Now through March 17 at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, artworks from my latest artist residency are on display. The exhibition, Deepening Roots: Our Growing Connections to the Botanical World, highlights the essential roles plants play in the lives of all humans, from the clothes on our backs, the frames of our homes, the food on our plates and much more.
This exhibition explores six of these deep bonds we share with the botanical world, some familiar and some unexpected. These “plant profiles” are the result of my six months at Phipps, which allowed me to explore ways plants support and enhance human well-being. The most profound examples became the subjects of my paintings, which I translated into patterns and then overlaid with silhouettes of inspiring individuals whose work embodies that connection, from a food security advocate to a nature-inspired material scientist.
The exhibition catalogue details each painting and highlights the entrepreneurs, scientists, land stewards and more who are harnessing the plants’ botanical benefit.
Mark your calendar for March 7 to celebrate nature with me and the painting subjects during an artist talk and closing reception for the exhibit:
Thursday, March 7, 2019
5:30 PM, Artist Talk at the Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting
Café Phipps (at the main entrance)
7-9 PM, Closing Reception
Phipps’ Welcome Center Gallery (at the main entrance)
Questions about my trip to the Amazon rainforest have been nonstop. I’ve been awkwardly silent about my participation in LABVERDE because I’m struggling to adequately describe the experience which transcends my vocabulary and possibly my emotional intelligence. In lieu of the story you’re asking for (although I am including photos for you), all I can cobble together right now is a reflection on this bit from my sketchbook – the most poignant example of how what I learned and saw in the rainforest is playing out in my head, my heart and my home.
My oldest son just turned five. Fast forward to 2050 and he will be as old as I am now – 37. While that seems inconsequential, it’s a grim milestone that will mark what some scientists who lectured during LABVERDE estimate as a terminal climate tipping point in which nature’s systems will collapse because of our species’ booming population and our commensurate consumption.
My experience at 37 is that I have half my life ahead of me, and a privileged one at that. His experience at 37, and that of his little brother, may be dire. You know the story – flooded coastal cities that cause a massive global refugee crisis; the rampant spread of deadly diseases no longer kept in check by once diverse and self-regulating ecosystems. If I think too long about what lies ahead for my boys, my chest gets tight and the tears blur my vision. I look at their sweet faces, not yet blemished by wear of the world, and often feel panic. Maybe this is a small taste of how parents feel when their children are diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Clearly, I’m in a complicated headspace. While the informative science lectures were thoroughly depressing, daily excursions into the rainforest were euphoric and dreamlike. I tried to remind myself between bouts of despair that being in this place, in this very moment, to witness this incredibly powerful yet fragile ecosystem is an honor. I felt an intense sense of reverence. I (we) should be present it in, know it, exist with it.
It’s estimated that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. As poetically described by Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, in which the entire history of the universe is contained within a single calendar year, humans only came onto the scene in the final hours of December 31, making any one individual’s life nearly too short to measure. Being alive in 2018 in this biologically evolved form (that took more years to engineer than I can conceptualize), to see the iridescence of a morpho butterfly and hear the haunting call of a howler monkey, is extraordinary.
I came back from Brazil with a new goal – to instill that sense of wonder and elation in my boys while preparing them for terrifying challenges ahead. It’s manic, especially with mounting evidence that we are screwed.
Being in a state of emotional paralysis leaves me in a strange place to make artwork from my rainforest experience. I’m grateful for your interest in knowing nature through my work and eventually I’ll think my way through this on canvas. Stay tuned for posts that break down highlights from the trip in more digestible chunks as well as how it all plays out in my studio.
For the last five months I’ve either been in a science lab or my studio. On June 28, I hope you’ll come celebrate the light of day with me at the opening of my latest exhibition, Edged Out.
The exhibition is a series of paintings and sculptural works about human influence on nature. The artworks specifically focus on the vulnerable state of amphibians, a modern canary in the coal mine offering us a prophetic glance at what lies ahead for all inhabitants of an ailing environment.
These artworks are visual translations of research conducted by the Richards-Zawacki Herpetology Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. During my six-month artist residency at the lab, I’ve immersed myself in scientific topics represented in this exhibition, such as habitat loss, disease and conservation methods.
