Tracing human origins through art


Downtown artist Lynn Fellman likes science. During a recent meeting at her 801 Washington Avenue studio on a blustery fall day, she explained some of the basics behind deep-DNA ancestry. With my notebook in hand, I listened intently and tried to keep up — biology never was my strong suit.

Everyone on Earth comes from the same small population of East Africans who lived roughly 50,000 years ago, she explained. Over time, our ancestors have spread across the world and settled in various places. Fellman’s own bloodline comes from Northern Europe, as evidenced by her blonde hair and fair skin.

To my naïve dismay, Fellman told me that scientists have new tools that can trace an individual’s lineage using their DNA, and she’s using that technology to create a new form of art.

“There’s a big narrative story here, where you don’t have to get into single nucleotide polymorphism vocabulary,” she said, “and that’s what my DNA portraits are about.”

To create a portrait, Fellman has her clients purchase DNA kits from The Genographic Projects, a research program by National Geographic and IBM. The subjects swab out the inside of their cheeks, send in the kits, and several weeks later, receive their results.

Clients can choose one of four digital images for the background of their portraits. Each piece contains a map on which Fellman traces the clients’ ancestral journeys, starting in East Africa.

The 20-by-28-inch pictures use rich, warm browns, blues and greens, set on a grid of personalized ATCG sequences. For $650, plus a $100–$350 lab fee, customers can choose between a horizontal map of the Earth, a vertical map with wavy seaweed strands growing up the page, or a drawing of Mitochondrial Eve, Fellman’s African character. Subjects can also send their photos to Fellman and she’ll draw their portraits over their ancestral paths for $1,800 plus the lab fee.

Microscopic roots

Fellman recently completed a DNA portrait of a Chinese man. It’s interesting, she says. His migration path traces 30,000 years, starting in Africa, swooping by India, stopping in Australia, and then landing in China.

“This is not genealogy or the family tree,” she reminded me. “This is deep ancestry.”

Fellman gets a little giddy when she talks about DNA research. She scored high in natural sciences in elementary school and began tracking evolution scientist Lewis Leakey just for fun.

“About four years ago, I started reading every science journal I could get my hands on,” she recalled. “I’ve got million of ideas.”

In late October, Fellman attended an annual conference of the American Society of Human Genetics in San Diego, Calif., to man the event’s first artist booth. “I thought to myself, I gotta get an audience here,” she laughed.

Sandwiched between textbook publishers and software developers, Fellman sold silk scarves and ties covered in double helixes and answered questions about her DNA portraits during the weeklong trade show.

“I was thrilled,” she said. “Scientists have a high level of aesthetic in their work.”

In addition to DNA portraits, ties and scarves, Fellman sells greeting cards with messages like “Happy Sequential Birthday,” and biology-themed throw pillows. She has an industrial-sized printer in her studio that allows her to print out all of her creations on rag paper and fabric.

During the day, Fellman works as a self-employed interactive web designer. She went to Edina High School, graduated from the University of Minnesota in the late 1980s with a fine arts degree, and jumped into the online art world just as it was taking off. After working in the advertising department at Target Corporation for three years, she decided to change career paths. “I really wanted to do creative stuff, so I went out on my own.”

Fellman, who has lived Downtown since 1994, resides in a large loft that doubles as a storefront gallery. Her living quarters are tucked away in the back of the space, with her studio and showing area 2 feet from the sidewalk.

Through December, Fellman hopes to keep regular gallery hours, opening her glass doors to the public from 5 to 8 p.m.

Checking out her tall warehouse walls, I notice a distinct theme in her work — beyond the winding chromosomes. Bright fuchsias, teals, greens and reds; thick lines, wavy patterns, whimsical characters; and layers of images fading into one another. “All these years I’ve been developing my style and my color palette,” she says.

Fellman cites fauvism, expressionism and artists like Henri Matisse as influences. All of her pieces start out as pencil-and-paper drawings; then she scans them into her Macintosh and uses illustration programs to add color and texture.

It’s strange that the original works only exist in cyberspace, she laughs.

To many of us, the concepts of microscopic DNA strands and ATCG sequences also seem to exist in an invisible, theoretical world. It takes artists like Fellman to bring them to life. For images of Fellman’s artwork, go to

Contact Mary O’Regan at or 436-5088.