age 17-18). Deciding a major in one’s senior year of high school is a huge decision—but reducing the selection pool to only STEM fields is even a tougher choice.

Now-a-days, I’m glad to hear that the focus in education is now on STEAM—that is, the original STEM fields, but with “the arts” sprinkled in. (Read more on STEAM here.) Honestly, this shift just makes sense. This is evident through the successes of folks like Los Angeles-based artist-scientist Stef Walker, who is STEAM personified—despite growing up in a STEM world.

Neuroscience lab manager by day, painter by night—Stef has always made time for both of her passions, no matter what resistance stood in her way. Honestly, she’s one of my personal heroes because of this.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Stef a few questions about her experiences with art, with sciences, and more. Find a gallery containing selections of her artwork here.

Read all about it below-  

A Sit-Down With Stef Walker

Tell us a little bit about yourself & your background:

This is always a tough question for me because this often just yields the answer “oh, I’m a scientist/artist hybrid”, but there’s more to someone than their productivity, you know? Life-wise, I was born and raised in a small town in New York that had more apple trees than people, attended a college that was only 30 miles away, so the entirety of my life up ’til graduation was spent in the Hudson Valley. A couple months later, I took a huge plunge and moved to Los Angeles, where I am currently residing with my boyfriend and our 2 cats.

Hobby-wise, I spend most of my free time-consuming creative media when I’m not working or painting—video games, reading various forms (novels, comics, manga), watching fictional shows (usually those with some fantastical or supernatural element) —anything that immerses myself in another world.

As an artist, I mostly identify as a painter and specialize in acrylic paint, but also really like digital art and how approachable it is. Being a liberal arts college, which encouraged a broad range of studies, Bard was great for me to both hone technical and creative skills, but also grant me opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have, like completing my very own thesis. While at Bard, I was also a member of the Student Publicity and Resource Center, and designed a multitude of posters for events on campus, giving me some decent graphic design experience, particularly with Photoshop.

Currently, I’m a lab manager in a neuroscience lab at USC. My position started out as a research technician, but after a couple of years of mouse studies, I realized I don’t like Doing research (though I love learning and teaching, so this was a stressful discovery for me). My PI, being an understanding and encouraging mentor, wanted me to put my skills to use and learn more skills that would help me down the line, so I could do something that wouldn’t make me miserable. He had me transition into a more lab-management position, and I was trained in various aspects to prepare me for this role. I’m now responsible for lab safety and adhering to protocols, procurement, training, scheduling, among many other miscellaneous things. I’ve had some artistic opportunities as well, like designing our lab website and drawing figures for papers, which I’ve had a lot of fun doing.

How did you get started as an artist?

As a kid, drawing was just what I did. I’m not musically inclined, and I didn’t care for sports; drawing was always fun and is something I can recall doing for the past 20 years. I think the earliest memories of any specific art I made would be my filling of several notebooks with Yu-gi-oh card recreations in the third grade (~2003), that eventually evolved into me trying to design my own. Joining the DeviantArt community in late middle school (~2008) and that was also a huge help in inspiration and drive, because I was surrounded by artists with different styles and backgrounds. I spent a lot of time trying to learn basics, following tutorials, and filling sketchbooks with drawings of my friends in whatever style I was experimenting with. I picked up painting in high school in a few of my art classes, and fell in love with it. Previously, I mostly worked in colored pencil, but being in school and having the resources readily available to me really helped me find my niche.

More recently, sometime in 2017, I was approached about my first commission: a pet portrait. It was small, and semi-realistic, for a college friend whose cat had recently passed. It was an honor to be a part of such a process, especially considering my own deep love for cats as family members. I had never been paid for my art before, and was nervous about putting myself out there, but that definitely sparked my “career” so to speak, and I went on to take several portrait commissions and create a shop for these custom creations. Making digital art is even more recent than painting for others. I had dabbled in MS-Paint and Photoshop in high school, scanning in drawings and using a laptop mouse to do everything. Luckily for me and my wrist, a couple years ago I was gifted a tablet (and tablet pen!) that really let me re-delve into this art form, and make art for me again, which has been a comfort.

How did you incorporate art into your life today? (both consuming & doing)

The doing of art is a bit harder. I take pet and people portrait commissions, which has given me ample reason to paint even with my chronic artist’s block, but those are sporadic in nature. I am at the whim of the people. I also find inspiration to make “fanarts” for media that really strikes me, as an homage and wanting to experience the art over again, so that also gives me more reason to do art. As for the consumption of art… I consume a lot of art, really, in many forms, almost constantly. So much of what we consume is art as it is. Animated tv shows, video games, webcomics, manga, music. I also follow many artists on social media sites so I can see all the different styles that exist during my daily scrolling. And of course, I try to go to any art museum in new cities that I visit, for that art-in-person-rather-than-on-a-screen experience.

What is your artistic process like?

