If Not by Science, then by Art
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
There was a time when the "glass ceiling" perceived by professional women in science was more like concrete than anything see-through; as lavish as the talk was about feminism in the early seventies, only a handful of women made it to the top. Dr. Josephine Simonds, who was already a late bloomer having obtained her Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Maryland at age 50 realized what the score was after 6 years as a postdoctoral trainee at the National Cancer Institute. So she did the same thing she did when, earlier in her life, her artistic talent was discouraged by a nasty high school teacher: She found a way to thrive anyway.
Simonds returns to NIH Mar. 1 to May 3 with an art show in the Clinical Center's Gallery II, near the admissions desk on the first floor. Her themes are as diverse as her interests orchids and baseball. Beauty and competition. Timelessness and the power of the moment.
"Can you believe that they didn't sign Sele?" she cries astonishedly during a pre-show visit to NIH, at which she photographs the gallery space in order to better place her works. She's talking about the Baltimore Orioles' failure to sign a promising pitcher, and it brings out the kid in her.
Simonds has a theory, one she never tested during 10 years of Ph.D. studies after the last of her four children reached preschool age. It goes like this: "All children are born with creative, artistic talent. It takes a certain kind of teacher to squash it out of them."
Bright, sensitive, and a bit of a perfectionist, Simonds ran afoul of a certain kind of teacher in high school. She had completed a drawing that she felt deserved an A. The art teacher acknowledged as much, but out of sheer orneriness reduced her grade to a B. Simonds continued making art, but the experience discouraged her.
Though born in Washington, D.C., Simonds went to high school away from home, in Danville, Va. She returned to the city to attend George Washington University, where she graduated with a degree in zoology. She then earned a master's degree in marine zoology at Duke University. In the forties, she enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art in D.C., eventually taking private group lessons with local artists.
"I've always been interested in science, which doesn't keep me from painting," she says, explaining how she manages her interests. After getting her master's degree, she married a lawyer and had four children. When the youngest reached school-age, she took a job at the University of Maryland, teaching freshmen how to do laboratory science.
"I went to see the head of the zoology department at Maryland, who had been an instructor at Duke when I was there. He conned me into instructing lab courses for 2 years," she recalls. Another friend in the French department at Maryland advised her that the brightest graduate students on campus seemed to come from the microbiology department, so Simonds began Ph.D. studies there as the only woman Ph.D. candidate in the department that would last a decade. For the first time in her life, art fell by the wayside.
Arriving at NCI in 1970 as a staff fellow, Simonds worked in Bldg. 41. "I was working with herpes virus saimiri," she recalls. She had expected that the rhetoric of changing consciousness about women's roles would give birth to opportunities. "Isn't the world," she asks, "just waiting for me with open arms? No! While I was at NIH from 1970 to 1976, there were no women at grade GS-14 or above. Not many women were well-treated at the Ph.D. level. What you needed to succeed were publications and a good mentor."
Simonds recalls an era of "mostly sob stories about nonsupportive lab chiefs, and no acknowledgment of original work. Your career went right down the toilet if you lodged any official kind of protest. But you could bad-mouth people all you wanted."
Simonds left research because "I should have been writing grant proposals as a staff fellow. The atmosphere was, shall I say, not supportive?"
She spent a year with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, then 3 years with the Environmental Protection Agency under the Older Americans Act. By then the fulfillment offered by art had been calling for some time.
"I was getting back to the arts all during my time at NIH," she says. Once she left EPA, she turned full time to painting, "mostly watercolors, but also pastel, oil and charcoal, too."
Orchids became a subject because she grew them in a greenhouse. "It's nice to have models in the house it's very convenient."
Lately, her muse is baseball. "I love it," she says. "I fell in love with the Orioles the year they lost their first 21 games. Here they were just gritting their teeth and going at it and working so hard. Cal Ripken was carrying the team poor Cal, with his batting problems."
Simonds attended many games at Camden Yards, whose small-park glories emerge in the latest watercolors off her easel. She and her husband have a ticket plan that allows them to see Sunday games exclusively. "They're all day games," she points out, which is essential because she can see better then, and take the photos from which her paintings later develop. She quips, "These guys refuse to pose for me, so I take a camera.
"I'll concentrate on runners one time, batters another time that sort of thing," she says. "What I love is what I call the moment of suspension. The outfielder may be off the ground, trying to snag the ball, or the pitcher, with that slight pause before he lets go that's what I like the most."
A serious painter since about 1980, Simonds returned to the Corcoran in the early eighties to hone her skills. She tries to spend her mornings painting, but there is not always the energy. That's because she rises each day at 4:30 a.m. and "zooms out" to the YMCA in Bethesda to swim a mile, which takes her almost an hour. This expenditure requires some nap time in the afternoon.
"I paint whenever my energy is up enough, and I have the time," she said. "I'm afraid to paint when I'm tired because I don't want to do anything sloppy or less than my best."
At the moment she is excited about a painting of Oriole outfielder B.J. Surhoff. "I'm beginning to really like it. Surhoff is jumping up to catch a ball that's a real dinger. Ten people in the stands are reaching for it, too, and I really like it. I'll probably call it 'The Dinger.'"
Simonds' baseball pictures are now on view at the Washington Clinic in Friendship Heights. For 20 years, she showed her work at galleries on the Eastern Shore, and lived in Wittman, Md., near St. Michael's. She fondly recalls outdoor holiday art shows at which boaters would tie up on nearby docks and buy work, including hers. "I sell my work whenever possible," she grins, noting that all of the works in her upcoming NIH show will be for sale. Including her favorite piece Crown of Thorns. "Crown of thorns is a very prickly cactus-like plant that has finger-thick branches that twine around snake-like, and that has brilliant red flowers that are small about dime-size and sort of in two parts. The painting enlarges the flowers and branches a great deal."
Painting seems to have enlarged her, too. There is not a trace of bitterness in her work or manner. The paintings are bright, carefully made, and abundant with cheerful good nature. Asked whether she would have preferred a career in art or science, she laughs, "I didn't have that much choice!"
She still keeps up with science, reading journals weekly. And she is passionate about baseball, openly fretting about the Orioles' failure, to date, to sign star pitcher Mike Mussina to a contract. Told that her baseball paintings might well attract the interest of feisty Orioles owner Peter Angelos, Simonds shows the toughness that permitted her to suffer along with her favorite team during its 0-21 drought: "I'd probably sell him one, but it wouldn't be in person. We'd have to arrange it by mail." Spoken like a true microbiologist/artist/fan.
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