Women In Science

How to Make Ordinary Materials Stand for Something Big (Like Science!)

Science ArtThe Visionary Paper Technician: Kelli Anderson



Artist, designer, coder, author, and tinkering science enthusiast Kelli Anderson’s gallery exhibits encourage visitors to touch, tinker, poke, spin, and otherwise interact with her art! You may have seen the paper technician’s pop-up work This Book Is A Camera displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), or spotted Kelli in the pages of National Geographic KIDS’ By the Numbers, which features people who use math in unusual ways in their professions. You may even have caught her surrealistic 2015 music video for the band They Might Be Giants, titled Long White Beard.

If you haven’t, you’re in for a mind-bending, visual treat.

After studying painting and art history in grad school at Pratt, Kelli went to work at a digital design agency hoping to learn more about building websites. In a 2014 interview with The Big Discontent, however, Kelli admitted the job wasn’t a good fit:

“I quickly realized that I’m simply not made for a traditional, full-time job. So I quit and went to work in the photo archives of the library of the American Museum of Natural History for five years. There, I digitized glass plate negatives that documented things like Ernest Shackleton’s expedition across Antarctica and images of indigenous cultures that no longer exist today. I held photos of all kinds of incredible things in my hands, like Charles Darwin on his deathbed…”

But what Kelli called “the coolest day job ever” eventually gave way to her own creative aspirations, which she had been exploring on the side. After five years, she left the back halls of the museum to pursue her personal brand of experimental art, full-time. The rest is – uh – history.


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This past November, Kelli published her latest work of paper engineering magic, This Book is a Planetarium, just in time for the holidays (and to get the Raising Nerd sales “bump” from our Mega Holiday Wish List). Once Kelli returned from her book promotion tour, she spent some time with us sharing her story and Nerdy insights.

Kelli’s curiosity-fueled designs are a creative blend of the physical sciences and thoughtful but whimsical perspectives on our world. We hope you’ll agree that a Nerd Profile on this awesome Nerd and her engaging art is the perfect bridge between January’s Women In Science month and February’s theme of “Learning Through Play.”


Raising Nerd: First, we were hoping to have you expand on your concise website bio for our readers. Where did you grow up? What kind of tinkering did you do as a kid? What first sparked your passion to be an artist?

Kelli Anderson: I grew up in New Orleans and later in the suburb of Mandeville, LA. Although no one in my family was in a creative field, my grandparents on both sides aided-and-abetted in my making things – often as the “solution” to “problems.” I learned to sew, so that my grandmother and I could make pillows and help her pet rabbits sleep better. We’d create “bear soup” out of lawn debris in the bucket for the gutter in order to keep bears out of the kitchen. I would collage-together and draw elaborate Christmas wishlists and burn them in the fireplace to communicate with Santa. I’m realizing now that there was sort of a surreal, magical-realism quality to these early creative pursuits 🙂

As a grown-up designer, I now humor myself into thinking I solve problems. But it probably isn’t THAT different than when I was a kid (we all tend to constantly misunderstand the mechanics of how the world works and misrepresent those mechanics with our “solutions”). So maybe making pillows for rabbits is more honest than the practice of design? I don’t know…


RN: What books did you read/love as a kid? What favorite artists, designers, authors, illustrators, and/or inventors did you like/try to emulate back then and why? Any additional favorites today?

KA: As a child, I mostly liked tragic stories about animals that made me cry. Old Yeller, White Fang, Watership Down, etc. The only book I remember enjoying that involved people was A Wrinkle in Time. I also watched Mr. Wizard and PBS obsessively.

As an adult, I’ve admired the careers of [Charles and Ray] Eamse, Muriel Cooper, Mark Lombardi, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, and Hans Haacke. Recently, I’ve gotten really into the animations of John Whitney and the art direction of Cipe Pineles. There is so much talent among my peers as well, but I’m worried that I’ll omit someone if I hazard a list here.


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RN: Where did you pursue education beyond high school and what did you study (i.e., was art your main focus)? What was most challenging for you as a student? What is the biggest challenge for you today as an artist?