It’s a pretty big deal to be invited to exhibit my work at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. And it’s an even bigger deal that the exhibition, Birds and Botany, is up during the holiday season. If you’ve ever been to Phipps during winter, you are well aware of the massive droves of people the holiday lights draw in, and my work greets the hundreds of thousands of visitors as they queue to get tickets. I like to think I’m offering visual enjoyment while they wait.
Not that long ago, I occupied a studio so cramped that I could almost touch opposing walls simultaneously by merely by extending my arms. Whenever I scheduled studio visits, I had to ask my guest if they were bringing anyone with them because, if they were, I had to rearrange furniture to accommodate. Not anymore.
My studio now calls to me to do cartwheels in it, just because I can. One of the best perks of so many square feet is the ability to host events and large groups in the space. Case in point, 40+ members of the Mattress Factory’s patrons group, Factory 500, recently made a visit.
It was lovely having such an engaged group peruse my space and ask about my process and reference materials (such as the museum bird specimens shown above), and make some purchases. The gathering was just in the nick of time – this was my last scheduled commitment before the arrival of my second bambino (I may have cracked a few jokes about watering breaking or inquiring who knew how to deliver a baby). Thank you to the Mattress Factory for coordinating!
What I found most fascinating about Lacawac was that it boasts a now rare “sky lake,” or a lake purely filled by rain or other natural sources free from human contamination (such as chemicals from agricultural runoff, fuel from motorized boats, etc.). This, I learned, makes the lake very sought after by limnologists (folks who study inland waters). And so I got to tag along on some field research and learn about related topics such as lake browning.
My own very non-scientific understanding of lake browning is that rising global temperatures equals more rain, which means more soil runoff, which clouds lakes and wreaks ecological havoc (someone much smarter than I can explain it like a pro). This was a sobering bit of knowledge to learn in parallel to taking in and sketching the natural beauty surrounding me.
This trip was a lovely reprieve from the rush of my typical residencies where I need to make completed artwork while I’m there. It was an appreciated opportunity to read, research, think, document, sketch, and take in nature. I highly recommend it.
I recently had the great honor of making Charley Harper-inspired paper collages with budding naturalists at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. But this wasn’t purely about crafting for the sake of creative expression; our creations were bona fide conservation tools. Yes, once laminated, the avian collages were hung on the outside of the artists’ windows to break up the reflection on glass that causes bird-window collisions (one of the leading causes of bird fatalities to the tune of up to one billion birds a year in the US alone).
These kids blew me away. Not only was the activity a win for a surprisingly wide variety of ages, each and every one of them was incredibly focused on the task. I can honestly say I have never taught a workshop with such flawless success (hopefully I’m not jinxing future workshops).
Case in point, the collage above on the right was made by a girl maybe three years old. For those of you not familiar with the dexterity of toddlers, merely holding scissors at that age is a feat of great accomplishment.
And the adults were just as engaged. I think a few of them were using their kids as an excuse to get in on the action.
I’ll close with this little guy, who totally gets Charley Harper. Before I understood were he was going with his collage, I almost interjected and tried to offer help thinking he didn’t grasp the concept. Luckily, I kept my mouth shut and was wowed when I realized this kids knows what he’s doing with scissors and a glue stick.
If you’re interested in hosting such a workshop, get in touch via ashley (at) ashleycecil (dot) com.
My adventure of artist residencies in science is gaining momentum. Just a few days ago, I was accepted into Lacawac Sanctuary’s Parent Residency Program. That means I’ll be spending a week this summer at the nature preserve and biological field station making new artwork inspired by their “natural living laboratory for field-based research and education.”
The parent track of their artist residency program will allow my toddler and mother-in-law to come with me (a rare and greatly appreciated accommodation for an artist with a young family). While they enjoy the 545 acres along the shore of Lake Wallenpaupack, I will be focusing on new nature and science-inspired artwork.
What will make this an exceptional opportunity is meeting with scientists at Lacawac conducting research on topics including climate change. In particular, I look forward to learning about Lacawac’s multiple environmental monitoring systems that collect data on long-term changes in the lake’s water temperature, dissolved oxygen and algae levels, and more.
