Always Strange

Illustrator, Sculptor, Mixed Media Artist

More Science Illustrations

Anna SokolovComment

In one of my previous posts I opened up a conversation about combining art with science - two of the things I spend a lot of my time on and quite enjoy. In this post I'll reveal the details of a commission piece I did last year for another scientific journal and this time it involved a lot more creativity and was great fun to make. 

Final drawing!

A few years back, when I suddenly decided to move to New York City, I started working in a tissue engineering lab at Columbia to help pay for grad school. It was a fantastic lab to work in, first as a laboratory manager and then their administrative coordinator. I was surrounded by a large and multidisciplinary group of bright young researchers excited to add to the existing knowledge about heart and bone tissue engineering and create novel biomedical solutions to damaged hearts/cardiovascular systems and bone deformities. They were all about combining two seemingly separate disciplines (engineering and biology) in a way that propelled the field forward at lightening speed. Recently, this lab generated a startup company for bone engineering. Aside from being completely enthralled with what seemed like science fiction just years prior this lab's environment really spoke to my love and passion for combining anatomy/physiology with art. I couldn't be happier when one lab member reached out to me a few years later asking to collaborate on a creative illustration for her most recent research publication about Ewing's Sarcoma in a multidisciplinary journal TheranosticsIn this journal link you'll see that our collaborative illustration project (and her publication) appear halfway down the page.

In order to get this creative project off the ground we first connected over email due to me being in Seattle and the research team in New York City. We exchanged initial ideas and jointly came up with a concept, drawing from cultural references in Star Wars, The Jetsons and Miyazaki's incredible animated films. Then I got to work on an initial sketch. Both of us really wanted this to succeed so we had plenty of back and forth communication, which slowly helped structure this process.

The initial idea centered around an island city or a world with various structures and functions within it. The world itself represents the cell or a complex multi-functional entity that has a lot of activity within it. The space ships are the transport vesicles, inside which there are little creatures that can direct cargo inside the ship away from the world and invade other worlds with it. All of this is an artistic representation of what happens on a cellular level, particularly when it comes to cancer cells and signaling between cells. 

Rough sketch of the city-island world

One of the initial idea sketches

A snippet of the final illustration

Over several iterations this little world's edges became softer, its buildings and structures began resembling more organic cellular blocks that incorporate within their structure concepts of tissue engineering, since this is what the lab works on. Slowly, this image came together and was what the team was excited about. Then this image was submitted to the scientific journal for evaluation for that month's cover illustration.

I had a fantastic time working on this project and am tremendously thankful that this research team contacted me in the first place. Although the cover illustration didn't win that month's contest, it doesn't take away from the fact that another successful blending of art and science took place. 

HERE you can read the finalized scientific publication and learn more about Ewing's Sarcoma and the ongoing tissue engineering research that is taking place. 


Anna SokolovComment

Every time I feel down or anti-social for some reason I turn to sewing. Back in college, right around the last Christmas before graduating, nothing felt better than cozying up in front of the TV with a wonderful sewing project to focus on. Perhaps it was the frigid western NY winter that drew me inside and into a warm blanket fort, or maybe it was the uncertainty that came with graduating right around the 2008 recession. 

Regardless of the reason, something special came from spending many hours with a needle and some thread - some of my 2D creatures started coming to life! The very first project was an ambitious ~40 inch tall gorilla monkey made from faux suede fabric, originally intended for a couch re-upholstery project that failed miserably. A dozen feet of great fabric weren't going to go to waste at my house, so the monkey idea naturally came to mind. The bigger the better, I thought. Oh, and regarding the stuffing - well, I had a big pile of old clothes I didn't need anymore, so in essence, the monkey also became a time capsule of old threads. 

Since this was so much fun and I still had a lot of time left before the spring semester rolled around, I decided to create a couple of other creatures to use as presents. They were #2 and #3 in the "Always Strange stuffed 3D collection" and they now live with my parents in upstate NY. My mom thoughtfully knitted them some warm sweaters and scarves, as winters in NY can be brutal. We wouldn't want their fuzzy tails to freeze and fall off.

Since then things were great. I didn't feel the need to pick up a needle in quite some time. But this fall, during such a stressful election, everything changed. I'm not one for dwelling on negativity so here I was again, with another dozen feet of re-purposed fabric in hand, ready to create something adorable. Something that I could look at and smile about. Enter the current teddy bear project! Here are some progress shots:

Sewing is a great way to relieve stress. I recommend you try it. You'll be surprised what creature will come to life for you to smile about on a rainy day.

This very bear is available for sale through my SHOP.

Illustration for a Science Journal

Anna SokolovComment

For any of you who might not know, I have a science background/education and currently work in the field of public health, specifically in research administration. My early years involved quite a bit of laboratory work where I spent my days in a lab coat and gloves, standing at a bench, pipetting small liquids from one vial into another (there were also Bunsen burners involved, as well as cool chemical reactions). At my first real job out of college I joined a laboratory in New York City. My boss, a Principal Investigator (PI) was just starting his own laboratory and he only hired me (and no one else) to help him set up this brand new lab. Due to such low number of helping hands I inadvertently became a Jane-of-all-trades for a while.

