Artist in Residence at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Ashley Cecil painting at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Perhaps you remember a year ago when I convinced staff at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the National Aviary, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and three Pittsburgh florists into letting me paint from their live and taxidermy collections of flora and fauna. One of the most rewarding outcomes of that project was meeting remarkable people with disparate careers from my own who share my love for nature’s artistry.

During that project, there were several conversations with scientists and museum staff that set off fireworks of creative inspiration in my head (hopefully I wasn’t giving blank stares while struggling to mentally dog-ear those ideas and keep up with the conversation). My experience at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) was especially fruitful. However, the two months allocated for the project were just a tease. I wanted more.

Presumably because my interactions with folks at CMNH were mutually enjoyable (or at the very least tolerable), and because my work complements their mission of “increas[ing] scientific and public understanding of the natural world and human cultures,” museum staff and I started planning and fundraising for a longer and more in-depth adaptation of the 2015 project specific to CMNH. Long story short, we found funding, and a few weeks ago I became an artist in residence for six months of making work inspired by the museum’s physical and intellectual assets.

CMNH-entomology
All of a sudden, doors marked with “staff only” are no longer off limits. CMNH scientists, including Dr. James Fetzner pictured here, meet with me to explain their areas of research, give me access to the museum’s specimen collections, and probably try to figure out how “collaborate with an artist” slipped into their job description.

 

In case all of the above left you scratching your head, here’s a Q&A outlining the nuts and bolts of this residency:

What exactly are you doing? Creating 2D artwork that 1. Depicts the museum’s specimen collections, and 2. Visualizes scientific research conducted by CMNH scientists about our natural world. This also includes exhibiting some of the artwork in CMNH galleries of thematic relevance; adapting these art+science ideas for museum summer camp workshops that I’ll facilitate for kids and teens; exhibiting the work outside of the museum at Boxheart Gallery (November 15, 2016 to January 6, 2017), the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (October 14, 2016 to January 8, 2017), and other venues still in the works.

BirdSafePittsburgh
A preparatory drawing for a repeating pattern of six species of birds native to Pennsylvania that are most heavily impacted by window collisions. The work was inspired by research provided by BirdSafe Pittsburgh, a CMNH conservation project.


When and where will I find you in action?
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays now through the end of 2016, I will be at the museum working either in a studio behind the scenes, or in a museum gallery where visitors can watch me work and ask questions (and pose for selfies, of course). Some variations in this schedule are unavoidable, so get in touch for my most up-to-date whereabouts, and follow the day-to-day goings on via the hashtag #artofCMNH on Instagram and Twitter. And, like last year, I would be thrilled to schedule a date with you at the museum so you can experience firsthand what an artist set loose in a natural history museum looks like.

summer camp "Animal House" where I was fortunate enough to introduce the #students to one of the museum's #ornithologists (he's holding a peacock specimen), teach them about #scientific #illustration, and help them make window decals from their #paintings of #birds
Snapshots from one of three CMNH summer camp workshops I’m facilitating that teach science through art activities. These 6 and 7 year olds got to meet one of the museum’s ornithologists (he’s holding a peacock specimen), learn about scientific illustration, and make window decals from their paintings of birds.


Why?
I want to make dense science relatable to a broad audience to pique curiosity about nature and foster environmental stewardship. Also, it’s personal. My son will be 39 when, as Bill McKibben predicts, “we’ll have more than reached the zenith of our economy and civilization.” Therefore I feel firmly compelled to ensure resources such as CMNH are valued and utilized to their utmost potential to safeguard the planet he’ll inherit and inhabit. I’ve honed in on a natural history museum in particular because such institutions play a unique role in the future of our planet. They collectively house astounding quantities of specimens from the natural world that are a goldmine of data for people who need to know about our planet’s past in order to preserve its future. They also are one of the best places to cultivate an appreciation for studying nature (seriously, name one child you know who doesn’t love dinosaurs).

extinct-species-drawing
In parallel to fundraising for this residency, I spent time in my studio visually reflecting on books about climate science, including work by Elizabeth Kolbert.


Why should I care?
Because you love drinking clean water. You love breathing fresh air. You love living in or visiting cities precariously positioned on rising coastlines. Nature is increasingly made vulnerable by the strain of our existence, and that affects us all. My hope is that this residency and the resulting work will shed additional light on the importance of our involvement in caring for this big beautiful sphere we’re spinning around on.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 8.36.58 AM
A current work in progress.

 

What do you know about science? Well, let me put it this way, I passed my high school biology class because my teacher, who was also my soccer coach, was less likely to make me run extra laps if I didn’t fail in his classroom. I’m pretty sure that was the last natural science class I ever took. However, determination is a powerful thing. So, I keep a dictionary app close at hand while studying research articles written by CMNH scientists on subjects including “Long-term climate impacts on breeding bird phenology in Pennsylvania, USA.” I’m also taking a DIY approach to filling in gaps in my science education with online courses (the broad topic for this month is genetics). My high school biology teacher would be proud.

Maybe, just maybe, this residency will be another needed case study of how art and science go together like peanut butter and jelly (or maybe like adenine and thymine?). I hope you’ll follow adventure on the social intertubes and/or in person. You’ll also get updates here about the scheduled exhibitions, presentations, workshops, and more. Until then, back to making #artofCMNH.


2 Comments

  • Ashley, as one of your greatest fans I am buzzing from this post. Perhaps it’s the education advisor in me, or the developmentalist……but I love seeing natural connections between art, science and education. Here you are, the master of the brush, working alongside professionals with a calling to advance research to protect all living things, plus those who house that knowledge, and those creatures, to keep them weathered from the storm (in your case, those Pittsburgh winters!) I think of home many children and adults must visit the Museum and will see some of your work, or those who buy some of your pieces (including those awesome scarves). They may not realise it, but they’ll enter and leave that building having learned something new. You are all part of that process, so it’s ingenious to weave in artistry to show visual representations of that process. You are essentially capturing knowledge, and making innovation visible. Yes, my comment is a bit sappy, but I’m just so proud of you for finding you calling and for settling in so well in what looks to be an amazing city. Sending lots of love from across the pond – Glasgow now! You guys are welcome anytime, we’ve got loads of room and a fire to warm your toes! xoxoxo

  • Oh how I miss you, LA! I was thinking about you today as I was putting together slides for an art workshop I’m facilitating this week for teen refugees resettled here in Pittsburgh. I wish we were on the same continent again 🙁 but I hope all is well in Glasgow. Thank you for the very kind words.


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