KA: I attended public school until grad school (<—grad school was private and super-expensive!) and got a well-rounded education with an emphasis in art. I had a really fantastic physics teacher in high school, but I’ve never been strong in math. I can muddle my way through some math because I have a very good mind for logic, but not for rule-following. So when math is more concrete (like geometry), I do super well. But Algebra 2, for example, was a total nightmare for me.

I learned to code by building websites for friends. I’d agree [to do it] – and by doing so – would essentially dig a hole for myself that I’d have to claw my way out of. This is an effective (and stressful) way to learn.

As an artist, my biggest challenge is time management (because of the hole-clawing-approach.) No two projects are alike, so it’s difficult to estimate my time in advance. This basically means I totally understand what I’m supposed to do in the present each day, but that the future is always a big question mark. It’s very hard for me not to be an optimist and say “yes” to everything that comes my way, but I’m slowly learning that “no” is a way for me to defend what I really care about.


RN: Why did you choose paper as your main artistic medium? What would you say is a paper engineer’s or designer’s most important skill(s) to develop? How/where do you suggest an aspiring artist start to develop those skills?

KA: I like paper because people tend to consider it trash. No one expects anything from it. It isn’t expected to “do” anything.

As a designer, this lacune [or gap] of expectations means there exists an opportunity to prove that there is something hiding in all of the perceived nothing. Kenya Hara (the designer behind Muji) argues that “both our immediate world and the distant universe” can be found within paper. Once I figured out that I could use paper to tap into how the world works—and demonstrate physics forces that are hard to otherwise see (think about how a kite makes the wind visible), I was hooked.


RN: Did you consider or even pursue other careers before your current artistic one?

KA: No. I knew I wanted to be an artist from a very young age. Design was more of an accident. I realized that I’m more suited to design because it feels like the context is smaller, so I can tunnel into actual, gritty, real-world details more expeditiously. When I was in art school, I was overwhelmed by feeling that the context was “all of art history,” so each next move carried significant weight. With design, the context of a project might be how pens are used in restaurants, so there is a more manageable sphere of considerations to hold in my mind at once.


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RN: Who were your early mentors/influencers? How did they inspire and encourage you to pursue a career in art/design?

KA: I enrolled in the “Talented Art” program at school very early on and my teachers consistently encouraged me over the years. My parents always (kindly) hung my bad drawings on the wall.


RN: Your website bio says you’re “always experimenting” with new ways to make “images and experiences.” Can you elaborate on that – what are your favorite kinds of things to create and do they usually incorporate a STEM “lesson” or influence?

KA: I’m really interested in the systems behind things that cause them to work. As a designer, my day-to-day practice is almost 100 percent trial and error (rather than beginning with a fully-formed vision in my mind and executing it).

So, when designing a menu, I might puzzle over why one color choice works and another doesn’t, for example. Sometimes those reasons are related to optics and perception (i.e. reasons like “not enough contrast”).  But sometimes those reasons relate to our cultural emotional response to color. Thinking about where those feelings come from – the cultural infrastructure behind the meaning of color – delights me to no end. For the most part, this is all outside of the realm of formalized knowledge and is considered “subjective.” Some people even get angry when you talk about what a color means – as if it’s pretentious. But a practicing designer knows that it is not.

That interest in “what underlies a system” carries straight over to being interested in the infrastructure that undergirds the physical world. So I work with my paper gadgets in the same way I work with design: I tinker. I try things. I see what works. I try to extract universal lessons from these experiments. But most of the time – like in design – it is truly impossible to know why things succeed and why things fail. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasons though. It is cool and humbling and both leave me enamored of the complexity of the world.


RN: You’ve got a circa 1919 letterpress in your studio (awesome!) among other “benevolent contraptions.” Can you tell us more about those other contraptions and how you use them in your work?

KA: The main tools I use in the pop-up work are: my laptop (running Adobe Illustrator, where I draw cut and score lines) and a plotter. My plotter is a Graphtec Craft ROBO. It is technically a vinyl cutter, but can handle paper as well.


RN: What advice do you have for Nerds out there that dream of pursuing a career like yours? What activities, experiences, hobbies or other education should they pursue?

KA: My friend Kate has a really good advice-expression: “Make what is missing.”

