Every child wonders what they’ll be when they grow up. For science illustrator Sami Chang, a dead shark lit the spark for her future career.
In seventh grade, Chang leapt at the opportunity to take a marine biology elective, mainly for the trip to the aquarium, she admits. But memories of her class’s beach clean-up are the ones that stick out to her today. Specifically, she remembers her fascination with a dead leopard shark washed up on the rocks.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen a wild shark,” says Chang. “I didn’t even know that there were sharks in the bay.”
Since then, her curiosity and careful eye for wildlife have guided her career. Chang is a marine biologist turned science illustrator. Through May 14, you can find her work proudly displayed in the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s annual spring exhibit, “The Art of Nature.” The program features 45 local artists whose work focuses on realistic depictions of nature. The month-long event continues the museum’s legacy of showcasing science illustration since 1989.
“Art is a wonderful way to get people interested in science and nature, and is a hugely powerful tool for communication and understanding,” says Liz Broughton, visitors services manager at the museum, in an email.
Chang couldn’t agree more. She went from scientist to science illustrator after earning a B.S. in marine biology with a minor in visual arts. Chang loved learning about the natural world and its creatures, but a research career didn’t excite her. Instead, she hoped to inspire others by drawing them into the overlooked wild world around her. So, she followed her heart.
Now, a big part of Chang’s job is to watch organisms—very, very carefully—and capture what she sees in impressive detail. She’ll always reach for her go-to watercolor and ink, but she also dabbles in colored pencil, graphite and digital illustration.
While most of her works feature tiny hermit crab clusters and other creatures from under the sea, she also delights in exploring above the surface, from carnivorous plants to the iconic banana slug. Regardless of her subject or medium, her work speaks for itself.
“We’re always impressed with the fine attention to detail she displays and the vibrancy with which she depicts species and ecological concepts,” Broughton says.
But it’s not just about painting pretty pictures. Chang hopes her work can inspire others’ curiosity too.
“The Art of Nature” marks Chang’s fourth time participating in the annual exhibit. This year, her work won’t just be hung on walls but will be brought to life. On May 13, she will guide attendees through the tiny curiosities of Santa Cruz’s tide pools, where they can try their hand at science illustration. The group will head down to Capitola’s coast at low tide to check out Chang’s favorite habitat: the intertidal zone, where the sea and shore meet. She expects to see vibrant sunburst anemones, hermit crabs, black turban snails, mussels and more.
Chang hopes the experience will bring people closer to the little details of Santa Cruz’s diverse ecosystems.
“Science illustration and field sketching allow us to pay attention a little bit more,” Chang says. “You just sit there and look. Over time you can see little changes that if you were to have walked past it, you wouldn’t have seen.”
Chang’s workshop is already full, but the museum hosts monthly classes in nature sketching and writing. The museum’s exhibit will have free admission for First Friday on May 7, where the public can check out the art and meet artists, including Chang.
“Every year, it’s an honor, and I love working with the museum,” Chang says. “I get to meet all these really cool other science illustrators. We can geek out together, and then we all learn something new.”
‘The Art of Nature’ runs through May 14, 10am-5pm; 5-8pm on First Friday at Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, 1305 E. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. $4; Free for members and 18 and under on First Friday; santacruzmuseum.org