An artist-in-residence paints a picture of nature conservation

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.

Artist-in-residence Ashley Cecil's workspace at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Caption: My workspace at the museum.

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.

Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil holding bird specimens. 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).

Mixed media paintings of a Magnolia Warbler and Common Yellowthroat by Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil 2016 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.

Ashley_Cecil_bird_conservation_painting_with_specimen_tag Akin to artworks from the Arts and Crafts movement, my paintings are meant to endear you to nature, to these threatened creatures, and to inspire you to get involved with BirdSafe Pittsburgh’s local citizen scientist program or a national program.

Students participating in one of Ashley Cecil's art and science workshops Caption: Students in one of the three art and science workshops I facilitated during CMNH summer camps.

Clearly, producing the original artwork was a big part of my residency, but I was also: 1. Teaching art and science workshops to museum summer camp students;

Carnegie Museum of Natural History visitors color in a mural by Ashley Cecil 2. Designing and installing within the museum a coloring mural illustrating birds of conservation concern for thousands of visitors to collaboratively fill in;

Scarf and coloring poster 3. Putting birds, botany, and science on products that spread the love of nature to wardrobes and kids crafts rooms alike;

Sample handmade products Caption: Details of four handmade products inspired by bird conservation and made by fellow Pittsburgh artists.

4. Organizing four other local artists to launch additional hand-crafted items that promote an appreciation for nature;

Ashley Cecil draws and writes on the glass of taxidermy cases in Bird Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Caption: My drawing of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker and a quote by Joel Sartore – “Conjuring a world without birds is a thing I don’t dare imagine, like the death of a child. Their fate is our own.”

5. Merging words of some of history’s most inspiring writers and poets with my avian drawings on the glass cases of Bird Hall;

Sketchbook studies of nursing mammals Caption: Sketchbook studies of nursing mammals.

6. Uniting furry mothers with human mothers with a wallpaper of nursing mammals for the museum’s breastfeeding area (this will be installed in time for Mother’s Day 2017);

Ashley Cecil holds a bird specimen over a bird-safe window film sample Caption: A sample window film.

7. Contemplating how my artwork could be translated into patterns for window films to prevent birds from flying into glass;

Four Pittsburgh artist meet with Ashley Cecil at the Carnegie Museum Caption: Fellow Pittsburgh artists, Kirsten Lowe-Rebel, Gillian Preston, and Allison Glancey met at the museum to learn about BirdSafe Pittsburgh.

8. Hosting visits with people of all industries and backgrounds to show them what comes of an artist being set loose in a natural history museum.

CMNH artist-in-residence Ashley Cecil is interviewed on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Caption: My interview on CBS’s Pittsburgh Today Live.

9. And finally, using my work to spread the word about the museum’s research and conservation efforts far and wide – Residency-related artworks and events were featured more than 20 times through online, print, TV, and radio media, including Carnegie Magazine, KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live, NextPittsburgh, Pittsburgh Magazine, the Post-Gazette, TechVibe Radio, and TribLive.

Scientists conducting field research Caption: CMNH scientists banding wild birds and collecting data.

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.

A child concentrates on coloring birds of conservation concern 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.”


Get and give snail mail love in 2017

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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).

Long live snail mail!


Upcoming events, art and handmade goods from an artist residency in natural history

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.

Since July, I’ve been making original artwork and related products inspired by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I’m working as an artist-in-residence. At two upcoming events, that work will be on public view and available for purchase. If you’re in Pittsburgh, I’ve got my fingers crossed that you can join me at both. If you’re elsewhere, links are included to connect you remotely.

And with that, here are the details…


boxheartshow-headerEXHIBITION 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.

 

ha-header-v2HANDMADE ARCADE
Dec. 3, 11AM – 7PM, David Lawrence Convention Center
At this internationally renowned arts and craft show of 150+ makers, four local artists and I will be launching our BirdSafe Pittsburgh-inspired products, varying from an infinity scarf to blown glass jewelry. Purchasing these products helps us to financially support the museum’s bird conservation efforts. Buy your favorite individual items from each artist, or buy the entire set of seven products prior to Handmade Arcade and pick them up at the event. Not in Pittsburgh? My products are available online now. The other artists will also be selling their creations directly on their websites in the coming weeks. Visit Broken Plates, KloRebel, Strawberryluna and WorkerBird.