Try not to lose track of your own plot. Be serious about proactively researching, collecting, and befriending the things and people who interest you. The worst thing you can do is what you’re “supposed” to do…or believe that there is a universally-applicable life strategy to be followed. The external world doesn’t know what you’re for!

What makes you unique+weird will always be more interesting than what makes you the same as everyone else.


RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe failure is just an important part of the learning process. Tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment? How did you use that event as a way to help motivate you for or propel you to future success?

KA: I don’t know if any failure moments stand out as remarkable because they’re all mostly failures. Everything I’ve ever worked on is a stubborn, reoccurring failure until it finally works. The polished, end product represents the .05 percent of the process.


Science Art

RN: On the cover of This Book is a Planetarium, it says that it demonstrates “the science at play in our everyday world.” Why have you made your art a bridge to science/tech/engineering/math – i.e., why did you think it was important to incorporate the physical sciences in this and other artistic projects?

KA: Well, I wanted to highlight the potential that hides in plain view in our world – by proving that paper can do something. We all assume that paper is for napkins and student-loan bills and cereal boxes. I wanted to show that humble things often offer the most profound interactive experiences. Because they tap-into (and piggyback-off of) the physical world’s magic rather than trying to control or rewrite this magic.

In making this book, I was also questioning the role of tech… mostly because humanity is on the cusp of having autonomous vehicles. And yet, lo-fi stuff like vinyl records still seem really cool. So I’m wondering what we actually want from tech? Do we want our objects to just serve us or do we love them more when they connect us to the world?

In the past, our tech-things more readily revealed the world to us – via mechanical transparency, glitches, noise, or by requiring manual tinkering. So, tech used to perform this secondary function of tethering us to the physical world.

However, as the goal of perfect UX [user experience] design is achieved, these seams and glitches disappear. Tech becomes beholden to our wish fulfillment rather than revealing the underlying laws of the material world (which are absent unless some dimension of them is programmed back in). As our objects no longer “push-back,” we lose a connection point to the hidden infrastructures, forces, and systems that guide all material things (including our own bodies).

So the book is definitely a love letter to how lo-fi, simple, humble things reveal the world to us. It is a defense of crude, rudimentary, and unsophisticated tech.


RN: How did you decide which contraptions you’d make and use for the book?

KA: Manufacturability. And in the case of the planetarium: love/tenacity.


RN: What other hobbies do you enjoy outside of your art and paper engineering?

KA: I like to travel, eat ice cream, go see art, and ride my bike around.


RN: What are your favorite media sources to consume to help stay current with industry news and trends, professional development/education, technology, etc?

KA: I love Nature. It is a dense read, but is amazing. For lighter reading, I like New York Magazine and the California Sunday Magazine. For blogs, I like kottke.org. Like many on social media, I am a promiscuous reader. I follow people on Twitter and Instagram with a wide range of perspectives and I tend to read what those people post.


RN: If you were given the opportunity to tackle one ultimate dream project, what would it be?

KA: I really, really want to make a pop-up paper turntable book. That could be so awesome and so much fun. I’m trying to perfect this now. It has been a long process.

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RN: If your journey to a creative STEM/STEAM career had a theme song, what would it be (and do you think you could play it on the instrument you made for This Book is a Planetarium)?

KA: Haha. Maybe something involving a glockenspiel.


RN: You’ve said that the best reason to create something is because “it feels cool.” What do you consider to be the coolest thing you’ve ever created?

KA: My favorite thing right now is the planetarium book (stars on the ceiling feel SO cool), but I use This Book Is A Camera at least once a week because watching analog photos develop feels SO magical. I really like things that make me excited about the world. And I want to make more of those things.


RN: Any other Nerdy tidbits you’d like to share with our readers that we forgot to ask you about?

KA: One thing I love lately that I didn’t know about [even though it’s for kids] is the old BBC series The Secret Lives of Machines. It came up in a conversation with friends, so they recommended it to me. Should I credit them with the discovery? If so: Aaron Solochek and Niklas Roy.


Want to go behind the scenes and see how This Book Is A Planetarium was made? Click HERE.


To read more about our tribute to the Women of Science, click here.


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