All of this data is shared worldwide, making Lacawac part of a Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network. The data has been used for tangible applications such as analyzing lake ecosystems following increasingly frequent hurricanes AND as inspiration for artists.
Although I’m very much looking forward to the residency, my son might possibly be more excited about our week in this Northeastern corner of Pennsylvania. The kid loves all that nature has to offer – especially bugs and anything water-related. The experience will surely get Lacawac one step closer to its goal of “shaping the next generation of scientists and earth stewards.”
The opportunity also led to an exciting commission – designing and fabricating awards for artists and makers recognized at the PTC’s CREATE Festival on June 1. This was the reason I needed to finally prioritize mastering use of a laser cutter to fabricate my hand-painted designs as 3D artwork. This design, adapted from my 2016 series of bird conservation paintings, appropriately features Mountain Laurel (Pennsylvania’s state flower) and the dearly loved PA Keystone symbol.
The festival was also an opportunity for me to talk about how art can support bird conservation. Festival-goers first saw my pattern of bird local species drawn on the windows of the August Wilson Center where the festival was held. A few words about the impact of bird-window collisions were included in the installation on the highly reflective glass – an appetizer alluding to more to come on the topic during my presentation title, “Bird Conservation Through Art and Science.”
On stage, Matt Webb (the Urban Bird Conservation Coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History) and I shared our experience of collaborating during my artist residency at the museum in 2016 in creating patterns for windows that would prevent birds from flying into the reflective surfaces. The CREATE Festival offered the perfect stage (literally and figuratively) to announce the first of two new bird-safety films featuring my artwork were on the market.
It’s wonderful to live in Pittsburgh where there’s meaningful and growing support of what my fellow creatives and I do.
New spacious studio digs for painting, design, and classes.
After finishing a painting at my last studio, I would hold the piece in my hands and turn circles in my 180 square foot space uselessly searching for any available surface to put the painting on. When people were scheduled to come for a studio visit, I had to ask if they were bringing a guest so I knew if I had to rearrange furniture to accommodate for a third chair. But since moving to my new digs, I could now do cartwheels in my new studio, and maybe I will.
Last year, my husband and I took over an old mechanic’s garage in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and renamed it The Shop. In addition to my studio, the building is home to a second location for the booming Natural Choice Barber Shop, and offers over 3,000 square feet for community events and programming.
Case in point, we recently hosted a 300+ person Valentine-making-party for refugees in Pittsburgh. Even Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilman Dan Gilman joined us to make Valentine’s to welcome our new neighbors.
What I love most about being back in a studio with room to stretch my awkwardly long arms is that the scale of my paintings are not restricted by cramped space. Although I do enjoy making intimately-scaled paintings, it’s nice to have the option to go as large as what will fit through the studio door, which in my case is a garage door. Yes!
As always, studio visits are encouraged. Email me at ashley (at) ashleycecil (dot) com to schedule a time. And now, more than two of you can come at once! Woohoo!
With each day that passes with the new leader at the helm of the United States, I grow more fearful of what lies ahead for my child and for many others. The alarming statements, executive orders, and appointments have cast a wide net that leaves almost no American unaffected. Some days the breadth of challenges seem too immense to tackle. Then, the words of Wendell Berry shake me out of our my stupor:
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
The issue that I’ve been the most absorbed by over the past year is climate change, which is also regrettably out of favor with the new administration. Because the threat of climate change is so pervasive, urgent, and increasingly politicized, it requires support from people of all professions – scientists to philosophers, educators to entrepreneurs, policy makers to painters. It’s personally given me fresh direction and purpose in my work. And now, with my six-month artist residency at a top-five natural history museum completed, I have outcomes to share that demonstrate that artists and scientists belong side-by-side to tell the story of our impact on this planet and to make a call to action.
In my personal experience, scientists’ hard work is often buried in paid subscription publications and are only decipherable to their peers anyway. What a missed opportunity. If the research was easy to access and understand, you might care about integrative taxonomy, bird phenology, and the Anthropecene. It might even change your behavior (to your great benefit). The missed opportunity is what shaped the mission of my artist residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), which was to make dense science relatable to a broad audience to pique curiosity about nature and foster environmental stewardship.
