What Happens When The Artist Is Also A Scientist? Photographer and Chemical Engineer, Wonuola Lawal Shares Her Truth

Where once gardeners swore by the reliability of the self-pollinating plant, in which pollen is transferred from the stamen to the stigma of the same flower (autogamy), now we are more adventurous, positively singing the praises of cross-pollination, where pollen is transferred from one flower to another on the same plant (geitonogamy), or to a flower of another plant of the same species (xenogamy). The birds and the bees, the thick haze of pollen—these are all to be encouraged! Yes, self-pollination is the simpler and more certain of the two fertilization processes, especially for many species that colonize by copiously repeating the same parental strain. But a species cloning such uniform offspring runs the risk of having its entire population wiped out by a single evolutionary event. In the garden, as in the social and political arena, change should be the only constant. Our parents and our parents’ petunias have learned this lesson the hard way.

– Excerpt From: Smith, Zadie. “(1999) White Teeth.”

The interesting nature of cross-pollinating art, science, tech to bring forth a more advanced, more beautiful and overall thriving species of society has always been a deep part of my life. The society often removes Art from Science as though one will infect the other with its emotions. This quest for exploring how to bridge these worlds/fields is what led to this fascinating conversation with Wonuola Lawal.

Wonuola Lawal is a photographer and writer whose work is a mixture of portrait, travel and fashion photography. She’s a Chemical Engineering graduate from Aston University, currently pursuing a degree in Advanced Chemical Engineering with Biotechnology at Imperial College.
The main theme of her work is the Self, which involves exploring the identities and vulnerabilities of herself and others. She also incorporates the use of photoshop in most of her projects to create narratives that leave a lasting impression.

For Creative Girls: You are one fireball of a woman. Can you tell us about growing up and becoming a woman who had two supposedly divergent fields living in her?
I’m happy to be referred to as a fireball. I was given the nickname ‘Fire’ during my A Levels and I love that I am living up to the name. I’m also an Aries, which is a fire sign so it’s clear the nickname was meant to be.

Growing up, I had no idea that a creative side existed in me. I was very studious and loved my science subjects with a passion, except Physics, it was something I could never grasp. The only creative thing I did at the time was song writing because I wanted to be a singer/songwriter but that dream fizzled out. I have to add that I knew I was a decent songwriter when I reached the semi-finals for a song writing competition and ended up with song writing lessons and other prizes as a result. I guess it was just the starting point for where I was going to end up.

As I mentioned before, I loved science so much and I wanted to be a doctor but my grades weren’t good enough so I applied to study Chemical Engineering in university, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

My creative side was birthed just as I turned seventeen. I felt compelled to buy a camera, which was strange because I was never interested in photography. I’d never even thought about it but for some reason, my mind came to the conclusion that since I loved drawings and paintings but couldn’t create them myself, that the closest thing to that would be to delve into photography. After rationalizing, I ended up getting a camera and teaching myself and you can see how far I’ve come since then.
My writing was birthed in the same way. I was also seventeen and I was a Prefect standing outside my school to welcome the parents during one of its open days. I was the only one outside so I wasn’t confused when God told me that I should start writing poetry. I constantly listen to my instincts and I know that it’s a form of communication between you and God, so when I got the idea to start writing poetry, I knew who the message had come from. Despite knowing that, I still questioned the message because I had never been interested in poetry. Once again, God convinced me by telling me that by writing poetry, I could improve my song writing. I began to write poems that day and moved to stories shortly after because I had a lot to say. I realised I loved creating stories and experiencing different adventures through my characters so I guess writing was also meant to be. The funny thing about that day is that I didn’t write another song until six years later.

How has your art contributed to your walk/work as a Chemical Engineer?
I think this question is being asked at the right time because this week I’ve just realized that I have to involve my emotions when I’m doing my engineering work. I say this because yesterday, I began to learn Matlab for my dissertation. I was going to watch an hour long video on the basics of Matlab but I had to watch a live video stream of photographers sharing tips on how to use Lightroom and Photoshop first. That video was also an hour long and I remember having my engineering notebook on my left and my photography notebook on my right. After taking notes on photography, it was time to work on Matlab, and I had a sad feeling accompany this realization.

It’s because of this feeling that I gave myself a pep talk. I told myself that if I could watch the video of photographers for an hour with excitement, why couldn’t I do the same with my Matlab video that was also of the same time span. I said to myself, ‘If you say you love engineering, I don’t understand why you can’t put your heart into it.’

That’s how I came to the conclusion that in order for me to achieve my goal with my dissertation, I would have to work on it with enthusiasm, and immerse myself completely in the work in order to produce the results I want. I felt it would be a waste to only immerse myself in my art when engineering is a bigger part of me.