My process varies depending on what the subject is going to be. If it’s a portrait, or something fairly straight-forward with a reference, it’s different than, say, a digital drawing with a unique composition. For portraits, I don’t do a lot of planning. I first edit and crop my reference photos to have the color and composition that I want and think will bring out the life of the subject. I don’t sketch out my paintings, either. I’ll lay down a light grid so I can make sure my proportions translate, and then roughly outline the main shapes with paint to get the angles and placement down. From there, I “chunk” out sections i.e. I’ll lay down larger shapes of color that I will work on or build later, rather than doing fine detail off the bat for each individual grid. It’s kind of like sculpting, but with paint, and then I work on adding details and using them to shift elements of the painting around so that they end up where I want them. Another thing I do that is I only use one paint brush for each of these processes. I have 2 that I’m partial to, and stick to them (one’s a small flat angular brush, and the other a teeny one for details.) I also don’t wash my brush very well between mixing/switching colors; I simply dampen it and wipe off the excess with my paint rag, so a lot of my colors end up all over the place.

What are your biggest inspirations?

Other art, other artists! There are so many wonderful creations out there, so many approaches to characters, different ways to use brush strokes, action and emotion in animation panels, color choices… Just viewing other people’s work strikes such joy for art in me that I want to create more in general, try to learn these skills for myself. I don’t really have a “Style”, just a method, but I’m always looking for pieces to build on and slowly get closer to something I can call my own.

Since you’re a ‘scientist/artist hybrid’, what can you tell us about your experience with STEAM, both in education (high school & beyond) and as applicable to your life now?

When I was in high school, I took every art class I could, took AP Art, and was in art club for all 4 years. Towards the end though, our art club was actually dissolved, because the school didn’t see it as important anymore. The students continued to meet and work together as a community, but we weren’t technically a “club,” as we no longer had a budget; legally, the teacher legally couldn’t spend overtime with us, but we managed. Art was definitely not valued there, other than by the art teachers and a few select students. Everyone seemed to see it more as a hobby, and nothing lucrative, which is weird because adults would love to praise how talented students were, but never encourage them to pursue that skill and passion as a career. Of course, other clubs kept funding; our school spent so much money putting in astroturf for our football team, completely revamping the field in many ways, spending more money than teenage me could fathom, but our art club was voted to be obsolete. The surrounding stigma, for lack of a better word, around art did affect me ultimately, and I focused more on pursuing science for college and beyond, because I was told by so many the horrors of being a “starving artist” and whatnot. There’s such a pressure on kids to find a good career that it’s hard to explore your options. No one laid out what an artistic future could have for you. I did love science and biology, don’t get me wrong, but I wish I had been told what paths either major could have led me down before making this decision.

College was a little better at being pro-STEM and Art. I did go to a liberal arts college; unfortunately they didn’t have Minors for me to minor in studio arts, but I was still able to take a few art courses and even get an artistic job (poster designer for student events) while studying biology. They were much more excited by the idea of having an artist in the lab, and a scientist in the studio, because of the different ways we can approach our work. Having this dichotomous passion was viewed as special. I was able to take these classes despite not “needing” them to graduate because I pleaded the case of bringing a different lens to their classroom and also wanting to keep myself creative while I was in a fairly uncreative field. I am still grateful for the opportunity; while the drawings and paintings were assignments and important for my GPA, I was having fun, and was able to do something that made me feel like me. I wish I realized this more at the time.

Now that I’m not focusing on any studies, I’m far more aware of how much art plays in our every day life. Everything we do and use—websites, advertisements, video games, the packaging design of literally everything—is designed and made by artists. The arts should definitely be valued, because where would we be without them? And I do think that they’re more valued now, but it could be that I’ve simply encountered more people in life, and not just people telling me that science is a better choice than art in a career. I see about equal arguments of pursuing a different career than art for the sake of stability, and that the arts are important as a society and shouldn’t be diminished. My artistic skills have been put to use even in my lab manager position, a seemingly dry and structured position, so even in roles people may see as strictly science, art is valuable. I’ve designed our lab website and made an animation for the header, have pieced together several figures to be published in scientific journals, and help my lab members with poster creation and Adobe use for their presentations regularly.

Hit me with a fun tidbit:

I have a Spotify playlist I made (The Best of: Stef’s Music Taste) to include on my About Me on my website, so I present you with a mash of hard rock and anime intros:

And finally… what does ‘the arts in the 21st century’ mean to you?

Something unique about the 21st century, especially compared to previous centuries, is our ease of access to art, namely via the internet. You can experience it in real time, from your favorite artists, friends, illustrators, strangers. Everything is at your fingertips, including everything that’s been being made and created every century up until this moment. The 21st century is unique in that we aren’t hindered or limited to only seeing art in museums, or learning about it in a historical context. People can also be inspired younger, acquire resources at the click of a button, and learn from professionals through a screen (on top of being able to take in-person classes), which I think is neat. Art is accessible.

Keep in Touch With Stef Walker

Check out the artist’s website here.

Stef Walker, self portrait with cats, 2020

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