Dr. Eleanor Johnson is a UK-based science teacher and chemist. Coupled with bold, colourful illustrations by the artist Lies Van Hee, Journeys to the Chemical Elements weaves together storytelling, shamanism, and the periodic table to explore the relationship between humans and chemistry.
In this interview with Art the Science, Johnson describes how sustainable chemistry research and shamanism have jointly informed her work, collaborative efforts in the creative process, and the importance of spirituality in scientific practice.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
Growing up in Devon, UK surrounded by beautiful countryside, I found a deep love for the wonderful ecosystems. Days spent on the moors, at the sea, and in the rolling fields gave me a solid grounding in a love for the Earth. I was practical, logical, and creative, and enjoyed most subjects at school. At 18, having studied Music, Chemistry, English, and Maths for A level I found it hard to choose a ‘side’ when applying for University. With a strong desire to have a positive impact on the environment, I took Chemistry, and studied a Masters degree and a PhD at the University of Bath. My research in Sustainable Chemistry was aimed at creating Enzyme Fuel Cells for cleaning up chemical waste streams. This inspired a passion for empowering a growing sustainable scientific industry.
Throughout this time, my fascination with spiritual practices grew, and after graduating, I became drawn to exploring shamanic cultures and practices. I lived off-grid for several years before becoming a private tutor, and eventually trained as a Science Teacher. I work in a school in an area of high deprivation, aiming to inspire students to study science at University.
What inspired you to create Journeys to the Chemical Elements?
Bridging the gap between science and spirituality has been a passion for a long time. The book came about from a burning desire to be understood and to create a language through which the two worlds can communicate.
“Bridging the gap between science and spirituality has been a passion for a long time.”Eleanor Johnson
Training with Chris Luttichau at Northern Drum Shamanic Centre allowed the space and time to explore chemistry as I never had before. Building on a knowing that everything is alive—even rocks, trees, and rivers—made me wonder if the same would be for the elements of the Periodic Table. An experiment at first, I began using drum journeys to connect with the Chemical Elements. I cannot presume to understand exactly how it is that they work—only that the drum puts the brainwaves into a different frequency. From there it is beyond my capacity to explain.
Once I had begun with the meeting of Calcium, I worked my way backwards from this element all the way up to Hydrogen. Patterns began to emerge, properties began to come through, and trends were visible. The alkali metals were full of vitality, just as they are in their reactions with water. The alkaline earth metals were more stable, found near the earth and soil. The noble gases were as their name suggests—peacekeepers between the elements in the atmosphere.
What, in your opinion, is the relationship between scientific research, art, and spirituality?
This is a great question which gets to the heart of the problems we have made for ourselves so far as a species. We have been so obsessed with progression that we have forgotten who we are as a species. While technology has improved the lives of millions of people, the cost has been the loss of connection to the Earth and to our spirit. In science, it is difficult to show respect to those things which are viewed as inanimate and lifeless. Think of Fritz Haber, who gave us the Haber process, one of the most energy-intensive processes we use today. This scientist became famous through developing weapons of war, which destroyed so many lives on both sides. When Marie Curie discovered her radioactive elements, they were used without caution in personal care products and medicines. Research without a conscience or understanding is abhorrent and it needs to stop.
“We have been so obsessed with progression that we have forgotten who we are as a species. While technology has improved the lives of millions of people, the cost has been the loss of connection to the Earth and to our spirit.”Eleanor Johnson
At the University of Bath there was a Biology lecturer, Dr. Alan Rayner, who used paintings in his lecture series. I attended the series as a PhD student and was fascinated by his teaching style. He taught his Theory of Inclusionality, which has strong links to Buddhism, where everything is connected. The way he used his own images, inspired by his research with mycelium, was truly visionary. It was the only course of its kind at the time, where an art piece formed part of the students’ final grade. Seeing him as a role model for scientific research, I was saddened to witness the ridicule he endured from other lecturers at the University, who saw his work as ‘pseudo-science,’ something beneath them. It made me realise that, even though a person might have the highest qualification possible, they might still be lacking in knowledge and wisdom.
Science has a duty to communicate its findings with the public, and art is a fantastic medium to facilitate this. In producing this book I have also used the oldest form of information sharing in our culture, the art of storytelling. Stories can transport a person from their logical thinking mind into other dimensions of thought. Through writing this book and communicating with the essence of the Chemical Elements, I believe understanding and connection can emerge. My wish is that true progress can be made in research by working together with the Chemical Elements. There are glimpses into their desire to collaborate: Uranium suggests developing bacteria to process radioactive waste, and Tin alludes to ores in the Earth which have properties we don’t yet fully understand. There is such potential for collaboration between humans and the Chemical Elements, but I wonder if there are any who are brave enough to try it. It would certainly be fascinating.
“My wish is that true progress can be made in research by working together with the Chemical Elements.”Eleanor Johnson
Can you tell me about your artistic process and the process of collaborating with the illustrator, Lies Van Hee?
Once several stories were drafted, I tentatively shared them with a few close friends who suggested finding an illustrator and self-publishing a book. Lies and I had recently met through our children who attended a forest school together. We began talking at the school gate day to day, and discovered that while we were from quite different backgrounds, our interest in shamanism was alike. She invited me to an exhibition she had on in Totnes, Devon, and I was blown away by her paintings. They were bold, big and bright and brought the unseen to life.
Lies says that when she first read the stories, she felt a “big yes!” to working together. From there the project really took off. Our conversations and mutual experiences with the elements inspired both of us to continue working with them. I used funding from a Royal Society of Chemistry scholarship for my PGCE (teacher training) to commission the artworks. The book took on a form very quickly as she produced painting after painting. I would send her the story, she scanned the words and then approached each element. She explains how she began by coming from a place of respect, with a clear intention to bring their essence into visual form. She worked prolifically, and within a few months she had made over 30 paintings.
Receiving her images was such a joy. Lies captured the elements so exquisitely it was hard to imagine the stories without their visual expressions. We were keen to keep the images abstract, and my only input was to occasionally suggest a colour or shape.
“Lies captured the elements so exquisitely it was hard to imagine the stories without their visual expressions.”Eleanor Johnson
Since the book has been published, we are still working together to promote the book in our different circles. Lies is still very much involved in the project. Her aim is to create a travelling exhibition to showcase in schools around the UK.
What impact do you hope this book will achieve?
Journeys to the Chemical Elements aims to connect people to the elements of the Periodic Table through storytelling and art. It is the culmination of thirty shamanic journeys to the Chemical Elements, where many of the most well-known elements are portrayed as closely as possible. Our aim is to inspire future generations to take the opportunity to know and understand the Chemical Elements, and to see them as precious gifts to be respected.
“Our aim is to inspire future generations to take the opportunity to know and understand the Chemical Elements, and to see them as precious gifts to be respected.”Eleanor Johnson
Do you have any plans for future works?
Yes, definitely. While recording the journeys to the Chemical Elements it became clear that some elements are being misused. For example, Chlorine in weapons of war, the draining of oil fields for Carbon-based fuels, and the mining of elements such as Tin. Together with the wonderful Alice Courvoisier and her background in electrical engineering, we plan to expand the work to the Rare Earth Elements. Our aim is to begin to explore how scientists and engineers can work respectfully with these elements, which are in such danger of exploitation.
For more by Eleanor Johnson, and for information about her book, visit her website or Facebook. For more by Lies Van Hee, visit her website or Instagram.
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