A lot of times people grow up with the opinion that STEM & Art aren’t related or connected. As a woman in both fields, what do you have to say about this? And what advice would you give to anyone who currently has this mindset?
In my opinion, I believe everything is connected in this world and in order to see that, all we have to do is open our eyes and really SEE what’s going on. Everything is linked in one way or another but it takes time for you to realise it.

An advice I would give to anyone with this mindset is that they should let go of limitations. I always tell people that they can do anything and everything if they let go of the limitations they place on themselves. If you change your mindset to believe that there are no limitations and that you can achieve anything you want, you’ll be surprised at how far you go.

Asides from championing women, our mission is to help build the world where Art/Creativity plays a big role in everything – from businesses to laboratories, to societies/philosophies. How do you think Art can be infused into more and more things?
I hope I answer this properly. I believe Art is already infused in everything but the problem is that people have put it into a category of its own. Therefore I’ll say by raising awareness and opening people’s minds to its presence in our daily lives.

In terms of businesses, architecture is a form of art and it is one of the most vital contributions to a business because of the type of atmosphere a business may choose to have. Art is in the way we choose to express ourselves, the clothes we wear, food, music, philosophy etc. I’ve always regarded philosophy as a form of poetry, and that in itself is art so to summarize I will say, I believe that Art is already infused in everything and all we need is to become more aware of that.

In your experience/opinion, does emotion have a role to play in Science?
Yes, it does. I realized that I’ve never involved my heart with my Science and I’ve decided to change that. My first series of this year, Note To Self was a difficult series to create because I was using film. I’m a naturally impatient person, which means that if I’m learning something, I want to learn it quickly so I can accomplish the task as soon as I can. Note To Self didn’t allow that, I had to learn everything in detail from the right settings to use when capturing my self-portraits to the development of the film itself. I spent many times crying in the dark room because of how frustrated I was but I persisted. I think the peak was when I’d used six rolls of film (180 pictures in total) and found out there was no picture worth using so I had to begin all over again. I went through so much for the series but I never gave up because my heart was in itand I couldn’t let the project fail because it would mean I failed myself.

Note To Self: You are fire. Tend to your flames instead of quenching them. #Notetoself #35mmfilm

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Note To Self: Speak up! You will no longer displease yourself to please others. #NoteToSelf #35mmfilm

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Note To Self is a body of work I’m extremely proud of because of how much work I put into it and how beautiful it turned out. I needed to be taught the lessons I learnt while creating it because now I know it’s the same approach I should use for my dissertation.

By putting my heart into the work there is no way I will allow myself to fail or produce a body of work that is sub par so yes, emotion has a role to play in Science.

Moving on to other aspects of your awesomeness. What new worlds (figuratively & physically) do you see your Photography leading you into?
Thank you for your kind words. My ideas surprise me so it’s hard to predict which direction my work will take but I can assure you that as usual, my work will continue to blow minds with each series and give people a glimpse into what goes on in my head.

I like that people can see my true self with my work. I’m quirky, colourful and crazy and the most fulfilling way of expressing it is through my Photography.

What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a daily routine?
I’m still coming to terms with my creativity so creativity doesn’t mean anything to me at the moment but it’s something I see and admire greatly in my peers and other people and I celebrate it, that’s something I enjoy doing.

I don’t have a daily routine. I work based on how I feel, which means I begin work when the work is ready for me and I always know when it’s time to do it. This formula works well for my photography but not for my writing so I’ve begun to make a conscious effort to write regularly and it’s working really well. I have a number of stories I’m writing at the moment and the journey to their completion is very exciting.

Tell us about 3 women you admire.
My mother – She represents my beginning because she gave birth to me and blessed me with great qualities that I have used as tools to move through life. She’s always there to pray for me, encourage me and push me to go the extra mile when she feels I’m not fulfilling my potential.

Omoni Oboli – I’d like to think of her as representing my middle. At that point in my life I’d love to do what she’s doing: writing, directing and producing movies with wonderful storylines, depth and character development and successful ones at that.

She inspires me greatly and I aspire for greatness so best believe when it’s my turn I’ll be creating successful movies back to back. My goal is to be part of the women filmmakers that make a change in Nollywood.

Mrs. Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett – She represents where I’d love to be at that stage of my life. I really admired her after watching her powerful King Women interview. I want to be like that at her age, a wise woman who has accomplished great things and is an inspiration to other women. She even mentioned listening and constantly refining her intuition in her interview and at that point, I just knew that I was on the right path.


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