The grand idea of all of this that the artwork will:

  1. Endear people to creatures impacted by urbanization,
  2. Financially support conservation research, and
  3. Get folks directly involved in citizen science programs (like NestWatch and BirdSafe Pittsburgh).

And because this is just the beginning, I would love to hear your thoughts on how art can enhance and support science. How am I doing and how could this be better?


Art for the birds

Wood Thrush painting Original artwork used to develop a textile pattern.

 

No really, this is about art that supports bird conservation.

About two months into my artist residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), ideas for artwork that I would translate into a new infinity scarf AND a coloring poster got my wheels turning about other Pittsburgh artists who also might like to make natural science-inspired products. After all, why should I have all the fun?

bird conservation inspired textile pattern The finished textile pattern being printed on fabric for scarves.

 

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).

BirdSafe Pittsburgh-inspired coloring mural My BirdSafe Pittsburgh-inspired coloring poster.

 

Our put-a-bird-on-it-collaboration will help birds in two ways:

1) A portion of our sales will be donated to support the aforementioned conservation efforts. For example, our contribution will help pay to fly wild birds through a flight tunnel that tests the effectiveness of bird-friend window prototypes, and rehabilitation of stunned birds at a local wildlife center.

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):

WorkerBirdKim Fox of WorkerBird

 

strawberrylunaAllison Glancey of strawberryluna

 

KLoRebelKirsten Lowe-Rebel of KLoRebel

 

Broken PlatesGillan Preston of Broken Plates

 

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!

Now, onto sewing scarves…


Three days to cast your vote on which mammals to include in a new toile pattern

IMG_2267 Pattern concept sketch

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. FullSizeRender FullSizeRender (2) FullSizeRender (1) 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.


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.


Doomed due date for baby #2

Today, May 4, 2016, is my second child’s due date. But there will be no trip to the hospital. No celebration. Not even eager anticipation of the little one’s late arrival on another day. It’s quite the opposite – my husband and I will anxiously wait for this day to pass because we lost the baby.

Talking publicly about such a personal matter is not therapeutic for me. Actually, I hate it. However, I’m going there anyway for two reasons. 1. Miscarriages are common (up to 25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies). Yet, since it’s rarely discussed, many people feel alone in the tragedy. So, if this has happened to you, I assure you that you are not the only member of this shitty club. 2. My particular experience rocketed me into an already budding and deeper path in my artwork – one that honors the beauty in natural life cycles. Since I anticipate this is going to be consistent theme in my work going forward, I might as well use this misfortune to unpack it.

And with that, here’s what happened:

Months ago, an ultrasound technician told me, as I looked at my little peanut of 14 weeks on the monitor, “I’m so sorry, but there’s no heartbeat.” Suffice it to say I was such a wreck that I couldn’t drive home.

Instead of waiting to miscarry, I opted to have a D and C procedure the next day. The 25 hour period between hearing the terrible news and having the procedure was awful. Really awful. I tried to watch as much mindless television as possible to avoid fixating on the deceased fetus I was still carrying. It felt like holding my breath so as not to breath poison.

The procedure was straightforward and quick. Physically, I felt as good as new in no time. My emotional well-being slowly started to follow suit. I was more grateful than ever for my son, my health, my incredibly supportive partner, and for life in general. Then, I got a call from my doctor. She told me that a test revealed that I had what’s called a partial molar pregnancy. In plain English, my egg had been fertilized by two sperm, and so there were three set of chromosomes (two sets from dad and one from me, versus the healthy scenario of one set from each). This fatal concoction meant the baby and placenta were following a disastrous recipe for development.

Having an explanation was somewhat of a relief, until my doctor told me that in a small percentage of molar pregnancies, tissue left in the uterus will continue to grow and develop into cancer. Think about that – pregnancy can cause cancer. The heartache came rushing back. Fortunately, after months of follow-up tests, it seems I’m in the clear.

In the thick of it, I felt fortunate to have painting as a means of processing what was festering in my mind. On one hand, there’s the pain and unfairness of it. On the other hand, there’s gratitude and trust in nature taking its course. Since my 2015 artist residency at institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I had amassed a pile of natural history books to nurture my new found love for science. Several of them were blissfully perfect at addressing this juxtaposition of destruction and beauty in nature, especially Bernd Heinrich’s Life Everlasting. With that book close at hand, I dragged an old botched painting out of storage and dumped my head and heart over top of it.

