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Conversations with Travis Vermilye

Today we’d like to introduce you to Travis Vermilye. 

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I guess my story starts as a kid growing up in rural Missouri. We had one hundred acres of woodlands surrounding three sides of my parent’s property. The farmer that owned it gave me and my brothers free rein to explore and play in the woods whenever we wanted. I really think this was the start of my love for nature and biology. 

While I was in college as an undeclared major, I took a bunch of random courses in art and science. I knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind but I really didn’t have much direction. One day, I stumbled across a website about medical illustration and it just clicked. I thought “hey, that is perfect for me!”, and I made the decision then and there to pursue a career as a medical illustrator. I changed schools, refined my drawing skills, took all the biology courses I needed, and applied to graduate programs for medical illustration. 

I attended grad school at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I grew a lot both as a person and as an artist/creative while taking medical school classes like gross anatomy combined with art classes like anatomical and surgical illustration as well as a few in computer graphics and 3D animation. While I was there, a professor in the industrial engineering area acquired a 3D printer through a grant he was awarded. I thought it was fascinating and spent a great deal of time in the 3D printing lab creating models of skulls, mouse embryos, microscopic bone sections, and anything I could get my hands on the image data for. 

All this work in 3D printing is actually what brought me to Colorado. While in school, I applied for a job at Medical Modeling in Golden, Colorado. Medical Modeling specialized in using rapid prototyping technology (3D printing) to create custom and highly accurate models of patient anatomy based on CT scan data. At the time, it was a small company with only about 5 or so employees. My job was essentially to be the company artist. I did website design, product photography, brochures, and ads, etc. Another large part of my job was working on interesting and unusual patient cases such as large tumors, bone malformations, and conjoined twins. Yes, conjoined twins! While I was there, I worked on 16 cases of conjoined twins who were joined at nearly every part of the body you can imagine. The most notable in terms of media coverage was the Egyptian twins, Ahmed and Mohamed Ibrahim. That case lasted more than four years and I worked closely with my employer and with the surgeons on the case to create detailed models that were used to help plan the surgical separation. Some of the 3D animations and models I made appeared in media coverage through outlets such as Dateline NBC, The New York Times, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was definitely a career highlight and a really special experience. 

After working at Medical Modeling for a few years, I started my own independent business as a medical illustrator and animator. I had great luck finding some wonderful clients and growing a successful business creating both still illustrations and 3D animations of surgical procedures and medical devices. 

Both the work at Medical Modeling and at my own business led me to the position I’m in now. For the past 12 years, I have been a professor at the University of Colorado Denver in the College of Arts & Media, Visual Arts, where I teach classes in illustration and digital design. Part of my job at the university is to maintain and grow in my professional career and over the last few years, I have shifted away from medical illustration to fine art. I’m now creating images and short animated videos about nature – kind of making it full circle back to the things I loved as a kid. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
For the most part, it has been a pretty smooth road. I have had a lot of support from family and friends, and the most from my wife, Alicia. She was with me the whole way from undergrad, through grad school, quitting my steady job to work for myself, and she is still my rock today. I don’t know how I’d ever make it without her. 

I think my biggest struggle has always been the feeling of not really fitting into one specific area or group of people. I’m always somewhere in between science and art, even in the work I’m doing now, focusing on things like slime molds, lichen, and other microscopic organisms. The thing I’ve learned through the years is that is in fact exactly where I belong – moving in-between areas and interests. It is what makes me feel the most alive and happy. 

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
My current work is about appreciating and celebrating the beauty and wonder of nature. Now, I’m not talking about mountain landscapes and grand vistas. I’m most interested in the things that a lot of us walk by without notice on a daily basis – the small little things that you need a magnifying glass or microscope to really see clearly. Fungi, lichen, and slime molds are all around us, growing on rocks and trees, embedded in the soil, and, sometimes, even on or in our own bodies. The shapes and forms they take are beautiful, surreal, and otherworldly. 

I work in different ways, either finding and photographing specimens myself or using searches on the internet for reference material. Then, I create digital models in 3D software that represent what I have been studying – creating my own version of the tiny worlds I’ve been looking at. In the software, I create lighting, materials, textures, landscapes, and finally, I frame the shots and render the finished image or animation. Images are printed out on a large format printer and transferred to the final surface using some specialized image transfer methods. From there, I will work on top of the images using acrylic paints and other painting and drawing techniques until I am satisfied with how it looks. 

3D animation is something I have become known for in my career. I used to do this work for clients to help people learn about things like how medical devices work or what tuberculosis bacteria look like and how they affect your body once infected. Now I use the same tools and techniques to create my fine art images. I’ve always had a strong interest in technology and creating imagery or models with technology. I’m very much enjoying the explorations I’ve engaged in to learn new techniques that combine technology with more traditional methods of image creation such as painting and drawing. 

One of the things I love most about learning new tools and techniques is being able to share what I’m working on with my students. I teach classes in 3D motion graphics, anatomical drawing, motion design, and illustration. A lot of what I do in my creative work connects with what we do and discuss in the classes I teach. 

I recently joined a co-op gallery in the Denver region – EDGE Contemporary Art Gallery. It has been a wonderful experience. The gallery is owned and operated by the artist members and it offers an opportunity to show work in the space without any pressure to sell. I see it as a way for me to be more experimental in my image-making and it is nice to be part of a local community of great people. 

Lately, I have really been excited about the NFT art market. I sold my first piece as an NFT in 2021 and I have plans to continue this in the future. It’s such an exciting time to be a digital artist! 

Can you tell us more about what you were like growing up?
Quiet, shy, naive, and curious. When I think about growing up, the biggest thing that sticks out for me is the summers spent roaming the 100 acres of woodlands that surrounded my parent’s house. It wasn’t ours, but we were able to spend as much time out there as we wanted. My younger brother Rob and I would literally spend the entire day out there just playing, swinging across creek beds, catching crayfish (crawdads), and just having a good time in the woods. I remember picking morel mushrooms with my family to bring home and fry up for mushroom sandwiches (so good!). 

I’ve always been a bit inhibited around other people, particularly large groups of people. I’m still this way, but not nearly as much as I was when I was little. 

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Image Credits
Travis Vermilye

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