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.
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.
I’ve done it. I’ve made my first legit artwork in three dimensions. The opportunity to create beyond a canvas came from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which commissioned this bike rack of the wing of Pennsylvania’s state bird – a Ruffed Grouse.
The process of working with the city (for design approvals) and fabricators including welding apprentices at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh was especially exciting because I love a good technical challenge. Now with the learning curve behind me, I could have this or a similar bike rack built and installed within a few weeks. Want an avian-inspired bike rack outside your building? Let’s talk.
Before and after powder coating.
The bike rack being installed on Liberty Ave in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo by Seth Culp-Ressler.
The request for the thoughtful gifts came from the gentleman who dreamed up the event, which was “designed to measurably improve diverse, and particularly African American, representation on the boards of publicly traded companies in the Pittsburgh region.” Instead of presenting the forum attendees with another tech device or engraved knickknack, he wanted guests to have something truly unique, memorable, handmade and with a Pittsburgh connection. That’s where Knotzland and I come in.
The original inspiration for the pattern of African Penguins was an Earth Day nod to the National Aviary’s efforts to conserve the endangered bird. This Pittsburgh organization houses a waddle of these penguins, which were my models for the ink painting used to make the repeating pattern. That design was printed on fabric and then made by hand in Pittsburgh into scarves and bowties.
Now, a crowd of stylish corporate directors and C-suite executives are sporting exclusive neckwear that supports local makers and advocating for environmental conservation (take that, tech-device-that-ends-up-in-the-junk-drawer!).
Hey, would you do me a huge favor? The next time you or someone in your orbit is shopping for a special gift for such an event (or maybe gifts for a wedding party, etc.), please send them this post. Knotzland and I love custom orders, and between our two respective products, we’ve got everyone on your list covered.
Although it seems entirely impossible, it’s time for holiday shopping and I’m ready for you! Scarves and prints of my paintings of flora and fauna are bursting out of boxes ready to be packed in my car for the two upcoming shows I’ll be vending at this holiday season.
And then, my friends, is the beloved Handmade Arcade on December 2nd. This shopping bonanza actually scares me a little – Handmade Arcade folks don’t joke around about making their purchases. Last year, I don’t think I made it to the bathroom the entire day because of the steady stream of shoppers, and someone actually insisted on buying the scarf I was wearing because I had sold out of that pattern. I’ve been practicing swiping credit cards and am ready for y’all!
Whether you’re in Pittsburgh to shop in person, or using the interwebs to get the job done, get your 15% off for subscribing to my updates – I really do appreciate that you follow my work. If we see each other in person, just remind me to apply your discount; if you’re shopping online…[only subscribers got the coupon code – sign yourself up to get on board].
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.
If I had a dollar for every time someone who bought one of my scarves said, “you should print this on wallpaper,” I could have already wallpapered my own house in gold (instead it’s now wallpapered with my own designs). Problem solved because it’s now available on my shop.
Each standard roll of this woven wallpaper is 2′ wide by 12′ long and printed in the US. The material is eco-friendly and contains no formaldehyde, phthalates, or PVC. The self-adhesive backing is mess-free, repositionable during installation, durable, and easily removable (pretty much perfect, right?). Rolls cut to a custom length can be ordered to fit your specific space and minimize waste. Simply send your wall dimensions to me at ashley (at) ashleycecil (dot) com for a quote.
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.
Per your requests, I’m vowing to do a better job of sharing new available artworks as I finish them. And the latest painting off my easel is Blooms and Bird, February 2017.
Creating this 12″ x 16″ mixed media painting was an exercise in one of my favorite studio practices – repurposing my favorite imagery and tools from past paintings to create a new “best-of” version. When I start a new painting or a series of paintings, I find new photo reference, experiment with new styles and methods, and make new stencils for my patterns. Inevitably, I end up favoring individual components of each piece – a plant species I previously didn’t know about, or maybe a new stencil pattern. All of those components get stored for later use, and that’s exactly how this particular painting came to be.
The flowers in this piece are inspired by a well-worn photo book on making floral arrangements. I especially love the wilting tulip – a botanical pose I’ve used many times. Then, the mix of both loose and tight rendering with multiple mediums is a favorite style of working on my wedding bouquet commissions. Lastly, I reused two stencils, including the falling bird. What do you think of the result?
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.”
For nearly two years, it has warmed my heart to see people who admire my work display my art postcards on refrigerators, office desks, and in frames. For 2017, I hope you’ll join my growing list of art-by-snail-mail-patrons by purchasing a $15 one-year subscription to these full-color 5.5″x8.5″ postcards featuring my latest paintings. They go out at least three times a year and also make a great gift for your fellow lovers of flora and fauna. It’s the perfect remedy to the bill and jury-duty-notice-blues.
And since it’s Cyber Monday, use the coupon code “ilovesnailmail” by to get 15% off your entire purchase when you buy a subscription with any other item in my shop (good through 12/5/16).
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.
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!
My artist residency at at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is going well, very well. Scientists have lunched with me, summer camp students have made art with me, and I’ve come up with far more viable ideas for great paintings about natural history than there’s time for. Fortunately, a handful of those ideas are clear standouts, including a series of six paintings of nursing mammals that will be used to make a toile-like pattern to be installed as wallpaper in the museum’s award-winning dedicated breastfeeding room. The trouble is, I can’t decide which mammals to include in the pattern. Of course I blame my indecisiveness on the museum because taking stock of the mammals in the second floor dioramas induced an overload of inspiration. So, you get to decide. Between now and midnight on Sunday, August 28, you can cast your vote for the six nursing mammals you think would be best suited for this pattern. It’s hard, but I know you can muster the strength to choose between a zebra and a jaguar. Thank you for weighing in. Ps – I’m dedicating this pattern to the all the moms out there who have trudged into a public bathroom to nurse in a restroom stall, or pump while trying to avoid eye contact with strangers reaching for a paper towel because the only outlet at your disposal is directly next to the paper towel dispenser. There soon will be an especially swanky place for you to feed your little one(s) that will be the envy of all non-lactating persons.
The trouble is, I can’t decide which mammals to include in the pattern. Of course I blame my indecisiveness on the museum because taking stock of the mammals in the second floor dioramas induced an overload of inspiration. So, you get to decide. Between now and midnight on Sunday, August 28, you can cast your vote for the six nursing mammals you think would be best suited for this pattern. It’s hard, but I know you can muster the strength to choose between a zebra and a jaguar. Thank you for weighing in. Ps – I’m dedicating this pattern to the all the moms out there who have trudged into a public bathroom to nurse in a restroom stall, or pump while trying to avoid eye contact with strangers reaching for a paper towel because the only outlet at your disposal is directly next to the paper towel dispenser. There soon will be an especially swanky place for you to feed your little one(s) that will be the envy of all non-lactating persons.