An Interview with Kirsten Carlson

Kirsten in Washington DC posed next to her artwork on display at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Juried Art Show

Kirsten Carlson is a scientist-artist who’s work inspires wonder, awe, and appreciation of the natural world.  Her work ranges in form from detailed scientific illustration to whimsical children’s stories and illustrations to sketching and painting. Kirsten’s work examines and highlights the extraordinary beauty all around us in the natural world. She reminds us to look, see, cherish, and take action to protect the wonders of nature.

In this interview, Kirsten also shares some insightful advice on the necessity of constant practice of your art and making opportunities for yourself to work. What an inspiration!

And now, in Kirsten’s own words…

MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today. (include things like where you have lived, who is in your family, where you grew up, how long you and your spouse have been “in”, or how you met your spouse).

Kirsten: I met my husband in 2004 when he was attending the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I’d been working and volunteering at Monterey Bay Aquarium for well over a decade and never thought I’d be leaving my job or Monterey Bay. I was born and raised in Missouri and moved to California to become a marine biologist after receiving an BS in Biology with Honors from Mizzou (University of Missouri–Columbia).

He and I met in our thirties and I credit an online dating service with helping us cross paths. Prior to meeting him, the only things I knew about the military were that one of my Swedish grandfathers served in WWI to become an American citizen, my uncles were veterans of WWII and my father spent time on an aircraft carrier in Newfoundland during the Korean War. I never thought in a million years I’d become an Army spouse, but I fell in love and moved with him to Fort Lewis. We married a year later, and nine months later he deployed to Iraq.

Dave retired last year after 24 years in the U.S. Army. I will be forever grateful to the military for the experiences I’ve had, the friends we have all over the world, and the amazing places we’ve lived—Stuttgart, Germany; Kailua, Hawaii and we still have a house in Gig Harbor, Washington.


MilspoFAN: How did you become an artist?

Kirsten: I became a scientist! Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But, science and art have an amazing amount of overlap—the skills I developed in science have helped my artistic abilities immensely. I’ve been drawing as long as I’ve been able to hold a crayon, but in the seventh grade, my first science class knocked my socks off, developing my abilities to observe, interpret and explore nature through the lens of science.

A life-sized mural of this illustration was on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium during the temporary exhibit: Sharks: Myth and Mystery
A life-sized mural of this illustration was on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium during the temporary exhibit: Sharks: Myth and Mystery

In graduate school, a scientific expedition to Antarctica changed the course of my life forever. I did over 60 dives in the coldest water on the planet, and the abundant sea life in one of the most extreme environments on Earth that made me realize I wanted to communicate the beauty and wonder of the natural world to others using BOTH science and art. I attended the Science Communication Program at the University of California–Santa Cruz (UCSC), to become a scientific illustrator. Afterwards, I began working at Monterey Bay Aquarium helping inspire conservation of the oceans using my skills as both scientist and artist. Ever since meeting my husband, I’ve been freelancing as an illustrator, designer and children’s book author-illustrator and continue to imagine new ways to combine science and art to inspire others to draw (literally and figuratively) inspiration from nature.

MilspoFAN: Your website, Fathom It Studios ( , and online sketch journal ( are full of some amazing work and stories. You’ve done everything from book illustration, to fine art shows and sales, to a trip to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. How do you find or create opportunities like these? How does courage and belief in yourself and your work play into finding your next new project?

Kirsten: I am driven to find ways to share what inspires me in nature with other people. I’ve had the belief since I was a teenager that humanity has a chance to thrive if we fathom how interdependent all things are. I see it all around me when I explore as both scientist and artist.

Many of the opportunities I’ve had to share my work come about because I’m paying attention, looking for projects and talking to people that are working on things that inspire me. Being a military spouse has encouraged me to see the whole planet as a place where I can be inspired and find my next project.

When I decided I wanted to illustrate children’s books, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and a few years later at a conference in New York, I was working on my first picture book. I first learned the business of art while a student at UCSC, and continue to grow my skills by taking classes, reading books, having mentors. The National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program was something I knew I wanted to apply for over 20 years ago, and I had to get over my fear of having the application rejected in order to apply. The first time I applied, I got it. Lesson learned: You can’t win if you don’t play. A rejection is proof that you’re trying.


MilspoFAN: What do you do to cultivate your creativity?

Kirsten: Most of my creative ideas and inspiration come from being in nature—observing, asking questions, sketching—exercising the skills that overlap in science and art. Keeping a sketchbook is key. It’s like fitness, if you don’t use it you lose it. A sketchbook is where I can play with ideas, do a bad drawing, it is my art-as-play canvas. I’m up to about 75 completed sketchbooks. Sometimes, cultivating my creativity is looking through the pages of old sketchbooks.

After thirteen years as an active-duty military spouse, one of the first things I did after my husband retired was to become the Sci-Art Communications Manager at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Oahu. I continue to freelance, as well.


A huge thanks to Kirsten for sharing her work and her story in the MilspoFAN September 2018 Artist Interview. If you would like to learn more and see more of Kirsten’s work you can find her crushing it all over the web at:

Inspired by Kirsten’s work or have a burning question for her? Remember to comment here on the blog, or on Facebook in the MilspoFAN group or MilspoFAN page

Not a MilspoFAN member yet? Just reach out! Request an add to the Facebook Group, message me from the MilspoFAN Facebook page, or contact me at
See you there!

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