This month, meet Air Force spouse Catherine Yeats whose interests involve both hemispheres of the brain: research, neuroscience, copy editing, graphic design, and writing. Catherine shares how they have been busy creating comic books that merge science and fantasy while celebrating the wonder of the unknown.
MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Catherine: I’ve lived most of my life in the Midwest. I spent my earliest years out in rural Missouri, running around in the woods and hanging out with my mom’s goats and barn cats. When I was a little older, my mom and I moved to the Chicago suburbs to live with my grandparents. I later went to college at the University of Iowa, where I studied biology and music. I took a biological psychology course that sent me down the path of research. I began doing undergraduate research in a biology lab on campus, and I had such a great experience that I pursued my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Iowa as well.
My spouse and I met in grad school. He was working on his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, and we hit it off immediately. We got married in 2017, and afterward, he re-entered the Air Force. We lived for a few years in Dayton, Ohio, and I found the town to have a nice, welcoming art community. At the time, I was working as a postdoctoral researcher in a lab studying Alzheimer’s disease. One thing I enjoyed there was getting to use my art skills in my research more directly. I was the resident Photoshop expert. As part of my research, I drew an image of a fruit fly that my boss liked enough to get printed on a mug (you can see a version of the fly in the paper here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2020.101823 )
MilspoFAN: How did you become a writer and painter?
Catherine: I grew up in a creative family. My grandparents gardened: our home in Illinois was surrounded by flowerbeds and massive cottonwood trees, and we had a big vegetable garden. My grandma crocheted and made all sorts of decorations. I never got into crocheting—I didn’t have the patience for it, but she was a source of inspiration for me to get into art. Being surrounded by nature created a great environment for my imagination, and I was constantly creating stories as a kid. I first learned about digital art as a teenager and soon I begged my mom for a graphics tablet.
MilspoFAN: How do these two art practices play off of and feed into each other?
Catherine: My creative practices fall into three main categories: digital art, acrylic painting, and fiction writing. I often work digitally using an iPad to create concept art, character art, and comics. I also enjoy working with acrylic paints, making landscapes and abstract art.
My digital art and writing are highly related; most of my projects incorporate both art and writing. My comic work is an example. I have an ongoing graphic novel project called Sapwood Guard that I started partly to teach myself how to make a comic. It’s a fantasy story about a world adapting to life after a magical cataclysm. That story will be followed by another graphic novel that mixes comic art with short sections of prose.
I have a deep interest in telling stories through digital media. For that reason, I’ve pursued continuing education in interaction design and writing for the web. While I love print books, I see freedom in using digital media; you can combine the written word and visual art in new ways.
I always enjoyed seeing illustrations in books when I was a kid. They were fun to look at, and they added to my mental images of the characters. I feel that I learn more about my books’ characters as I draw them. When you draw characters, you make all these small decisions about pose, their clothing, their expressions, and so on. It reminds me of what I need to convey to the reader in the prose.
MilspoFAN: Describe for us your creative work and the aesthetic of your writing and painting?
Catherine: Character creation is central to my writing and art. I enjoy making character art, and I try to have it tell a little story, even if it’s a simple drawing. When I’m writing, I’m always thinking about the character arc; it’s that arc that informs the plot in my work, rather than the other way around. I have a special appreciation for stories about reinvention and transformation, about people finding themselves.
Nature is a big theme for me. I hike, often taking photos at parks to use as art references. My work involves discovery and exploration of the natural world. I love the theme of exploring the unknown, often finding things that are strange and incomprehensible, at least at first. There’s a narrative throughout my work of looking into the unknown and finding wonder rather than fear in it.
I like an aesthetic that’s a little eerie, a little uncanny. I look at shape language, at colors, at the imagery that gets used in movies and visual art, the visual cues that suggest how the viewer is meant to feel about a character or place. I figure out how to remix those visual cues into something different.
MilspoFAN: How do your studies in neuroscience influence your art practice?
Catherine: I would say that my experience with research pervades all the art and writing that I do. Working in research gave me an even greater appreciation of nature and prompted me to explore wonder and discovery in my art.
I also draw on ideas from cosmic horror and psychological horror that stem from my experience with neuroscience. I explore topics such as cognition, perception, and subjective experience of the world. For example, there are experiences that are terrifying for some people and utterly mundane for others. I used to be deeply uncomfortable with flying, especially with the overwhelming number of people at airports. After flying so often to visit my spouse when we were geographically separated, it became a much more mundane experience.
Ultimately, my work is centered more on hope than horror. I like stories about research, and I just have a lot of fun writing academic characters in fantasy settings.
MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Catherine: I’ll be sharing my science fiction project, We Leapt into the Sky, as an illustrated novel on my website. It’s a story about research, ancient ruins, and recovery after isolation. I recently received invaluable editorial feedback that I’m incorporating into my revisions. I’m creating landscape and environment art to include with the chapters.
I’m also using my storytelling experience to build a freelance copywriting business. Truly, this past year kick-started my writing. I made progress on three fiction projects, coming in at around 130,000 words total. That feels great, and it makes me happy to see improvements over time. I’m expanding my website’s blog with articles focused on cultivating a creative practice and writing character-driven stories. I want to share what I’ve learned and to keep moving forward.