Bioscience Mural Showcases Alumna's Passion for Art, Science


by Eric Gorton

photo taken outside in the evening showing the mural on all three floors of the bioscience building
The full bioscience mural can be seen from outside the south end of the bioscience building.

Alison Stephen exhibited a keen interest in—and a natural talent for—drawing at an early age, so her decision to major in biology at James Madison University came as a bit of a surprise to her family and friends.

"As an idealistic 17-year-old, I went to college as a pre-med biology major with the plan of doing something good for the world," said Stephen, who also minored in art. "I dropped pre-med pretty quickly, but I still really enjoyed the biology classes, plant studies and research. I did some scientific illustration as well, so the combination of art and science seemed like a pretty natural one."

One of Stephen's student projects involved cloning and sequencing the DNA of a flowering plant called Arabidopsis thaliana. Little did she know then how significant that project would become in her future. Following her JMU graduation in 1999, Stephen pursued a career in art, and in 2004 she earned a master's degree in fine arts from Savannah College of Art and Design.

These days, Stephen works in administration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and also does freelance illustrations, mostly for magazine and newspaper articles. The request to draw a three-story mural for the new bioscience building at JMU was both flattering and unnerving. "I had never created a billboard-sized illustration before," Stephen said. 

JMU biology Professor Jonathan Monroe immediately thought of Stephen when architects proposed a mural for the wall spanning three floors of the south end of the building. "I don't have the skill to make it beautiful, but I knew a former student who could," he said.

The process of creating the mural took about six months, starting in December 2011. Once a decision was made to create a mural featuring the DNA from the Arabidopsis thaliana plant, the one Stephen worked with as a student, a lot of work had to be done to get the DNA in a form she could work with. Using a pair of computer programs, Monroe created a 3-D model of the strand.

"I needed to start with the 3-D model so the resulting illustration would very accurately depict the 'topography,' so to speak, of the molecule," Stephen said. She merged the model with a version she traced by hand "for the hand-drawn feel" and replaced the bold colors of the 3-D computer model with five earth-tone colors.

Following an early review, Monroe asked Stephen to draw some organisms around the DNA. "The department has a lot more disciplines than molecular biology and I knew Alison drew a lot of animals," Monroe said.

photo taken outside in the evening showing the mural on all three floors of the bioscience building
Details of the bioscience mural resemble a naturalist's notebook.

Stephen said she drew the organisms—sea plants and animals for the first floor, land plants and animals for the second floor and flying creatures for the third floor—in a style resembling a naturalist's notebook. She also used a program to create the drawings as vector images so they could be enlarged without losing their visual quality.

"Since I'd never worked on a project of this scale, the biggest challenge was adjusting the final illustration's dimensions, colors and specifications so it would come out right at the printer's. That was a very stressful night. I sent it in and held my breath," Stephen said.

A Harrisonburg sign company printed the mural, which was installed in June. The entire mural can be seen from outside the building, through the windows facing the east campus meadow.

Now that the project is finished, Stephen said she feels a great sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. "I feel like my life has come full-circle, and my disparate interests and experiences have finally combined in just the right project," she said.

Other than photographs, Stephen has not seen the mural in the building. She hopes she can attend the grand opening of the bioscience building, which will be held at a yet-to-be-determined date.

By James Hong and Eric Gorton, JMU Public Affairs

Related links:

Back to Top

Published: Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Related Articles