#TBT to me preparing some cultures on Petri dishes

During that time I learned many things from my boss. One of these important tidbits was that being a successful scientist takes a combination of broad and transferable skills - perseverance, positive reaction to lots of caffeine, lack of aversion to harsh criticism and very importantly - an ability to express yourself through writing. Recording detailed results of your daily successes and failures not only helps you maintain a (required) lab notebook but also serves as a repository of information for that publication you'll soon have to produce and submit to journals for consideration. Since the success of receiving continuous funding for your research often largely depends on your publication record the pressure to publish your results is very high.

Thankfully, and because I was a lab assistant and not a PhD student, my boss was in charge of the direction of his lab's research. My role was largely supportive, on all fronts. We would discuss his scientific plans, I would then carry out many of the actual laboratory experiments, maintain inventory and place orders for all the needed supplies and reagents, and then help him proofread publications he had in preparation, reporting the work we've done. One day, while on our 14th iteration of the same manuscript, he asked me to help him with all the graphics and illustrations. Although it wouldn't extend beyond simple shapes and graphs this time around the prospect of helping with this little project was new and exciting. We even went as far as designing a journal cover illustration and submitting it for consideration to the journal along with our manuscript. Sadly, the journal (JBC) didn't accept the cover illustration, but that did not diminish my excitement about not having to transfer small liquids all day but instead being able to enjoy Adobe Illustrator for a portion of my day.

Journal cover we submitted along with our manuscript

All this to say that I really look forward to all opportunities that allow me to blend art and science in some creative and exciting way. Since I moved from that lab job (and to another, and another) I've had a couple of such captivating projects. You know how some people love their jobs so much they can't stop thinking about work-related problems and are inspired to come up with solutions, in a stimulating and satisfying way? That's how "work" felt for the first time. And let me tell you - that's truly the stuff I want to be spending my time on. 

For anyone interested about cholesterol regulation here is the LINK to the scientific article we published with JBC and a recent article using a version of this illustration HERE

Everything is Connected

Always Strange Art, Seattle Art, Funny art, coloring, adult coloring books, hobby art, creepy cuteAnna SokolovComment

The first Always Strange coloring book was a hit! Inspired by its success I decided to create another one just in time for the holidays. The goal was to move closer toward the "adult coloring book" style in order to provide more detail. I had just the thing - all of these connected creatures that jumpstarted my current style are now gathered in a single coloring book. Any way you turn it - there are creatures to find! 

This book was created differently than my first book "Creatures in Strangeland" - it's less like a story book and resembles a traditional coloring book with many details and viewing angles (whichever way you turn a page, you'll see new creatures). In fact, this layout allows two people to color at the same time while sitting across from each other. I'm all about the collaborative process! Here are some in-progress images of this coloring book!

Creatures in Strangeland - An Adult Coloring Book

Always Strange Art, Seattle Art, Funny artAnna SokolovComment

Front and back view of the book and the continuous scene from Strangeland, where this little green girl lives with her dog

After a long period of deliberation and excuse-making I finally sat down and started planning the first ever printed booklet of Always Strange creature art. Over the years I have amassed quite a collection of individual character illustrations, some of which have been turned into one-of-a-kind original pieces (woodburnings, watercolors, prints, etc). Although these originals were fun to create and show at exhibitions, I felt sad to part with the art making process after they were framed or sealed. As an artist, you spend a long amount of time creating something and this process becomes very intimate. Once you're done, it's almost like saying goodbye to a dear friend who leaves after a visit.

This is why I thought a coloring book would help solve my problem. With a coloring book I'd get to create something and finalize it for sale but someone who purchases it can pick up right where I left off. This way the process continues and someone else gets to enjoy it with me. 

A single page from the book - original elephants on Dali-esque legs with extra detail added in just for the coloring book.

The book assembly process was a new learning experience for me. After having finally figured some things out the majority of the work was technical and administrative. Between multiple bouts of editing for quality and size, and running back and forth to the print shop, this book went through a total of six versions. Dear friends and fellow artists provided vital feedback on the content and its appearance. It's sometimes hard to hear criticism, especially about your first "baby", but it is this feedback that drives the product closer to something that people would want to buy and color. 

Now a little bit about Strangeland and its inhabitants. Every single time I pick up my favorite micron pen and draw a whimsical creature almost all of them end up sharing the same lumps and protrusions - something that has marked my style over the years. Just like people who live in the same country or neighborhood who share a language and a culture my creatures have enough in common with each other to necessitate a unique space. That's where the Strangeland idea came from - it's a land where all creatures designed by Always Strange live and play! 

This first coloring book introduces Strangeland and showcases some of its dwellers. They pose for you like in old portraits, often holding their favorite items to give you a better idea of who they might be. Throughout the book's pages you will also find clues about the scenery of Strangeland, its architecture and landmarks. In the next Always Strange book, this land of creatures will open up and present itself to you in greater detail.