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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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 email@example.com for details.
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:
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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:
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.