Mithili Shafiq was the archetypal scientist with a creative itch. By the end of her PhD she had decided that the itch needed to be scratched. Now she has retrained as an illustrator and is making a new life for herself in Bristol. I caught up with her over Skype after several abortive attempts to catch her between dance lessons and deadlines.
Despite the offer of a place to study graphic design in Australia in ’93 Mithi started a degree in biochemistry at Imperial College. Using a logic that I suspect is common to many: “Do I do science and art as a hobby, or art and science as a hobby? Keeping science as a hobby seemed a bit difficult, so I ended up studying science.”
Still, she refused to give up on her art. Mithi was present at the founding of Leonardo (later Leonardo Fine Arts) society and went on to chair the young club. Although never quite falling out of love with chemistry, part way through postgraduate studies the monotony began to bite.
“I think it’s to do with the kind of stuff I was doing, I was doing crystallography, it’s really slow. You just can’t see the end of things. It got me down. I thought that’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m retraining!” Her first plan was to enter science communication. She completed a part time course at Birkbeck, but on graduating discovered a ferociously competitive job market. Finally a friend suggested she take a year out to complete an art foundation. “I think on day three I thought: Why hadn’t I done this before. It completely changed my life.”
She went on to complete a degree in illustration at London Met, then moved with her partner to Bristol with the intention of starting her new career. She claims to have settled in well to her new vocation - so radically different from the research she took part in at Cancer Research UK. “The thing with art is that everything is so subjective. In science it’s black or white. Its far more emotional. But at least I’m not putting anybody’s lives in danger by drawing anything.”
Science still forms a big part of her work. Her foundation pieces were all based on work she had completed in the lab. Mithi talks a lot about her lingering love of her previous speciality. “I think it comes out in my art. It brings something to my illustration that nobody else can ever have.”
Her plans form the future also focus one bringing more of her technical expertise into her work. “More science based stuff is what I would like to do. My long-term goal is one day to write children’s science books.” Most of her work currently is commission based but as with most illustrators the ambition is to start selling her own work as prints.
Despite her job satisfaction Mithi’s advice for anyone wanting to change career is laced with caution. “I think go for it, but know that it’s just as hard. I found studying illustration sometimes harder than studying biochemistry. The career path is very different. You have to constantly chase work.” However she’s still keen to encourage people to make the step. “If you want to change careers you should go because you love it.”