Art People: Elizabeth Bannish | printmaker, illustrator

Last modified: Friday, November 07, 2014
Elizabeth Bannish wasn’t sure what she’d major in when she arrived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Much as she liked art, she wondered how practical it would be as a career. She also had an interest in science, so her initial thought was to focus on marine biology.

Bannish, who lives in Northampton, eventually decided she couldn’t make art her secondary subject. However, the printmaker and illustrator, who graduated from UMass in 2012 with a degree in printmaking and a minor in art history, hasn’t lost her interest in the natural world — she’s made it a key subject matter for her art, with a twist.

“I’ve always liked scientific illustrations, so that shows up in my work,” says Bannish, who’s 26. “But I also like to have a kind of playful narrative, a sense of humor.”

A few weeks ago, Bannish was in the print shop at the UMass Studio Art building, where she’s been working with some of her former instructors. She was busy doing the initial runs of a four-color lithographic print of a Greenland shark and a mummified man (the latter figure inspired by a Leonard Baskin scuplture). Both images appear to be encased in underground cocoons that are depicted against a cross-section of layers of earth.

The untitled piece explores the idea of metamorphosis, Bannish notes, as Greenland sharks are buried for months to leech out ammonia and make the meat edible for the Icelandic dish hákarl. The mummy figure, in turn, represents the transformation of a physical being into a sprirtual one, as per the rituals of many religions.

Many of her other prints, primarily black-and-white lithographs, offer variations on scientific illustrations. One shows the body of a baby monkey in a specimen jar; another, “Seabeast,” shows a prehistoric-looking fish washed up along a rugged shoreline. A slightly stooped man, cane in hand, is dwarfed alongside the creature.

As she inked up the limestone slab she was using for her new lithograph, Bannish noted that her love of both art and science go way back. “I’ve been scuba diving since I was 12, and I’ve probably been drawing from the time I could hold a pencil.”

In fact, she loved doing the field work in her science courses at UMass. But as she noted in a follow-up email, “When I collected all the necessary data during field studies, I didn’t want to assemble a graph. I wanted to make images.”

Bannish has explored a range of printmaking techniques over the last several years. She’s worked at Zea Mays Printmaking in Florence, which focuses on using non-toxic materials and methods, and she’s presented her work and those methods at a number of conferences.

As much as she enjoys printmaking — “It’s a really accessible form of art” — Bannish has also turned her hand to illustrating. She’s worked with a Northampton friend, Eric Bennett, to produce the new children’s book “Noodles & Albie,” by Small Batch Books of Amherst, a tale of a friendship between a young penguin making his first swim and a small fish he meets along the way.

The story, written by Bennett, includes a wealth of kid-friendly, watercolor paintings of sea creatures — crabs, seals, penguins, squids — that Bannish created last year. It was a great experience, she says, and if more opportunities come along to illustrate books, “I’ll definitely be interested.”

— Steve Pfarrer