I've recently had two similar, yet very different, experiences in my day job as a science writer. A few months ago I was assigned to write a piece for symmetry Magazine (look for it in August!) about an artist in residence at Paul Alivisatos' nanotechnology research lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

Without scooping myself, the basic idea behind this artist's residency was to use nanoparticles as an innovative means for creating structural color, which can be observed naturally in butterfly wings and beetles. She was very much employed as an artist. She created things with no purpose of usefulness, only beauty. But she participated in the science. She shared a lab bench with a few other grad students in the lab, and made her own nanoparticles. She screwed up, she got frustrated, she had a lab notebook chock full of recipes, graphs and angry scribbles. She took full advantage of her resources to pursue her own goals, but I think she raised some pretty outstanding (and unanswered) scientific questions in the meantime. In my eyes, her residency was truly a symbiotic relationship between art and science, and it was amazing to get to know her.

Last week, I took on a similar assignment and interviewed another artist in residence. I came across her artwork during a casual visit to the building where it hung, and the building manager gave me her contact information in case I was interested in learning more. My editors seemed intrigued. About a week before we planned to meet, she forwarded a whole mess of links to her previous work, and press releases about her previous work, and essays she wrote about her previous work. I skimmed most of it, but got enough background information to get a sense of her past and her mission as an artist. The exhibit had once hung in the NASA Ames research center, so I was hopeful to get some great nuggets about her interactions with scientists.

Except that she didn't really have any, as I soon found out. Our interview was a one-on-one press conference. As we toured the building, stopping to look at each of her paintings, all she really said about each one was "and this is my abstract interpretation of X. Isn't it wonderful?" (The collection is loosely based on astrophysical and cosmological concepts, and she claims to have adapted most of them from images taken by the Hubble space telescope.) I asked her what the scientists who worked in the building, and passed by the paintings every day, thought of her work. She gave me some spiel about how scientists never listen to artists and the only way they will ever understand her is if I orchestrate some site-wide gallery showing and invite all the scientists. She gave a similar answer when I asked her a similar question about her exhibit at Ames.

So I switched gears. I asked her instead what she hoped to get out of her time at a national science institution, and whether she had found any inspiration for new pieces. While she informed me that she had several more pieces at home (which were all created before the exhibit opened, so I don't know why they were excluded), the only response that even remotely answered my question was that the woman who arranged for her to display the paintings "loved them."

As the minutes painfully passed, I became more and more disinterested with this woman, whose only apparent role as an artist in residence was to sit on the couch in the foyer below her paintings lamenting at the fact that scientists don't take artists seriously. (Go back and read my second paragraph.) But based on the other parts of our conversation, it sounds as though she doesn't take the science seriously either. She expertly informed me that linear accelerators are top-secret, and that scientists at "that brand new accelerator over in Europe, the L-something" were trying to locate a secret particle dubbed "the God particle," of which she had compiled a dossier, and I could have a copy if I wanted. Then she balked when I politely informed her that the data from these experiments is, for the most part, publicly available, and that not only had I heard of the Higgs boson, I had also written about it.

I realize that the definition of the term "artist in residence" varies by institution, but I just don't see that it was appropriate in this instance. Maybe "featured artist" would have been better?

I think that an artist in residence should be immersed in the environment. Learn something. Talk to people. Be influenced. Be inspired. Create new work incorporating all of these things. Don't lurk in the lobby waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims that you can drag into your den of unfounded, egotistical self-promotion.