Apparently, once you start making artwork inspired by biological sciences, there’s no going back. Since embarking on one artist residency after another at science, natural history, and conservation-based organizations in Pittsburgh, I can’t imagine doing anything else. The swelling pressure to reconcile our strain on nature matched with the awe-inspiring aesthetic of life on this planet has me addicted to hanging out in science labs and closed-off museum collections. 2018 will be no exception.
Today, I start a six-month residency at the Richards-Zawacki Lab (RZL) of the University of Pittsburgh. RZL studies “many aspects of the ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation of amphibians.” I’m particularly interested in their research on whether climate change “shape[s] present day patterns of biodiversity” among amphibians.
I’ll draw inspiration for new artwork from the frogs RZL scientists study, such as leopard frogs and strawberry poison frogs (the latter are found in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama, where PhD student Yusan Yang is pictured above). I have a hunch these vibrant amphibians will translate rather well into my patterned paintings of flora and fauna.
Wish me luck and stay tuned for news about an exhibition of this work, educational art and science workshops, and more.
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.
A few miles away from my home in land-locked Pennsylvania, two exotic tropical birds are unknowingly under a lot of pressure to get it on. The male and female Guam Kingfishers, who live at the National Aviary, are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan to repopulate the bird species in its native Micronesia. The bird was wiped out in the wild decades ago when, as legend has it, a ship wrecked off the coast of Guam and the hitchhiking Brown Tree Snake swam ashore (sorry about the nightmares I just gave you) where it wreaked ecological havoc. With no predators on the island, the invasive snake gorged itself on native birds and wildlife. Today, less than 150 of the birds are alive, all in captivity, including the pair here in Pittsburgh.
And so with a study skin of a Kingfisher in hand, I set out to visually tell this bird’s story. I decided to create two paintings, or portraits you could say – one of each sex to emphasize the importance of the pair. Of course, I had to include the Brown Tree Snake, a key character in this story, as well as several invasive plant species in Guam.
As with most of my paintings, I drew my subjects on craft paper and cut them out to find their perfect place on background patterns of the invasive plants.
After tracing the silhouette of the drawings, I filled them in with an acrylic underpainting.
And then carefully rendered the likeness of the flora and fauna in oil paint.
Here are the two finished 18″ x 24″artworks on paper.
But I rarely stop at finishing a painting, and this was no exception. I used the two images to digitally create a repeating pattern for a new scarf.
All of the corresponding products will be sold at the Aviary’s gift store this August. Each item purchased by an Aviary visitors will support the their conservation work, including plans to reintroduce the Guam Kingfisher into the wild.
If physically visiting the Aviary isn’t in the cards for you, these items are also available on my shop. The original paintings are available direct from my studio – just shoot an email to ashley (at) ashleycecil (dot) com to get additional details.
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.”
Have you ever been enjoying a cup of coffee while soaking up the sunshine pouring in from the window next to you when a bird, seemingly on a suicide mission, slams into the glass at full force? This is not a rare occurrence. Bird-window collisions are one of the leading causes of bird fatalities. Up to one billion birds die annually in the US alone from flying into reflective glass.
This problem can be prevented by installing bird-safe windows or window films that break up the reflection on glass that’s fatal to these creatures. But here’s the rub, in my personal opinion, most of the products currently available on the market are quite frankly not that attractive. One particular variety, vertical stripes, is effective but also will make your windows resemble a jail cell. Nothing I’m aware of offers much aesthetic value. However, as of yesterday, that’s no longer the case.
I can’t wait to see these installed in homes and commercial buildings. If you’re a Pittsburgh customer, I hope you’ll consider getting in touch with me at ashley (at) ashleycecil (dot) com so I can connect you with the BirdSafe Pittsburgh coordinator – they’re looking for building owners willing to offer their home or commercial property for bird-window collision monitoring before and after the films are installed.
Please share your thoughts on the films and share the films with friends!
The idea was hatched at my studio while Nisha and I brainstormed conservation-centric design and fashion for this upcoming Earth Day (April 22). Later, I made drawings for two new textile designs – a botanical pattern of plants found in Pennsylvania, and a pattern of African Penguins (the beloved residents of the nearby National Aviary and also an endangered species).
This limited edition of neckwear is more than handmade and handsome – it’s also extra eco-friendly. Nisha and I saw our collaboration as a perfect opportunity to involve two other Pittsburgh companies to deepen this Earth Day story of environmentally-friendly goods created by independent makers. First, we reached out to Thread International, the East Liberty-based textile company manufacturing fabrics from post-consumer plastics sourced in Haiti and Honduras. Thread provided the necessary yardage for the edition of 12 bow ties (six of each pattern). The final partner, Modesto Studios, a Wilkinsburg-based print shop, silk-screened my designs onto the fabric. The last hands to craft the neckwear were Knotzland stitchers, Pittsburgh residents often apprentices in training on their way to launching their own textile businesses.
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?
The election week was tough, to say the least. What’s an artist to do? Keep making work that connects people to nature and to science that demonstrates the need for environmental stewardship, because there’s never been a more pressing time to give our attention to findings that institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History are revealing about the health of our planet.
EXHIBITION OPENING: EMERGENT PATTERNS Nov. 19, 5 – 8PM, Boxheart Gallery (4523 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224)
Join me for this public reception featuring original artworks resulting from my residency. My work will be exhibited alongside paintings by fellow nature artists Augustina Droze and Deirdre Murphy. Not in Pittsburgh? Send an email to request images and details of the artworks.
Now through the end of August I will be donating 10% of art sales to Ocean Conservancy, which “has assembled a rapid response and recovery team to address the human and environmental needs in the aftermath of the [Gulf Coast oil] spill.” With an estimated 5,000 barrels/210,000 gallons of oil leaking into the ocean daily, we greatly need the expertise of such organizations. You can also directly support their work here.