Reading Inspiration: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Sometimes you find a book that really resonates with you, revealing parts of yourself that you hadn’t fully recognised.

I love finding these kinds of books, and in a stroke of luck Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl caught my eye while I was browsing the bookshop. I devoured this book in two days, hungrily pouring through the pages in every spare moment.

After glancing at the cover – beautifully illustrated by Charlotte Day – it was Lucie Green’s review from the Observer that compelled me to flip through the first few pages – ‘Leaves become elegant machines, soil is the interface between the living and the dead, and seeds, well, they are transformed into the most patient and hopeful of life forms’ – elegantly describing the way Jahren looks at the world, and her love of plants and science.

Jahren is a geochemist, geobiologist, and professor at the University of Oslo. What I found particularly nice about this book was how it finds common ground between the scientist and the artist. The way Jahren describes her lab powerfully echoes with the way I feel about the artist’s studio:

“My lab is the place where I put my brain out onto my fingers and I do things. My lab is the place where I move. I stand, walk, sit, fetch, carry, climb, crawl. My lab is the place where it’s just as well I can’t sleep, because there are so many things to do in the world besides that. […] My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. […] My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. […] It is my retreat from my professional battlefield; it is the place where I cooly examine my wounds and repair my armour. And, just like a church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.”, – (pp.23-24).

A place to retreat, a place to work and make and do and reflect. That, to me, is what the artist’s studio is all about. I also loved the part where Jahren talks about how what she does forms deep part of her identity. “In our tiny town, my father wasn’t a scientist, he was the scientist, and being a scientist wasn’t his job, it was his identity. My desire to become a scientist was founded upon a deep instinct and nothing more; I never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television,” (p.22). In the same way, being an artist has been part of my identity, and I imagine many artists feel the same way.

Other than finding a lot of personal identification in Jahren’s description of herself and her work, the book is beautifully written and is a great read for anyone interested in plants. There’s enough information to learn something new, but none of the language is too technical, so anyone who doesn’t have a scientific background can easily pick it up and dive right in. The way that Jahren describes the natural world – as a person or a friend – is incredibly moving. A particularly lovely paragraph is:

“Every piece of wood in your house-from the windowsills to the furniture to the rafters- was once part of a living being, thriving in the open and pulsing with sap. If you look at these wooden objects across the grain, you might be able to trace out the boundaries of a couple of rings. The delicate shape of those lines tells you the story of a couple of years. If you know how to listen, each ring describes how the rain fell and the wind blew and the sun appeared every day at dawn.”, (p.102). 

I really enjoyed every page of this read and would recommend it to anyone who has some kind of passion, because I think that we can all find some form of identification in Jahren’s words.

H. Jahren, Lab Girl (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2016).





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Five Biographies Every Artist Will Want to Read

I am a huge fan of reading, and while I usually stick to fiction, I’ve started reading artist biographies. I love having a glimpse into the lives of such creative people, lives that are wild, impetuous and moving. I have compiled a list of some of my favourites-only five of many such books, of course, so if you don’t see your favourite on the list, add it in the comments below.

Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot

The focus of this book is Picasso, one of the best-known figures in 20th century art. Though from Spain he spent most of his life adult life in France, where he developed the revolutionary Cubist style. This biography is interesting for fans of Piccaso’s work and private life, but what I found more interesting was the voice of the author, Françoise Gilot, partner of Picasso and an influential artist in her own right. This is Gilot’s story as much as it is Picasso’s. It is the story of a young woman who left her home in the middle of the German occupation in France to become an artist. It is the story of how she met, studied under, and, eventually, became the partner of Picasso. She describes Paris, life during the War, and Picasso’s friends (Henry Matisse, André Breton, Gertrude Stein) in vivid detail, and reveals all the highs and lows of building a life with him. After their separation she went on to become a prolific painter, best-selling author and a designer at the Guggenheim. If you haven’t seen any of her work, I highly recommend that you take a look.

