Eliza stierle

Drawing on both sides of the brain

2020 graduate combines love of art, science with double major

If you think the visual arts and the hard sciences don’t mix, think again. Or maybe just talk to Eliza Stierle. 

The Dayton, Ohio, native and 2020 University of South Carolina graduate double-majored in studio art and biology (with a minor in art history) and aspires to become a medical illustrator. It’s a dream she’s had since high school, when her art teacher recognized her dual interests and encouraged her to combine them.

“She knew that I liked both things, and that kind of turned me on to the profession of medical illustration,” Stierle says. “Surgery animation, diagrams, the drawings in med school textbooks, biology textbooks, posters in the doctor’s office — everything under that umbrella.”

It’s a competitive field. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, the accreditor recognized by the Association of Medical Illustrators, lists just four graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada. Programs also tend to be small, admitting just a few students each fall.

But Stierle, who took the GRE in November, the same week she framed and hung her BFA exhibition at a Columbia coffee shop, is used to pushing herself. She carried a heavy course load throughout her time at South Carolina, which included summer sessions and Maymesters, so she could finish undergrad in three and a half years. The plan, pre-pandemic, was to give herself a break before, hopefully, starting a master’s program in fall 2021.

I love learning, that constant pursuit of knowledge.

Eliza Stierle, December 2020 graduate

“I like being busy, I’ve always been super busy, so I thought, ‘Let’s just get through this in three and half years so I can take a few months off and just relax, be a normal person for a while,’” she says. “And then I can throw myself back into the crazy busy schedule that I’m used to.”

In the meantime, she is exploring job opportunities at galleries and museums, possibly something related to her biology major. “I’m looking to continue to learn and challenge myself before I hopefully start grad school in the fall,” she says. 

Stierle has always embraced challenges and new adventures. The attitude that led her to an atypical double major also led her to back-to-back study abroad programs, including one in Prague and another “unofficial study abroad” experience in the tiny hilltop village of Monte Castello, Italy, where she modeled for figure drawing classes and completed an independent study.

“It gave me the opportunity to slow down and reflect, to enjoy the moment,” she says of the Italy trip. “It was styled as a sort of arts residency, so I could do whatever art project I wanted. I truly took advantage of the studio space there but also the panoramic landscapes. I did lot of plein air painting. That definitely expanded my skillset.”

Study abroad also expanded her mindset and positioned her to finish strong upon her return to campus.

“Just seeing how different cultures operate and how different people are — I feel like I’m constantly picking up new experiences,” she says. “I love learning, that constant pursuit of knowledge. That changed me coming back to campus, and kind of changed my outlook, I suppose.”

Faculty and staff had something to do with that, too, starting with Rebecca Boyd, an undergraduate student services coordinator in the School of Visual Art and Design, who took an interest in Stierle’s interests during her initial college tour.  She also namechecks instructors April South and Megan Dantzler Gamble in the biology department, and associate professors Brent Dedas and Sara Shneckloth in the School of Visual Art and Design —“Really, all of them have been phenomenal,” she says.

The high point of her college experience, though, was the spring semester of 2020 — before Covid-19 moved classes online. “I wasn’t necessarily learning new information,” she explains. “My professors were now talking about things in ways that I hadn’t thought about them before. I started making new connections in my mind.”

Her art training started to pay dividends in her science labs. Her science instruction started to dovetail with what her art professors were discussing in class. The two seemingly disparate fields came together in unanticipated ways.

“For example, I was taking comparative vertebrae anatomy with Dr. South, and going in a lab and being able to render a drawing of a dissected shark was really helpful when I was reviewing,” she explains. “Similarly, in my painting classes my professors would talk about the science behind how people view and interpret composition or interpret color. It was just really cool to see everything I’d been studying all come together.”

Stierle’s BFA exhibition, Capturing the Spirits of the Boundary Waters, is showing at The Front Coffee & Tap in Columbia through Feb. 4.

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