During my residency, I spent more than 500 hours digging through thousands of specimens and creating artwork that painted a picture of nature conservation. One of the topics I quickly gravitated toward was bird conservation and the museum’s work at Powdermill Avian Research Center in partnership with BirdSafe Pittsburgh. Together these entities “work to research and reduce bird mortality in the Steel City” (it’s estimated that up to one billion birds die in the US every year from colliding with windows).
I created and exhibited six mixed-media paintings that each captures a local bird species heavily impacted by window collisions (details and prices for these works are available here). Each portrait is framed by a silk-screened design of both Mountain Laurel (PA’s state flower) and the iconic Pennsylvania keystone symbol. Below the paintings are replicas of the museum’s specimen tags – one for each bird of the same species added to the museum’s collection due to a window strike since 2014.
This residency was a learning experience beyond my wildest imagination. My greater understanding of science and people’s enthusiasm for conservation and collaboration has solidified this direction in my work for the foreseeable future.
As scientists continue to make the Anthropocene a common concept, and the public gains access to more scientific research (for example, research funded by NASA is now available to all for free), I hope other creatives will be inspired to visualize it through their work. This, of course, will broaden our collective understanding of climate change, but it will also encourage people to connect with science and nature through art. Or better said by Oscar Wilde,
“No better way is there to learn to love Nature than to understand Art. It dignifies every flower of the field. And, the boy who sees the thing of beauty which a bird on the wing becomes when transferred to wood or canvas will probably not throw the customary stone.”
A small action on your part can have a big impact in Pittsburgh – vote with a like to support my collaboration with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania to offer art and citizen science workshops to urban youth – Voting has closed.
Good news! I’m joining forces with another outstanding nature conservation organization to offer art and science programming for youth this spring, and you can help make it happen. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania and I are in the running for a “100 Days of US” grant through the Sprout Fund to support a series of workshops that fuse hands-on art activities with citizen science.
Watch our proposal video to learn more. Then, cast your vote today with a like in the upper righthand corner of the page – Voting has closed.
Your vote gets us one step closer to providing children with hands-on learning and direct interaction with nature to help them develop their own works of art that will tangibly be used as conservation tools in their own communities.
And, they’ll get to interact with live birds. You don’t want to rob a child of the opportunity of getting up close and personal with a live bird, do you?
Thank goodness it wasn’t one of those ideas that only makes sense in my head, validated by the fact that FOUR fantastic makers enthusiastically raised their hands to make new products visually related to a bird conservation program closely connected to CMNH – BirdSafe Pittsburgh.
In partnership with several local organizations, BirdSafe Pittsburgh is “working to research and reduce bird mortality in the Steel City.” What’s the problem? It’s estimated that up to one billion birds die each year in the US from colliding with windows, which is one of the leading causes of human-induced deaths among birds.
Yes, that’s utterly depressing, but I’m getting to the warm-fuzzy part. Between now and this year’s Handmade Arcade, the boss ladies listed below and I are in production mode making our goods, which will be launched at Handmade Arcade. These items, varying from blown-glass jewelry to a silk-screen print, will be available individually and as a complete set (if you can’t make it to Handmade Arcade, you will be able to order the individual products on our respective websites).
Our put-a-bird-on-it-collaboration will help birds in two ways:
2) We’ll be signing interested shoppers up for the BirdSafe Pittsburgh citizen science program, which entails monitoring your home for window collisions and reporting your findings, and/or walking designated routes throughout Pittsburgh looking for birds that have collided with windows (dead birds are brought to the museum to be added to their collection; captured live birds can be taken to the Animal Rescue League’s wildlife center to be rehabilitated and released). If you’re so inclined, go ahead and sign up now. Here’s a national program and the Pittsburgh-specific one.
And with that, I’d like to introduce my creative cohorts making art for the birds with me (and tagging the process via #artforthebirds on the social interwebs):
It’s such an honor to work with these talented women and the BirdSafe Pittsburgh program coordinator, Matt Webb. There’s hardly a more blissful combination of things I love than art and ornithology. Ahhh!