Baby_Number_2-500x1512px-72dpi “Baby #2″, 20″x60” acrylic and oil on canvas

One of the first things I noticed about how I was executing this painting was that I loosened up – a huge departure from my usual style of very tight rendering. Once I got my fill of therapeutic “scribbling” on the canvas, I found that the small cluster of hyper-realistic pomegranates and a Magpie stood out even more distinctly on a messy background. It also felt symbolic of my mind coming into focus – from chaos to clarity.

Speaking of symbolism, this painting is oozing with it. I read up on symbolism in nature (on a myriad of topics ranging from Dutch still-life painting to religious texts), and found various interpretations of an egg representing life, resurrection and hope; a snake representing the “corruptibility of human flesh“; pomegranates representing fertility; a single magpie (a scavenger that will steal and eat eggs) representing death and misfortune; white lilies representing purity; tulips representing love.

And although I didn’t run across any references specifically to burying beetles, I was compelled to include three of them in my painting. Burying beetles are often described as nature’s undertakers because even one lone beetle can move a rodent carcass to soft soil where it will dig a hole under the deceased for it to fall into. There, underground, the rodent becomes the sustenance for new life. Some may find this repulsive, but without nature’s cleanup crew, circumstances would be far more unpleasant. Being grossed out by decay is probably some form of self-preservation, but I find it to be increasingly captivating and reassuring. Life doesn’t end at death, it starts anew.

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Finally, there’s the pattern tile motif in pink. I wanted to continue using pattern in my work, so I designed a stencil in the shape of a seed sprouting into two fully formed blooms on the left and right and a single diseased bud in the center – our chromosomal mess. I didn’t realize until after I finished the painting that I had used the two most stereotypical baby colors to create the pattern.

The evolution of life naturally transforming from one stage to the next can be agonizing and painful, even violent and vicious at times (if the latter piqued your interest, look up “sky burial”). And yet within that there is incredible beauty and tenderness. There’s no grand conclusion to state here, rather a declaration of ease with my fetus with 69 chromosomes, my cancer scare, my husband, and I being part of something that supersedes our individual parts – something I find comfort in. Or better said by Bernd Heinrich in Life Everlasting:

“Just as space-time connects the cosmos, and the molecules that make up our bodies connect us to the past exploding stars, we are connected to the cosmos in the same way we are connected to earth’s biosphere and to each other. Physically we are like the spokes of a wheel to a bicycle, or a carburetor to a car. The metaphor that we are part of the earth ecosystem is not a belief; it is a reality. We are tiny specks in a fabulous system, parts of something grand. We are part of what life has ‘learned’ from its inception on earth and has genetically encoded in DNA that will be passed on until the sun goes out.”


An avian pet portrait (yours could be next)

Do you know what will give you a sense of invincibility when it comes to painting pet portraits? Nailing a commission to capture 37 dogs on a single canvas. That gig from way back in 2007 required multiple dog handlers and a spreadsheet to track each dog’s distinct markings and relative size. So when a long-time follower of my work recently contacted me about painting his wife’s two Indian Ringneck Parrots as a surprise birthday gift, I reflected back on the 35 Pomeranians, 1 Yorkie and 1 mutt, and thought to myself, “I’ve got this.”

This new commission was especially exciting because it was the first pet-specific commission I had received since delving into my textile pattern-centric style of work – a perfect fit, if you ask me.

The client sent me photos of the interior of their home where the painting would hang, including the wallpaper, decorative plates, and curtains. I wanted the pattern in the background of my painting to “fit” in the space as you would expect in a top-notch William Morris drawing room.

GaryCrump-sketch3

As with all of my commissions, I first sent the client this rough digital mock-up of the painting (hey, no jokes about my awful Photoshopping – I said it was rough).

Once we agreed on a creative direction, I got started painting on the 18″ x 24″ board (for those of you who love all the minute details, here’s a step-by-step explanation of how I create a painting).

Ringneck Parrots on Blue

And here’s the finished piece. I’ve never been so happy with gold leaf in my work – it must be the stark contrast of gold on top of the dark blues in the background (note to self). I also was in love with the red-ish orange African Tulip Tree blooms – they might become a regular in my painted flower repertoire. And, fortunately, my client’s wife was in love with the birds.

