By Mara Soloway, I Start Wondering Columnist
When she was in high school in Illinois, Kris Hirst just wanted to get out. It wasn’t because she was a bad student – it’s just that her creative mind needed to be free of the constraints, needed room to explore.
It still does. Even though Kris, 69, 1) has retired from her career as an archaeologist and technical writer and 2) is almost through with more than a year of treatment for a rare form of breast cancer, she hasn’t stopped thinking, creating, writing and starting new projects. Case in point: an incredibly imaginative one that combines artificial intelligence (AI), art and archaeology.
I know this about her because we met in the late 1980s. At the time, she was working at the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City, Iowa after earning an Master of Arts in archaeology from the University of Iowa, and I edited the cultural resource management reports written by Kris and the other staff archaeologists.
Back then, when we booted up our computers from one floppy drive and saved our work to another, Kris saw that archeology, technology and creativity were not stand-alone concepts – they very much overlap. She was on the ground floor of using archaeological data in locational analysis – plotting points on US Geological Survey maps to get a better idea what the data showed.
Basing your archaeological findings on science and tech makes sense, but creativity also plays a big part.
“When I got started data crunching and using locational analysis, we could compare sites to see how people use the earth, where did they put their villages. It gave us more insight into human behavior, because what archaeologists are ultimately trying to do is figure out how people lived their lives,” Kris said.
“You have to have an imagination to put together those little bits of ceramics and other items you come up with on an archaeological dig. You have to use the science to analyze the data, then you’ve got to build a story from that. I think it’s a creative process.”
Kris is a self-described tech nerd who in 2005 was wiki before wiki was cool. “I’ve always been interested in technology. Our wiki evolved as a place for my brother Steve and assorted family and me to store our ideas so we could talk about them,” she explained. “It had fairly straightforward formatting and pages could be made public or private.”
The current evolution of the site called Wasteflake includes Kris’ short stories and some of the body of work she created during almost 20 years as the archaeology correspondent for About.com (originally The Mining Company, now Thoughtco.com) before getting laid off during COVID-19. She wrote more than 10,000 articles on topics that ran the gamut from DNA/RNA to enormous pyramids, from interviews with archaeologists to in-depth site tours. The URLs for some have been shed over time as the company changed hands.
A Slight Derailment, Then Back on Track
Once Kris retired, she started a science fiction novel about alien penguins. She’s having fun with the process of determining who the characters are and their motivations. But it wasn’t long after starting her novel that she had to turn her attentions to bigger matters: her own survival.
“Then December 2022 I got a cancer diagnosis that was pretty dreadful, a stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer, a kind of cancer that is hard to resolve. I’ve gone through a year and some months of chemo and lumpectomy and radiation. It was one thing after another.”
She was declared "cancer free" in September 2023, but continues to receive chemo to decrease the chances of a recurrence. She feels a support group has been essential to helping her on her cancer journey: “I totally rely on my husband, Ed Nellis, and other family and friends for keeping me sane and focused.”
Kris kept readjusting her projects to include doing research about cancer. “I figured if I’m going to die of something I might as well know if it’s an interesting thing,” she said in retrospect.
Being the resilient person she is, of course she did find it interesting, including learning about a recent medical discovery of our body’s interstitial web that moves fluid to organs.
Artificial Intelligence Mashed-up with Art and Archaeology
Her process of writing her sci fi novel has evolved in a relevant technological way: she is using AI to help visualize characters. This led to the evolution to the aforementioned incredibly imaginative project.
After trying other programs, Kris settled on MidJourney to develop the alien characters that are descended from animals on Earth. “For example, I wanted to make pictures of penguins doing silly things and penguins with fingers. Using MidJourney is a thought process – I’ve had to develop my imagination to get the most of it. It’s allowed me to have more penguin species,” Kris said.
Kris had a brainstorm to use the AI tech together with her creativity and archaeology background in a new way. She gives me credit – which I will gladly accept – for helping fuel the idea during a video chat in which she was showing me how to set parameters in MidJourney. I asked to see how it would draw a caricature of an anteater. She took it further to see the anteater as if Beatrix Potter had drawn it. “It was lovely – someone you could see having tea with Miss Tiggy-Winkle,” Kris laughed.
The brainstorm became a torrential downpour. “It evolved, because that’s what life’s about – evolution. I started to think it would be interesting to match art history to archaeology – to play with the idea of a particular artist who could have visited an archaeology site and painted it. I tried it in MidJourney and I was so excited about the results,” she said.
“It’s an incredible idea. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see what Frida Kahlo would look like painted as Nefertiti?’ And it turned out great. It’s great that as I learn more about how to edit MidJourney, I get more control over what comes out.”
See all of Kris’ creative mashups of AI, art and archaeology on her website, Archaeology and Artists in Artificial Intelligence Posted.
Although AI has its negative aspects – like taking away jobs and stealing intellectual property – Kris feels her project offers the public a way to know more about archaeology and obscure artists from the past. She unfortunately knows about the theft of intellectual property from her years at About.com and the articles that were transferred to and are now owned by Thoughtco.com, a site from which Chat GPT draws data.
She is circumspect about this. “There is nothing new in the universe about intellectual property theft – all art is based on that of our predecessors, as we mix and remix ideas and images and words. Change is happening, and in some respects, you must embrace it and see if you can make it dance for you.”
Kris only creates her mashups with artists who are no longer living.
Why Women Should Embrace Technology
Kris’ career and efforts since retiring completely dispel the myth that only those in the arts have creativity. She encourages women our age to not be afraid to learn technologies because of the discovery and creativity that we’ll find.
“I feel alive when I’m working on this stuff,” she said. “Even when I was under the gun of an existential threat and all the chemo issues and all that I had going on, I was able to create and go forward. It’s really a matter of building your own strength inside yourself and finding a project and doing it.”
Kris also finds creative aspects in non-techie efforts like teaching other people or volunteering at food banks or crisis centers. “You’re learning about other people and trying to point them in the right direction. There are so many things you can do with your retirement if you’ve got health on your side or even if you don’t. The people with cancer I met during my hospital visits are incredibly imaginative and resilient. You just need to find the spark.”
And for Kris, that spark starts early since her mind starts ramping up around 4 a.m. “I wake up and I’ll lie there thinking about the three or four projects I have going on at any time – what I’m going to do, something I could write or develop. For example, finding new painters that I’ve never heard for my blog is exciting to me,” she said.
“Learning new things has always been what drives me.”