Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits
These DNA portraits are genetic ancestry paintings that show an individual’s face with their ancestors’ migration paths across continents and deep time.
Genetic Ancestry Portraits by Lynn Fellman

The University of Minnesota commissioned this portrait and the genetic ancestry DNA portraits shown below for a research center. It shows my signature style — a person’s face on a map with their ancestors’ migration paths from deep time. This group for the center is the culmination of work created over a six-year period that included dozens of DNA-based portraits.

Are you curious about my process? Scroll down for the backstory — the inspiration and artistic vision, creative and collaborative process, and the source and explanation of the scientific data in my genetic ancestry portraits.

Crossing Beringia

“Crossing Beringia,” a portrait of Ron, a Native American man from the Ojibwe tribe from the Northern Midwest, includes data from his mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome. You can follow the paths of his maternal (yellow) and paternal (blue) ancestors as they leave Africa, head north to Siberia, and cross the submerged continent Beringia to the Americas — a journey made over thousands of years.

Ron’s paternal haplogroup, M3, is the most widespread male lineage in the Americas. Nearly all Native American men are descended from this line. His matriarchal line, haplogroup “A,” has a deep and diverse lineage and may have arrived 15,000 to 20,000 years ago on the North American continent.

Genetic Ancestry Portraits by Lynn Fellman

First Wave

Khao is an American originally from Laos. His portrait, “First Wave,” shows his maternal migration path, haplogroup M. They may have been the first modern humans to make a successful exodus from Africa. Members of his group headed east across the narrow span of water that separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.

It was the start of a long migration eastward, across the Middle East to Southern Eurasia — close to Khao’s birth home in Laos. You can see that the lineage branches with some of his ancestors continuing to settle Australia and Polynesia.

Genetic Ancestry Portraits by Lynn Fellman

Spiral Journey

“Spiral Journey” is a DNA portrait of Judy, an African American woman. It traces the paths of the L3 group, a lineage that arose in Africa about 80,000 years ago. They were a group of modern humans leading the out-of-Africa migrations.

Judy’s ancestors were members of the group that decided to remain in Africa — traveling west and north, spiraling around the continent’s top half. Descendants in Western Africa formed the lineage found today in many African Americans — often due to the transatlantic slave trade. Judy’s “L3e” haplogroup is also common among Afro-Brazilians and Caribbeans.

Genetic Ancestry Portraits by Lynn Fellman

Deep Waters

Wayne, an African American man, chose to have his DNA sequenced from his Y chromosome. His paternal Haplogroup, E1B1a (M2), is shared with most sub-Saharan Africans and many African American men.

The first genetic marker in Wayne’s lineage is “M168”. The marker locates the beginning of the migration route close to present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, or Tanzania in the Rift Valley region. Scientists give an approximate date of the emergence of this marker at 31,000 to 79,000 years ago.

Backstory for the Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits

About the genetic ancestry exhibit. The University of Minnesota commissioned DNA Portraits of five people for the Urban Outreach and Engagement Research Center in Minneapolis. The goal was to show that a diverse community of people share pre-historic lineages with each other and all humanity. People from the surrounding community were invited to have their portrait created for the commission. Using the demographics as a guide, the invited participants represent the residents’ African American, European, Asian, and Native American diversity.

The portraits combine the participant’s DNA data with their image and ancestral migration routes. Each portrait had a companion storyboard that gave their biography, DNA data, and accurate geographic map. Put together, portraits and storyboards formed an art and science exhibit that traveled to museums, universities, and clinics around the country.

The University of Minnesota commissioned this group of genetic ancestry portraits for a new urban research center. Well received by scholars, visitors to the center, and people in the community, I made another set that traveled as an exhibit to universities, libraries, and clinics around the country.

The exhibit was the culmination of a body of work from 2005 to 2011 that included dozens of portraits. For more of the back story, scroll down this page. The inspiration and artistic vision, the process of creating and collaborating, the source and explanation of the genetic data make a fascinating tale of an art and science journey.

I discovered the power of art and story to make science personal and sometimes wonderfully profound. I’ve left my portrait work behind to follow new ways to pair science with art to show and tell our Genome Stories.

The portrait-making process. As I began to show the portraits, many people reacted with, “ah-ha’—“‘we get it!” It seems the combination of a human face with personal data on a map of our ancestors’ migration paths makes science visible-real-understandable. For the people in the portraits, it was an emotional-process-involving experience. I ordered the test kits, helped them take their sample, mailed it, retrieved the data, and discussed their report with them.

We had conversations about their background, family genealogy, and community activities. I took notes and made sketches. The pieces came together as a graphical narrative that included their data, a map. Every portrait had this graphic-style storyboard as a companion to their portrait.

These are historical documents. The DNA Portraits and companion storyboards in this exhibit completed a body of work that included dozens of portraits made over a period of five years. I found how powerful science can be when art and story make our genomes personal. The portrait work has led to new ways to pair science with art to show and tell our genome stories.

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