Clearly this client has set a high bar for birthday gift-giving. If you want to up your own game, let’s talk about how I can help you score serious brownie points with a commission for your special someone. Get in touch at ashley at ashleycecil.com.


1 new year’s resolution, 2 mammals, and 84 sketches

 

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2015 marks the first year I’ve actually accomplished a new year’s resolution (unless you count the times I promised myself to eat chocolate and swear more often). I figured there was no better time to brag about my awesomeness than right before I’m due for the next new year’s resolution (since, given my track record, this year’s success is likely an outlier).

What did I do? I drew – a lot. In fact, I turned my resolution to draw regularly into a commitment that I would make one 4.5″x6.75″ pen and ink drawing for each blog subscriber who provided their mailing address. My thinking was that accountability to others would hold me to the challenge. Granted, it took the better part of an entire year to pull it off, but I did indeed make a unique drawing for each one of your 84 requests. There’s a serious chance carpal tunnel was a byproduct of this undertaking, but I won’t hold it against you.

I loved the unexpected requests a few of you made. For example, someone asked for a rabbit. I don’t really draw mammals, but hey, why not? See if you can spot it. But wait, it gets better – my favorite request was made by my talented best friend. She was also the beta tester of the online form I used to collect addresses. I asked her to put something in each field to make certain every part worked. Her response to “Sketch requests (a favorite bird, insect, plant, or surprise me)” was,

“Cat about to chomp a clover but a little leprechaun is standing under it pointing at the bad cat not to eat the plant.”

I know she thought she had outsmarted me, but I accepted her challenge and drew her hallucinogenic daydream like a boss (bring it on, Rosshirt). That fantastic doodle is waiting for you for at the end of this post.

And with that, I wish you a happy new year! Thanks for all of your support in 2015, and enjoy browsing these highlights from the ocean of snail mail sketches now scattered across the country and Western Europe.

2-19-15-front-500x338px-150dpi 2-26-15-front-500x340px-150dpi 3-5-15-front-500x340px-150dpi 3-11-15-front-500px-150dpi  7-13-15-front-500px-150dpi 9-17-15-front-500px-150dpi 9-18-15-front-500px-150dpi 10-5-15-front-500px-150dpi 10-6-15-front-500px-150dpi

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I call this one “Bad cat!”


New artwork and prints now available!

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The highlight of my week so far was sitting at a long table feasting my eyes on the piles of new giclee prints of my original artwork awaiting my signature. Although I have a slight hand cramp to show for it, prints of the 12 paintings I created during my 2015 artist residency project are now signed and ready for purchase. The originals are available as well – just email me at ashley@ashleycecil.com for details.

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My own set of all 12 prints are already framed and installed in my living room. Now it’s time to spread them around to other homes! Here’s how you can get your hands on your very own:

  1. If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, come by my booth at The National Aviary’s Wings & Wildlife Art Show, this weekend, Nov. 7 & 8 (I’ll also be vending at this year’s Handmade Arcade at the David Lawrence Convention Center on Dec. 5).
  2. Otherwise, all you need is access to the intertubes, where you can make your purchase via my online shop.

Four of the 12 paintings are available for individual purchase for $75 a piece (the four that got the most votes in last week’s poll). The other eight are only available as a complete set of all 12 prints for $875. If you voted for your four favorites, don’t forget to use the voter appreciation coupon code emailed to you for 10% off. And thank you for your support!


Polling the audience – vote for your favorite paintings

I did it. They’re done. All 12 of them. It took nearly four months, access to specimens at three museums and collaboration with three scientists, but I finished each tedious painting of flora and fauna from my summer artist residency project in Pittsburgh.

The paintings photographed beautifully (click the paintings below to enlarge them), but there’s nothing like seeing them in person. If you’re local to Pittsburgh, you’re always welcome to come for a studio visit to see them with your own eyes – just email me at ashley@ashleycecil.com. I handle sales of my original artwork offline anyway.

If signed prints are what your after, you’re in luck. Before you buy however, you have to vote. Although you can buy all 12 prints as a set for $875, only four of the 12 will be available for individual purchase for $75 each, and you get to vote on which four make it into print production. Voting is only open through Thursday, October 22. So, get ready to make tough decisions and

Sorry, voting is now closed.

