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Deb Dila: Microbiologist by Day, Master of the Encaustic Universe by Night

Feb. 2, 2022 at 1:00PM

Don't try to tell local artist and microbiologist, Deb Dila that wax and water don't mix. Her universe is immersed in these two components and her life without one or the other wouldn't be complete. Dila is an Associate Researcher at UW-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences­­—the water—and resident encaustic artist—the wax—at Var Gallery & Studios, located in Walker's Point. For Dila, the world of art and science are inextricable parts of her life, each inspiring the other. Dila holds degrees in biology, microbiology, biogeochemistry, and a certificate in photography. No one understands better than Dila that coming from a science background and vocation, and then attempting to infuse herself into the art scene as a Milwaukee transplant isn't easy. Once she found her studio space at Var, things fell into place, and she once again began, quite literally, waxing artistic.

Her medium of choice these days is encaustic, a process that starts with heated, resin-infused beeswax spread on a flat surface and ends with whatever one cares to introduce into the wax. Dila uses paints, metal, rust, or random items that look interesting to her. She says she likes to “layer it on,” creating a multidimensional quality to her work. She is currently developing a series called "Eclipse," which combines beeswax with paint and fine wire screens.

Dila only moved into the encaustic realm in the last two and a half years after seeing an artist's exhibit at a Milwaukee studio. Before that, her primary medium was photography, mainly black and white, which she describes as dark. “It was more black than white,” admits Dila, who says that her encaustic still has some darkness to it, but less heaviness than do the darker photography series in her collection. Dila has also worked in mediums such as metal sculpture, film, and animation. In comparison to her photography, her encaustics are airier, with merely an undertone of the angst found in her photographs. Dila herself is not a dark person, but a deep person. She laughs easily and despite some pretty serious shit in her life, including two brain surgeries eight months apart to remove what Dila describes as, “a large-ass non-cancerous brain tumor," she has a fairly realistic yet optimistic outlook on life.

Her artistic catalysts often come from thinking, reading, and exploring the scientific realm of her world. Science has been her inspiration since she was a high school student in Detroit, who rushed home with the passion that a typical teenager would have about acquiring free tickets to a Billie Eilish concert, to tell her mom and aunt about a class in DNA and genetics. While she took art classes in high school, she says, “It (art) didn't blow my mind. It was just about the expression,” whereas science, microbiology, and genetics were and are mind-blowing passions to Dila. “Over my life, it has been a good, good balance for me to have the science part that's a very structured way of thinking, and easily measurable way of moving forward,” Dila said. “And so, to me, that is a ground that I feel comfortable on and always have since I was a kid, for it to be reasonable and logical and not emotional.”

However, she sees both art and science as exploratory endeavors, just in different ways; science of the external, and art of the internal. Dila says that she needs both in her life to feel balanced. “Art is more of an expression of ideas that are interesting to me. Something that I read about or something I'm thinking about. And I think, Oh, that's interesting,” Dila said. She then takes that concept, often from reading books on light topics, such as physics, the expansion of the universe, or time dynamics, and she creates an abstract piece of art surrounding her analytical interpretations of those science-based concepts, thoughts, and ideas. Her art is, Dila says, “Expressive of things that are hard to explain or, that A isn't followed by B.” For example, one concept she recently explored was the idea of The Unmoved Mover. When she comes up with a concept she wants to explore, Dila explained, “I just think about what that means to me. But I'm not thinking about that while I'm working. I'm thinking about that previous to working.”

Dila says she enjoys having people see her work and respond to it. She says it's like having a nonverbal discussion with another person. “What somebody sees when they look at it could be, of course, very different from what I am previously thinking about,” she said. “So, it's like this silent conversation between me and whoever is looking at it. I said what I was saying, however, I said it, and they are hearing whatever they are hearing by looking at it and thinking something back at it. There's something the two of us are sharing.”

Before settling in Milwaukee, Dila and her partner, Terry Murphy moved to Ludington, Michigan from the Boston area to try to escape the corporate rat race and make a life and a living as artists and entrepreneurs. Murphy’s shop, The Mermaid's Perch, and Dila’s Hen House Galleries were fun endeavors, but not exceedingly profitable. The creating art part went well for Dila but she admits that moving to an area with few artistic connections and only seasonal tourists interested in buying art and tchotchkes was a tough financial row to hoe. In Boston, Dila had worked as a microbiologist, then moved to doing and even teaching film and photography, where one could make a decent living at those things. In Ludington, she would have to go back to her scientific foundation as a biochemistry research assistant and student at Annis Water Resource Institute in Muskegon, Michigan to help pay the mortgage. Dila also sidelined for local Ludington businesses developing their websites at a time before WordPress, Wix, and Squarespace existed.

In 2012, Dila was offered a job at the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, and she and Murphy decided to make the move to this side of the pond. Here, Dila would spend most of her days gathering and examining microbic samples taken from rivers and near-shore Lake Michigan areas (i.e. Bradford Beach), concentrating on pollution sources and, of all things, sewage. Lots of sewage. She was once again using the part of her brain that is structured, measured, and logical. With this move, her artistic endeavors took a bit of a hiatus. Much of Dila’s headspace was taken up by heavy work obligations that didn't leave much time for artistic endeavors. Also, breaking into the tight-knit Milwaukee art scene as a science-based outsider was a little tricky. Until you're in, you're out, Dila mused.

When she heard about studio space at Var Gallery & Studios from a co-worker, Dila decided to put both feet back into her art. She recalled thinking to herself, “Maybe I need to add that to my life because something is definitely, you know, out of balance.” Dila went back to Michigan, loaded up her equipment from storage, brought it to Milwaukee, and set up her studio space at Var. She began creating again.

At first, Dila focused on her traditional photography. When she discovered encaustic, she melded her photographs with the beeswax, which was a nice introduction to the medium, but she found that methodology too literal and limited. After experimentation and watching a few tutorials (she is largely self-taught in this medium), Dila found a mix of materials that she feels is challenging and gives her room to express and explore her artistic side. She participates in Var gallery nights and events and has found her spot within the Milwaukee art community, and at a very good time in her life, because in a few months, Dila will be retiring from School of Freshwater Sciences. She says she is looking forward to putting more focus on her work in the studio and less in the lab, but she admits, she won't abandon the science part of her life. While water and wax don't easily mix for most, these elements are the foundation upon which Dila has built her life in Milwaukee, an indelible infusion of both science and art.

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.