John Megahan did not initially intend to pursue art as a career. And yet, when the opportunity arose, he took it.

“For as far back as I can remember, I was interested in art,” the senior biological illustrator said. “Early on, when I was studying at university, I didn’t expect to become an artist at all. Art was only something I did for fun.

“But when I was in biology labs I realized I was having more fun drawing pictures of the animals rather than actually doing scientific studies and research on them. So I figured, maybe that’s a direction I should go in.”

Megahan obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in art and a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Boise State University, and a Master of Science degree in marine biology from the University of Oregon. After graduating, his friends and family insisted he should consider art as a professional career.

Photo of John Megahan, senior biological illustrator for U-M's Museum of Zoology.
John Megahan is the senior biological illustrator for U-M’s Museum of Zoology, where he works with researchers and faculty to create illustrations and graphics for various research publications, departmental events and other projects. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

“I decided I would try freelancing and see what would happen,” he said. “I decided that if I could survive for a year I would continue doing it. I figured, I’ll give it a shot and see what happens. I was much more successful than I thought I would be, and sort of surprised myself.”

After seeing an advertisement for a scientific illustrator position at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, Megahan applied and was accepted. He has worked with the museum for more than 20 years as its only professional graphic artist. He works with researchers and faculty to create illustrations and graphics for various research publications, departmental events and other projects.

In 2015, he completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in illustration from the University of Hartford. On the side, Megahan has taught various courses as an adjunct lecturer at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, and leads an annual biological illustration course at the University of Oregon. 

“I have favorite memories from almost every class I teach,” he said. “It’s just so much fun to work with students. Helping them advance what they’re doing is one of the most gratifying things I do. If I can teach somebody how to do something, and I see that little lightbulb go off in their head, that’s great, that’s my favorite thing in the world.”

When he can’t interact with students in person, Megahan does so through his art. He has illustrated three children’s books and hopes to complete more in the future. In his opinion, though, one of the most important lessons an art enthusiast can learn is one that cannot be taught.

“Preserve the way you do things,” Megahan said, as if speaking to a young artist. “Don’t let art school spoil that. Don’t be persuaded to go in different directions, to be influenced by what other people do. Have your own way of doing things. That’s the value in your art, that particular voice.”

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Megahan has been pursuing art as a hobby and career for many years, but is still perfecting his skills.

Though he had been working with traditional media — such as pen and ink and watercolor painting — since he was a child, Megahan also experimented with digital media, animation and other nontraditional art mediums. Currently, he prefers the more traditional art media, but stresses that he still has a lot to learn.

“Every time I look at my stuff I feel like I can push it more, do better,” Megahan said. “There’s something I’m digging for that I haven’t found yet, which is exciting, because that gives me something to do after I retire.

“So that’s the process of art, always challenging yourself and questioning yourself and seeing if you can do better and perfect your art even more. That’s what I enjoy doing.”

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