A few years ago, Shelley Lowenstein was giving a presentation of her artwork at a diabetes conference. She noticed a tall man staring transfixed at one of her paintings. It turned out he was a distinguished scientist from Australia, and he approached Lowenstein after the event. “How did you do that?” he asked. “I’ve been seeing those images in my head for such a long time, and you managed to put them into paintings.”

Shelley Lowenstein

This has been Lowenstein’s life’s work: translating complex ideas into approachable, digestible forms. Before her life as an artist, she worked in educational technology, editing National Geographic and Discovery Channel television shows into shorter, bite-sized reels.

“I was the person between the subject matter experts—the Jane Goodalls, the Roger Paynes—and the teachers, because we had to figure out how best to suit the content for schools,” Lowenstein says. “And I learned to explain complex content simply.”

This skill would find surprising applications. Lowenstein started painting in oil on the side, and she soon found success with a series of solo shows, each premiering at Touchstone Gallery in Washington, DC. These narrative figure paintings, set in railroad stations, airports, and bus stops, all told stories of people in motion. Gestures, expressions, and subjects’ positions in the frame all invited viewers to wonder about the transient, internal lives of these strangers.

In time, Lowenstein realized she would have to tell a different kind of story, one inextricably linked to her role as a mother. It was 23 years ago, around the same time that she took her first oil painting class, that her daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“At first, everything was daunting and scary. Giving her shots, spending hours at the store looking at food labels for carbohydrates,” she says. “Watching her go to school, play sports, have sleepovers with friends. For a long while, we were living day to day.”

Over time, things became easier. Her daughter now has children of her own. But Lowenstein wanted to help the cause. She wanted to make “β-cell” a household term. Most people had never heard of this life-sustaining cell, and she realized she could use her talent for simplifying dense science through art.

“I started interviewing scientists. If someone gave me a name, I would cold call with a million questions,” she says. “It was a very steep learning curve.”

“It was challenging to get experts to talk visually, with adjectives. They could describe the cells scientifically, but are they round? Are they globby? Do they touch their neighboring cells?” she says. “I needed answers to these very basic questions so that I could paint them in ways they made sense.”

Her diligence paid off. She currently focuses on abstract paintings that bring an emotional depth to the biology of diabetes. A self-proclaimed “mom with a mission,” she’s bringing attention to one of “the hardest working cells in the body.”

Seeking to reach an even wider audience, Lowenstein recently learned how to animate her paintings. She created a short video called I Dream of Beta Cells, which won first prize at Digital Directions, an art show in Annapolis, MD.

“I do dream about β-cells, and I encourage scientists and laypeople alike to dream about them too,” she says. “When you visualize, when you combine science and art, imagination can take flight.”

This painting is a perfect example of Lowenstein’s mission statement: to bring life to complex scientific ideas.

“The islets of Langerhans take up 1–2% of the pancreas. They are located around the pancreas like raisins in a raisin bread,” Lowenstein says. The metaphor was given to her by Mark Atkinson, American Diabetes Association Eminent Scholar for Diabetes Research at the University of Florida, to describe endocrine cells, a crucial component in the metabolism of glucose.

“Whenever I speak with a scientist, I long for metaphors like that. When he said it, I knew exactly how to paint the islets,” she says.

This ink-on-yupo painting is emblematic of her broader work, which uses vivid color to depict an abstract image that is at once approachable, playful, and hopeful. More samples of her work can be found on her website, shelleylowenstein.com.

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