Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, Science Artist, Zurich, Switzerland

“Horrible deformations”

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger calls herself a science artist. Her watercolours of deformed insects from contaminated regions around the world can be seen in numerous exhibitions, books and media reports. In October 2015, she was awarded the Nuclear-Free Future Award 2015 in the category Enlightenment.

“I spent 25 years as a scientific illustrator illustrating publications for the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich. It was through this that I was first commissioned to draw mutant flies back in 1967. This marked the beginning of my work dealing with the subject of human-made alternations to nature. In addition to my work for the Institute, I increasingly wanted to realise my own projects, and in 1969 I chose bugs (heteroptera) as the subject of my paintings. The creatures fascinated me because of their beauty, their abstract patterns and intense colours. It was through grappling with them that ecological issues eventually opened up.
After the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, I wanted to find out if the ionising radiation caused any visible changes in bugs and other insects. For their part, experts – even without their own research – declared that deformations and mutations would be impossible at such a weak radiation. I made my way to Sweden to the most strongly contaminated regions in western Europe where I encountered a great many physically deformed bugs. It was the first time I had come across malformed bugs in nature, and the experience made me realise that biologists had failed to pose an important question: What happens to nature as a result of human activity? For example, experts around the world were arguing that low ionising radiation is harmless (the Petkau effect). I wanted to see if this was truly the case in Switzerland, and so I went to the nuclear power plants in Aargau and the Paul Scherrer Institute. There I discovered a large number of horribly deformed insects. I published this work in Das Magazine of the Tages Anzeiger newspaper (no. 15, 1989), and my findings were hotly debated in the media in the three months that followed. The experts roundly insisted that these deformations have nothing to do with radiation. This only changed after Fukushima when Japanese researchers, inspired by my research, fed healthy butterflies foodstuffs contaminated by radiation, which then displayed malformations already in the next generation.
Many people ask me how I approach my drawings. I catch the bugs with a plastic cup and bring them home where I stun them with a vinegar-ether solution. They then sleep for three to four hours and I can observe them in peace under a binocular loupe with an up to 80x magnification. I measure the animals precisely and record everything down, describing zoological features as well as anomalies. I then use a pencil to draw the insect according to my measurements. In a final step, after I trace the pencil drawing onto watercolour paper, I paint it using a fine brush. I now have a collection of over 17,000 bugs that I collected over the years around the Sellafield nuclear complex in England, the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at La Hague in northern France, and Chernobyl, as well as nuclear test sites and nuclear power plants in the US and Europe.
The entire work process until a finished watercolour is an artistic interaction for me. The advantage of being an artist is that I don’t have to obey doctrinal positions, institutions etc. and can pursue questions that haven’t yet been posed. I also have these freedoms because I have always financed my own projects.”

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