Toggling between the worlds of art, music and science is a Caulfield family predisposition.
Printmaker Sean Caulfield has collaborated with his brother Tim, a health policy researcher, on projects that draw inspiration from the world of science, most recently on the acclaimed exhibitions Immune Nations, and Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art. Tim’s son, Adam, is a cellist with the University of Alberta Symphony Orchestra and a fourth year Immunology student.
In November 2017, Sean was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, joining big brother Tim, who was elected to the RSC in 2007. It’s rare, if not unheard of, for brothers to share this prestigious national recognition; rarer still, for the disciplines to be so disparate in nature.
These differences may explain why there is very little rivalry in the family, although Tim jokes he was “much better at drawing” as a kid. “World War II stukas . . .I taught you most of what you know.”
Tim is quick to point out how proud he is of his little brother’s induction into the Royal Society. “I’ve always thought you were the more interesting and worthy of the brothers,” he says. “We used to play Star Trek as a kid, and of course, I was Captain Kirk, our older brother who is a physicist was Spock, and you [looking at Sean] were the guard, the red shirt. So Sean was always the first one to get killed. I was always amazed that you kept coming back, so that persistence was always there.”
“It’s the toughest job. People don’t realize that,” says Sean.
Expressed in myriad forms, humour — and the creative impulse, runs deep in this family, and according to Sean it is rooted in a childhood that was both unconventional and “hands off”..
“There were piano lessons and all that, but mostly it was just like, be active and engage with the world, and go do something.”
Tim agrees. “Our father was a physicist, engineer and an inventor,” he says. “We had experiments around our house all the time, in our basement, in our garage, in our yard. I was drilling circuit boards when I was in grade five, and soldering them too. It was like he didn’t really understand age, and expected us to be involved. But I look at now and I’m really thankful. He was a total workaholic too, and I think that is something else all of us have. We’re obsessed with what we do.”
Sean’s prints and drawings, shown throughout the world to great acclaim, blur the line between the organic and the mechanical. Biological forms sprout in Düreresque landscapes, suggesting catastrophic events that exist outside of time, as in his recent exhibit, The Flood, at the Art Gallery of Alberta. In his work, the dual languages of science and art speak as one.
“My background is in printmaking, so I’ve had an ongoing interest in the history of scientific illustration and medical illustration,” says Sean. “I think that was the seeds of it, because it’s about the long history of this exchange between art and science. And then working with my brother on Imagining Science and the Perceptions of Promise, really kind of took that initial interest and sparked it into projects that were bigger and more contemporary.”
In recent years, Tim, who works in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, has taken his passion for debunking pseudoscience into the public sphere, publishing several books on science and celebrity culture, including Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. He is also the host of and co-producer of the television program, A User's Guide to Cheating Death, which debunks health fads.
Tim and Sean’s collaborative exhibition Immune Nations also touches on the growing public distrust of science and the constructive role art can play in global political discourse around life-saving vaccines. (It was based research from The Vaccine Project, a three-year interdisciplinary project co-led by Sean Caulfield, Steven J. Hoffman, and UAlberta Art & Design professor Natalie S. Loveless).
The crossover with environmental and biomedical issues is what Tim finds particularly unique about his brother’s work. “It’s a different way of talking these things,” he says. “I think it’s a natural kind of transition — to use art as a way to talk about everything, from vaccination to stem cells. Art and music invite people to become part of the conversation.”
“I totally agree,” says Sean. “It can work partly as advocacy, like another way to communicate. But what’s more important is that it teaches people to think in a nuanced and complex way.”
When public discourse around science becomes polarized, narrative complexity suffers. Adam admits this is one of the reasons he chose immunology as a focus.
“I’ve been surrounded by medical professionals all my life,” he says. “For me, one of the things I’m really interested in is the basic science of immunology, vaccines and disease physiology. And when you hear all these things people are saying about how vaccines work and it’s not right at all — it’s just so frustrating. That sparks my interest too.”
Adam says he “probably” spends more time playing the cello than studying. “It was great that [my parents] said OK, you have to try this for a little while. They facilitated that creative field, and planted the seeds.” Recently, he formed a string quartet with some of his friends. “We’ve got a physicist and two engineers, and we’re called the Vertex Quartet. We named it vertex because it’s a kind of sciencey sounding word. A vertex is an intersection of points, and by definition, that’s what our quartet is — an intersection of music and science.”
“I think we’re all kind of science geeks,” adds Tim. “When I started doing science policy stuff, it was really that interest in and passion about science that drove me in that direction. And also drives the frustration I have with the misrepresentations of science and health.”
One thing is certain: the Caulfield family is engaged in a continual cycle of learning — and learning from each other.
“These guys have both had such success in their fields,” says Adam of his father and uncle. “They’ve been great role models. My dad has always fostered creativity at home. We jam musically, and he’s always drawing little things all over the place. It makes it so much more enjoyable when I’m playing music and able to see that success is totally possible.”
Sean credits his brother Tim for initiating the early interdisciplinary projects that he says taught him to see how creativity manifests in other disciplines. “I learned a lot about collaboration and how that can impact creative practice, and how creative projects can unfold in very different ways,” he says. “From Adam, well, I guess this love of music. I have a love of visual art, and you grow as an artist seeing that in others.”
Tim says he learned about passion from Sean. “You do what you love,” he says, addressing his brother. “He would work at 7-11 and be a printmaker, and [he’d] be a printmaker who worked at 7-11. You know what’s funny, I actually tried to talk him out of being an artist. I was in second year university, you were still in high school, and this is a good hobby but . . . maybe think about having a real job. What the hell did I know, right?”
“Well, it goes back to doing what interests you,” says Sean.
Tim agrees. “Yeah, you do what you’re passionate about, and things kind of work out."