When the votes have been counted and popularity has spoken, you’ll receive an email with a coupon code for print orders made via my online shop – because I appreciate your good taste and two scents.

If you like to buy things in person and you have a phobia of artist studios, I understand. Let’s rendezvous at one of these upcoming Pittsburgh events:

• The National Aviary’s Wings & Wildlife Art Show, Nov. 7 – 8
• Handmade Arcade, Dec. 5

Update: The votes are in! These were your top four picks: “Raven on Teal,” “Canaries on Purple,” ” Yellow-headed Blackbird on Blue,” and “Bateleur Eagle on Olive.” Thanks to everyone who weighed in. You’ll get your discount code for prints soon.

Blue-faced Honey Eater on Taupe Blue-faced Honey Eater on Taupe Raven on Teal Raven on Teal Socorro Parakeet on Coral Socorro Parakeet on Coral Bateleur Eagle on Olive Bateleur Eagle on Olive Morpho Butterfly on Blue Morpho Butterfly on Blue Harlequin Beetle on Olive Harlequin Beetle on Olive Dahlias on Navy Dahlias on Navy Orchids on Taupe Orchids on Taupe Red-legged Honeycreeper on Purple Red-legged Honeycreeper on Purple Rose-breasted Grosbeak on Coral Rose-breasted Grosbeak on Coral Yellow-headed Blackbird on Blue Yellow-headed Blackbird on Blue Canaries on Purple Canaries on Purple


My BYOB tour of Pittsburgh – that’s “B” for botany, birds, and bugs!

One Mission. Two Months. 12+ Paintings. Hundreds of new friends (with 2, 4, and 8+ legs). Thousands to thank.

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Self-directed residencies are like cooking classes (stay with me) – they have a habit of leaving you exhausted, proud, and wanting to do more without always appreciating the work that everyone around you put in to make it possible.  Thank you to the organizations, businesses, friends, family and broader Pittsburgh community for making it possible for me.

For those playing a bit of catch up, my summer artist residency project was fairly simple: 1. Suffocate myself with birds, bugs, and botany, and 2. translate it each day into a pattern, print, or fine art work . I’m happy to report that both objectives were successfully met, plus loads of additional perks. Here are a few highlights:

1. Meeting scientists – Spending my days with ornithologists and entomologists selecting behind-the-scenes bird and insect specimens made for a huge boost in my creative output. Hearing these experts talk about their work and studying their collections flooded my brain with ideas for the paintings that lay ahead. And as word spread about my project, other scientists introduced themselves, which led to opportunities such as touring the amphibian and reptile collections at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Who knows, exotic frogs and reptiles might soon make an appearance in my work.

IMG_7525 A tray of Red-legged Honey Creeper specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. photo Carnegie Museum of Natural History entomologist John Rawlins poses with a Brahmin Moth. He jokingly calls this his “mad scientist” face.

 

2. Lunching in good company – I didn’t think there would be such a response to the open invitation for people to come join me for lunch wherever I was painting on a given day. Yet, nearly everyday in July and August an artist, interior designer, retail shop owner, scientist, or just about anyone you can imagine accompanied me for my afternoon break to learn more about the residency.

IMG_7138 I made all of my lunch dates pose for an obligatory photo, including these two – illustrators Molly Thompson and Gregg Valley.

 

3. Painting from floral arrangements made specifically for my artwork – Stephanie Kirby of Blue Daisy Floral Designs hosted me at her beautiful shop to paint her signature arrangements. She took my paintings-in-progress-patterns when I arrived and used them as the basis to create custom arrangements. It was such a fun collaboration! Another perk was installing enlarged prints of my artwork in Stephanie’s bridal consult room – check them out if you are in the area.

IMG_6798 Stephanie Kirby’s floral handiwork and my painting of her bouquet. The painting is a work in progress. IMG_6795 Painting from fresh floral arrangements after installing my work in Stephanie’s bridal consult room.

 

4. Makin’ the news – Fortunately, this project garnered some media attention. I was interviewed on CBS’s Pittsburgh Today Live, and Alexandra Oliver wrote an article about my work for Pittsburgh Articulate.

IMG_7017 On the set of Pittsburgh Today Live with host Brenda Waters.

