How the Colors Flutter By
by Bill Hutchison
Newcomers to the butterfly tents at UChicago’s rooftop greenhouse tend to alternate between awed coos and the silences that attend breathtaking moments. Watching Erick Bayala feed his butterflies is one of those moments. Their mouths, usually curled under their heads in delicate spirals, unfurl toward the swelling drops of sugar water from the syringe Erick holds. Blurs of black and blue and white and orange flit through the air, the paper-thin wings of the Heliconus butterflies infinitely unfolding as they fly. Erick sees his butterflies through eyes disciplinarily doubled—he is both scientist and artist, and the two do not, for him, disentangle.
Erick was an Arts, Science, + Culture Initiative Graduate Fellow in 2016–17 and is a PhD Candidate in Integrative Biology in the Kronforst Lab at UChicago. Part of his ASCI fellowship grant will fund a trip to South America to work with his butterflies in their natural habitat. What he sees by the dozens in greenhouse tents today, he’ll see by the thousands in open, green spaces in the coming months. And the remainder of his grant will pay for imaging time, so he’ll be able to get even closer to the secrets of the colors of butterfly wings.
He’s also a working artist who paints, sculpts, and draws. His love of the two fields goes back to his childhood in Puerto Rico, where he attended a school that specialized in art for middle and high school students. Erick spent three years studying general arts and another three years specializing in ceramic arts. But science still called to him, so he joined the school’s science club. “But they were still very isolated,” Erick says, “until my ceramics teacher became the first to link the two.” The ceramics teacher asked Erick to think about how the high temperatures of the kiln worked with the chemical properties of the pigments and glazes. Erick was enamored of the interplay between the visual outcome of his designs and the invisible reactions happening in his clay sculptures as they fired in the oven.
Erick and the other fellows from his year shared the camaraderie of those whose multiple interests intertwine. “I loved being able to think about problems in many disciplines,” Erick says, recalling with special fondness a screening by fellow Tyler Schroeder of a film from 1924 that featured insects. Moments like that, Erick says, “brought me closer to my combination of art and science."
While many of Erick’s high school classmates went onto art school after graduation, Erick couldn’t resist the opportunity to study science in college instead. For the first two or three years, he didn’t have time to make art because of all of the science classes and lab work he was doing. He didn’t have enough time away from school to work on his art practice. “So I started adding art classes to my schedule,” Erick says, which let him make art at school. “Art was in my work. It was a way of communicating science.”
His current science work looks at how color and biology communicate. “I love how biology creates color patterns,” he explains, in creatures as diverse as cuttlefish and butterflies. “How do butterflies put the color where it goes?” Erick has even developed a new way of imaging butterfly wings, details of which will be found in a forthcoming publication. He was recently one of the organizers of an art show in the UChicago sciences that featured the artistic side of the science being explored at the University. Erick can’t keep science out of his art, or vice versa. And that’s what makes both his art and his science so integral to what Erick is all about. Like his marine life paintings, his scientific illustrations, and his sculptures, he continues relentlessly on his quest to communicate art and science, and through them, to tell a story about how nature paints the living world.