May 2012

Living through art and science

Robert Schimke embraces the life of an artist after spending decades as a scientist

schimke_6Robert Schimke has ditched the pipettes and gels for paintbrushes and canvases. An emeritus professor from Stanford University’s department of biological sciences, Schimke’s scientific portfolio is tremendous.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, his laboratory made major contributions to at least four different areas of biology. Schimke served on boards for scientific journals and biotechnology companies and was president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1988. But now he has left science behind to spend his time creating art. He also spends his days in a wheelchair.

A quadriplegic for 17 years with limited use of his arms and feet, Schimke has found a way to express movement through art. “I used to be rather physically active. Obviously I can’t do that anymore so I take it out on my paintings!” he says. “They are all moving. There’s nothing static about them.”

Schimke was ready to leave science even before the accident that left him mostly paralyzed. “I was 62 at that time and I was ready to retire, which is very different from most scientists. They don’t know what else to do. I really wanted to retire so that I could paint and garden,” says Schimke.

Schimke hasn’t let the accident dash his dreams of painting. These days, he melds his scientific methods with his artistic skills to get different kinds of paint to sweep, skirt, splotch or splatter over canvases. “I’m continually experimenting with new techniques. Many artists over time will paint more or less in the same genre that they’ve painted all the time,” he says. “I try all kinds of different things.”

Schimke is focused these days on understanding what happens to latex paints, which he purchases from Home Deport, as he drips and splashes them across canvases. “I’m trying to figure out how to make some interesting shapes by simply pouring dilute, light-colored paint on canvases that are painted black,” he says. “The other thing I have been doing very recently is to make relatively small canvases that have drips of undiluted paint that comes right out of the gallon can. That produces some striking three-dimensional patterns. They have a lot of different colors … I must say if you look at them, all you can do is smile.”


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I had the great privilege of a personal tour of Robert's studio and home about 5 years ago while visiting Palo Alto. I was very impressed with the level of dedication he shows in all of his artistic endeavors. Hundreds of wonderful necklaces line the hallway. The shear volume of work is impressive by itself. His painting studio is one to be envied by any artist frustrated with a lack of production space. The visual energy he creates is all about the place as many canvases hang on the walls in view, while others lie about on the floor in mid production. Paint is literally everywhere. His growth as an artist can be traced through the many paintings and each new one seems to be more impressive than the one before. As an artist myself I understand the the creative "carrot on a stick" that his process and artistic journey represents. It boils down to "If you think that one was good, wait till you get a look at my next one". Proud nephew, Matt Bazemore


I have been a close friend, and colleague, of Bob Schimke for many years. He is an exceptionally dedicated individual, whatever he does. I have enjoyed our frequent visits together, in recent years. I greatly enjoyed reading this article in ASBMB Today. Schimke is a wonderful person, it has been wonderful knowing him and interacting with him. Charles Yanofsky


Life without appreciation of at least some forms of art, be it literature, music, painting, sculpture or others, is not worth living. A person who can be creative in both science and art is doubly blessed. We hope that Prof. Schimke will go on shining in his present creative phase for a long time to come and will produce many more of those beautiful paintings for us to admire. I especially liked his 'Four Seasons' and 'Orange Red'.


It is wonderful to see such an inspiring article about a great scientist who has contributed so much to the biological sciences and to learn that, despite adversity, he has a second career as an artist. Keep it up Bob! All the best Dick Hanson


My undergrad Bio mentor, the late J. Fred (Paulo) Dice, did his PhD work with Schimke at Stanford, and I thus have a lineage connection with Bob, although I never met him. However, I read many of his papers, and I still have in my file cabinet a classic paper of his on measuring protein turnover and calculating the fractional catabolic rate and half-life. I am pleased to hear about his life after Science, and his artwork. I particularly liked his painting "Genetics". Jonathan D. Smith, Cleveland Clinic



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