 

5. Befriending budding artists and scientists – One thing I didn’t see coming was the fact that my residency schedule overlapped with peak summer camp season. Between the hours of 10am and 2pm-ish, I was regularly surrounded by swarms of curious elementary students.  Questions flowed like the juice boxes, but the sticky fingers were worth it because of the many endearing conversations I had similar to this synopsis of a chat with six year old Nora – Her: What are you doing? Me: Painting a moth. Her: That’s really good. Me: Thank you! Her: [long thoughtful pause] Do you want to be friends? Me: Of course!

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6. Getting better at what I do. On my last day at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I decided to be a glutton for punishment and paint a Brahmin Moth. After an entire day of painting nothing but this single mind-numbingly detailed specimen, I sat back, looked at the fruits of my labor and thought, “I think it’s fair to say I’ve become a better painter.” Practice makes perfect.

IMG_7741 A real Brahmin Moth specimen and my own painted version of it. The painting is a work in progress.

 

What’s next? There’s talk of a show of all of the finished paintings – stay tuned for details. In the meanwhile, mark these bigger events on your calendar where you can buy prints of my residency paintings, as well as scarves, pillows and other products printed with these works:

Ashley_Cecil-2015_residency_artwork All 12 of the paintings from my residency together. Several are still works in progress.

If you’re hungry for more visual eye-candy from this project, I regularly posted photos from the project to my Instagram and Twitter accounts.


A marathon of painting birds, bugs and botany

Ashley Cecil painting flowers

Maybe you’ve seen my elusive Instagram or Facebook posts about my “top secret” summer project of 2015. If the suspense is killing you, don’t fret because this blog post is the grand project announcement.  The secret is that I’m partnering with Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and four Pittsburgh florists to undertake a self-directed artist residency during all of July and August. In plain English, that means I’ll be on-site for those two months at these seven organizations feverishly creating new paintings from their respective specimens, exhibits and floral arrangements.

"Blue Jays on Gray" painting with Blue Jay specimens

Why? Well, it’s twofold. Firstly, because I have a young child, I’m not a fit for most formal residency programs where an artist packs up to spend weeks or months of uninterrupted time producing new work at a purpose-specific facility (it turns out, people don’t like toddlers throwing tantrums nearby while they’re making art). Secondly, because I find painting my paintings and selling my paintings to be two full-time jobs, I need to find a ways to get myself in front of new audiences while not compromising on my production time. So, this residency is my solution to staying close to home while creating new work while also meeting new people equally interested in birds, bugs and botany.

Ashley Cecil with beetle specimen

I’ve spent six months planning the unique residency in coordination with over a dozen individuals at the seven institutions and businesses. After many emails, phone calls and meetings, we’ve ironed out a schedule for the public to watch me work. I’ll spend one day per week in my studio getting the paintings to the stage where I’m ready to paint the objects in the foreground (birds, insects and plants). On the following three days, I’ll work from live and taxidermied specimens of birds, insects and plants at the participating venues (admission fees apply at the three institutions). On top of the regular painting sessions, social events are scheduled at two florists for you to sip cocktails while enjoying the art and my fragrant floral subjects.

Like all things I plan, this schedule will likely change. So, get the latest updates on my whereabouts from day-to-day on social media (I’m on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook), or email me (ashley(at)ashleycecil.com). I’ll also be using the hashtags #ashleycecil, #byobirds, #byobugs and #byobotany. Hmmm, this sort of feels like a spinoff of “Where’s Waldo” in the making.

Week 1
Wed, July 1 – National Aviary
Thurs, July 2 – Phipps

Week 2
Mon, July 6 – Studio
Tues, July 7 – CMNH (insects)

Week 3
Mon, July 13 – Studio
Tues, July 14 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, July 15 – National Aviary
Thurs, July 16 – Blue Daisy Floral: Painting followed by a happy hour from 5:30 – 7:30 PM. RSVP required.

Week 4
Mon, July 20 – Studio
Tues, July 21 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, July 22 – CMNH (birds)
Thurs, July 23 – Phipps

Week 5
Mon, July 27 – Studio
Tues, July 28 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, July 29 – National Aviary

Week 6
Mon, Aug 3 – Studio
Tues, Aug 4 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, Aug 5 – National Aviary
Thurs, Aug 6 – Phipps

Week 7
Wed, Aug 12 – CMNH (birds)
Thurs, Aug 13 – Cuttings Flower & Garden Market: Painting and open house with drinks and refreshments from 2- 6 PM. Event details are here.

