the accidental artist

by Janice Nigro

Summer, sommer, l’estate…It’s a poetic word in most languages in most hemispheres summoning up the best of memories from childhood. For me, my memories are of spending all day at the swimming pool, Good Humor bars, and my birthday.

As an adult, summer has become the season for art festivals.

I have always been a huge fan of handcrafted work and art. My interest in anything handcrafted possibly originates with my strict upbringing by a surgeon father who insisted that we learn how to use our hands. He was a surgeon, but he also had a knack for drawing cartoon characters. He once made a Halloween costume for me out of colored tissue paper and images of his favorite kooky characters from Warner Brothers among others that he simply made up. His desk was littered with the goofy images impressing upon me that surgery might have been only the income generating version of his artistic talents.

My mother is a tremendous seamstress as is my sister. My sister and I had beautiful clothes that my mother made for us until we hit our teenage years. Sewing stuck with my sister who continued to make her own clothes and even design some of them. She did not become a fashion designer, but she did become a surgeon.

Maybe it’s not so obvious in my case as a scientist. We think it’s subtle how handcrafting and art might influence science but to me it is blatantly obvious (if you can say that). Even in the small things, like taking a good photograph of an important result.

Even though the disciplines are largely thought of as independent, I saw the value of art throughout my life as a default meditative technique. I didn’t think I had any talent whatsoever, but once I got over the end result, I simply enjoyed the process. It relaxed me, and some of my best science ideas came to me while distracting myself with an art project.

But then I discovered underwater photography. I suddenly did not care what anyone said about my art. I just took photographs and proudly showed them to anyone who would look. They weren’t great. I don’t even think they were good. But I was compelled to take them. Maybe because of the technical and physical challenges and risks involved, but underwater photography made me appreciate the life in our oceans even more.

I can maybe say I am not that good, but at some point whether in science or art, you don’t really care what the critics think. You are driven to do the work whether by instinct or some higher power. It’s more than that though. The work has meaning. In science, I knew every day I was contributing to something bigger than myself. It was easy to see that. Art sometimes can seem more self-indulgent, and yet every week I educate people on life that they might never otherwise see.

The odd thing about my work is that of all the difficult photographs I take, I am always drawn to the most technically simple ones. Such photographs will never win contests. While they appear not to involve much skill or planning or patience, they take some idea of the impact they can have just because they look like nothing we typically see on land. They are primitive, childlike in composition, uncomplicated I guess because that’s how I see the beauty in the ocean.

Diving is like being able to view life before there were humans. It’s a dip into our prehistoric past but it’s living-it’s today-it’s reality.

Coral is one of the oldest things we can look at. The Great Barrier Reef is ~ 500,000 years old although it changes throughout the years. What we know today is only about 8000 years old.

My father once said it was the coral he loved most in the ocean. I was very young when he made this statement, and I didn’t quite understand it then. He revealed his preference while we were picking up pieces of coral banging our ankles as they were rolling in with the surf at the beach.

Years later as a diver in some of the most remote areas of the world, I now understand what he was talking about. Fish and small critters are everywhere (although species can interact in different places in astonishing ways!).

It’s the coral I am most fascinated with in the sea. We forget to look at it, and when we do it’s in an ID photo kind of way. But coral is big. And patterns go from the grand to microscopic in individual polyps.

So somehow by way of a PhD and years of scientific experimentation behind me, I am beginning this new experiment into the art world. I keep feeling it was an accident that I ended up at the farmers’ market one day. But maybe somehow it really wasn’t.

This is my artist story. When you go to art walks and festivals this summer, ask the artists for their story. I have come across some fascinating answers. It makes you view their work as an experience not just a product. A card might be just a card, but imagine the work that went into bringing you the image on it. That’s my advice on how to really appreciate the handcrafted work you will see at art festivals and markets.

I hope you join me somewhere in the South Bay this summer as I bring you my exhibitions that I will loosely call “That’s an animal?”

Are you an accidental artist? What’s your artist story?

June 10, 2017

North Manhattan Beach Art Walk

10AM to 4PM on Highland Avenue from Rosecrans to 31st Street in Manhattan Beach, CA

Rescue and release

ShockBoxx Project Gallery 3PM to 7PM at 636 Cypress in Hermosa Beach, CA

July 2017

Java Man Coffee House  solo exhibition 157 Pier Avenue Hermosa Beach, CA


©Janice Marie Nigro/


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