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

This book is a beautiful glimpse into the life of Vincent Van Gogh, one of my favourite artists. It has clearly been researched in painstaking detail, drawing on Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. The focus on these letters and Van Gogh’s own words is what makes this book special, an inspiring account of his life that will leave you feeling as if he only just walked out the room.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Frida Kahlo

A beautiful facsimile of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s dairy, exploring the last ten years of her life. The emotions in this book are often raw and heavy, and if you’re expecting a traditional diary detailing what she did each day, think again. The diary explores her life in watercolour illustrations, hand-written love letters, memories and poems. The varying mediums come together in beautiful chaos to help you get a little closer to Kahlo’s inner life and art.

Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris

This is an intriguing book about a vibrant and complex woman. It follows her life from the early days where she would write it the attic while her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, would paint by her side for hours on end, to the final days of her life in the Sussex countryside. It is an inspiring look at Woolf’s inner life, her life-long struggles with depression, her inspirations and the development of her ideas. Harris combines a staggering amount of research with a fresh perspective and thoughtful commentary. This biography is an excellent gateway to Woolf, her work and Bloomsbury.

Lee Miller: A Life, Carolyn Burke

This book is both a glorious glimpse into life during the early 20th century and a remarkable portrait of the photographer, model and war correspondent Lee Miller. Burke does not sugar coat or hide any parts of Miller’s story, and at times you will hate, pity and be in awe of her. She lived a spectacularly messy life; she was a model for Vogue, maintained a long standing in the surrealist world, was close to Man Ray and Picasso, reported on the devastating impact of the war and the Nazi death camps (breaking new ground for female journalists), and eventually sunk deep into alcoholism. Both glamour and sadness seep through the pages. It’s all impossible to believe and yet wonderfully true.

If you read any of them I’d love to hear if you liked them as much as I did! Let me know your thoughts, and suggestions of other great biographies, in the comments.


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What I’m Reading: ‘Virginia Woolf’ by Alexandra Harris

A friend found Alexandra Harris’s Virginia Woolf on the streets of Brighton and gave it to me. I am really interested in the eccentric characters that made up the Bloomsbury set, a 1930’s group of artists, writers and philosophers. This book has been an infinite source of inspiration. It is the story of a young woman, armed with a notebook, determined to become one of the greatest writers of all time. She defied convention, pushed the classic boundaries of the novel as a form of writing, advocated the needs of women to have their own spaces to create, and worked almost constantly, despite suffering with mental illness for most of her life.

Desire for freedom

At the age of 29 Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa, saying: ‘to be 29 and unmarried – to be a failure – childless – insane too, no writer.’ (2) She had suffered the loss of her mother, father and older brother. And yet, after many years of having no choice but to rigidly stick to Victorian social norms in the family’s big old house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, she finally had some of the freedom that she so often expressed a need for.

Just as her sister Vanessa had always known that she wanted to be an artist, Virginia always knew that she was going to be a writer. As children they worked competitively and pushed each other to improve their respective arts. Neither of the sisters had a formal education, and Virginia taught herself to write by compiling notebooks and setting herself exercises. She insisted on writing standing up so she could stand next to Vanessa, who painted at an easel, and the two girls stood for many hours on the top floor of the house, determined to perfect their crafts.

Follow your instincts

Having never been to university Virginia was often forced to challenge convention, especially in academia. In her short essay How to Read a Novel, she wrote that “the only advice that once person can give another … is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions” (3). Many of her works focus on the inner lives of women, a subject that had not often at the forefront of a novel. Those that did received little critical acclaim, but Virginia was too impressive to be ignored.

In the months after their mother’s death, Virginia experienced the first of her breakdowns. The desire to write left her for two whole years. Though she slowly recovered and began to write again, her illness remained with her throughout her entire life, and there would be many periods where she would be unable to write.

Boundless creativity

Now, seventy years after her death, Virginia is celebrated for her moving novels, essays, memoirs, letters and diaries. Alexandra Harris tells Virginia’s story beautifully, and offers the perfect introduction to her writing. Even if you are not a fan of her books, it is hard not to admire Virginia for her boundless creativity in the face of adversity.

I think we can all relate to sometimes feeling not good enough, not creative enough. We have things that hold us back, experiences that shape us for good or bad. But despite these things Virginia was forever determined, and held an untiring interest in the world around her.



(1) A. Harris, Virginia Woolf (Thames and Hudson: London, 2011), Blurb.

(2) A. Harris, Virginia Woolf (Thames and Hudson: London, 2011), p.7.

(3) V. Woolf, The Second Common Reader (1932).



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