Week 8
Mon, Aug 17 – Studio
Tues, Aug 18 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, Aug 19 – CMNH (birds)
Thurs, Aug 20 – Phipps

Week 9
Mon, Aug 24 – Studio
Tues, Aug 25 – CMNH (insects)
Wed, Aug 26 – National Aviary
Thurs, Aug 27 – 4121 Main

Come solo, bring a friend, bring your kids – all are welcome. And, since I do have to eat everyday, I would also love to get lunch with you at CMNH, Phipps or the Aviary. Let’s make a date!


Old painting with a new purpose

I suffer from a condition I call “Maker Syndrome.” Being a member of Pittsburgh’s Techshop worsens the symptoms, which are creative distraction, idea overload and project envy. It takes a great deal of focus to keep myself on task with an already tedious painting process. So, I’m thoughtfully adding new skills to my repertoire that build on what I’m already good at. My latest budding area of expertise is reupholstering furniture.

Ashley_Cecil-Pin_tailed_Manakins_on_Blue-chairThe first few attempts were on chairs from Craigslist, like this outstanding find. I sanded them, spray painted them and recovered the seats with my custom-printed fabric.

Blue_Jays_on_Gray1Then, I landed a commission to give the makeover treatment to a client’s family heirloom dinning room chairs. The commission started with the client picking this existing 24″x24″ acrylic, oil and 22k gold painting of Blue Jays, which I then translated into a design conducive for printing on fabric.

Blue_Jays_on_Gray1_for_fabricIn this particular case, the parts of the original image that were intentionally cropped off at the edges of the canvas had to be Photoshop-ed in so the image could be centered on the seat. The gold leaf in the circular design also had to be replaced with a solid color since an image of gold printed on fabric looks, well, fake.

Ashley_Cecil-chair_commissionBlistered knuckles, a box of upholstery staples and an entire season of “Orange Is The New Black” later, I had eight of these beauties to return to my client’s dinning room. They’re a match made in heaven with that rug, right?

Digitally manipulating the original painting was not at all easy. Actually, I had to take a six week-long class on Photoshop specific to artists/textile designers to figure it out (well worth it by the way). I emailed the folks who run the workshop on Pattern Observer to show them the fruits of my labor and their excellent teaching skills, and they posted about it on their blog!

It was a lot of fun giving this old painting a new purpose (sans the blistered knuckles part). Do your chairs need a facelift? Or do you need that orange chair above in your living room? Get in touch and let’s talk upholstery.


My process step by step

George, the stuffed Passenger Pigeon has gone home to his drawer at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was great getting to know him as he stared at me day after day while I painted his portrait. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end (literally in his case as an extinct species of 100 years). The process of creating this homage was well documented and gives me an opportunity to share how it works. Passenger_Pigeon_on_Mint-background-500x500px-150pdi Step one is covering the canvas with a solid color in acrylic paint, followed by a flat pattern. Passenger Pigeon - painting progress There’s no room for error with anything that’s added from this point forward because the next layer of painting is done in oils – if I did make a mistake, I couldn’t paint over it with the background color because you can’t paint acrylic (water-based) over oil. So I’ve developed a way to eliminate or at least minimize mistakes – before I continue painting, I draw the bird(s) that will go in the foreground of the painting on craft paper exactly posed and sized as I want them on the canvas. Then I carefully cut them out and lightly tape them in place. Passenger Pigeon - painting process Now I use a color of oil paint similar to the background to trace the silhouette of the bird so I know exactly where everything goes. Passenger_Pigeon_on_Mint-bird_only-500x500px-150dpi And then I paint it in with oils. Passenger_Pigeon_on_Mint-500x500px-150dpi I usually freehand the foliage and insects because a stray brush stroke of a flower petal is far easier to “fix” than any part of a bird. Sometimes I add a design in gold leaf, but I don’t think this one needs it. So there you have it – a finished “Passenger Pigeon on Mint.” Painting is still only one part of what I do. I’m also a textile designer and seamstress/maker. Just this week, Ben Saks of Float Pictures finished a video documenting my process from start to finish. So I will stop typing and let you watch. Enjoy!