Invasive Fertility

Now that I’m back in my studio after years of science-based residency work, I’m revisiting a series about invasive species and female human fertility. The two topics have often weighed on me as a mother and contributor to the decline of our ailing environment.

I started this series (titled Invasive Fertility) between having my first child and a miscarriage, and before having my second child. In the midst of the powerful experience of creating life, I was learning in detail how our booming human population is devastating ecosystems and threatening a global mass extinction. The list of ways humans facilitate environmental degradation is hard to keep track of. One way that has become visually glaring to me in my own city is human introduction of non-native plant and insect species. Invasive vines are blanketing urban forests of enormous mature trees surrounding my neighborhood. The emerald ash borer is worsening the problem by targeting Ash trees. The threats go on and on.

As the situation unfolded in front of me, I did what living things do – make more of themselves. Being pregnant three times was, dare I say, a cosmic experience. I later wrote: “This cup cradled a human-scale big bang that set in motion an expansion of life, stardust encoded to make toes and eyelashes, memories and consciousness.” Nothing I’ve ever experienced has been more powerful. Unfortunately it turns out, that power uninhibited can be destructive.

And so I’m putting the two thoughts on paper (both the painted and written variety), to sit together uncomfortably. Like good therapy, there’s some reprieve in getting these thoughts out of my head and into a physical form, even if the problem still exists. Stay tuned to see the finished works, and keep reading to get to some prose…

One of Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil's pelvic paintings in progress   Four of Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil's pelvic paintings in progress

Just Bones
The young studio visitor asked, “Why are you painting bones?” The artist comes down to eye level and leans in. “Because they’re magic. This one here. This is a female pelvic bone. Every human being who ever existed and every one that ever will is cradled in this vessel. It’s life’s first home. And see this part? This opening? That’s the doorway to life on this side. This bone is an unimaginably powerful thing, and you have one. That must make you unimaginably powerful.”

Courier of Foreign Objects
How did this once complete set of legos scatter from a box in the basement to under the beds, the silverware drawer, inside my shoe, the fireplace, the vegetable garden? The courier is a kindergartener busy making make-believe wherever his whim takes him. These plastic building blocks give mobility to his creations and taint surroundings with hazardous foreign objects.

How did this once balanced ecosystem scatter from its native home oceans away to foreign old-growth forests, fields of food, city parks, garden centers, our backyards? The couriers are grown ups sailing shipping vessels, checking international luggage, hiding stowaways on the soles of shoes. These fungi, beetles, serpents and diseases hitchhike on building materials of prosperity and personal effects that facilitate wanderlust. Upon arrival they mount an aggressive coup to overthrow the hand that feeds us.

No more is the intact lego fire truck or the native forest. Their original forms have disappeared in the dilution. Foreign parts have dispersed and disrupted the native landscape leaving only shapeless monotony everywhere.


Avian bike rack for downtown Pittsburgh cyclists

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.

Bike rack designed by artist Ashley CecilBefore and after powder coating.

Bike rack designed by artist Ashley CecilThe bike rack being installed on Liberty Ave in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo by Seth Culp-Ressler.

Bike rack designed by artist Ashley CecilPhoto by Seth Culp-Ressler.


My new studio assistant has arrived (and needs serious training)

Artist Ashley Cecil announces her new studio assistantHe’s here! The newest addition to my family and studio has arrived. As said on Instagram with a hint of honest sarcasm, he’s not very helpful yet, but he’s young and trainable.

So, now I get to blame all of my screw ups for the next year on baby-brain (honestly, I’m not sure I ever recovered from baby-brain from my now four-year-old). 


Four new giclee prints available

After many requests, several of my recent paintings are now available as giclee prints.

Hot off the printer, these four paintings are in stock as giclee prints. As with all of my giclees, they are signed and printed on archival fine art paper with a 1/2″ white border. Click on the artwork titles below for more details. Happy shopping!

Common Starlings on Purple  (16″x24″) features Common Starlings, orchids, and beetles over a botanical motif inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement.

Gyrfalcons on Gray (16″x24″) features flora and fauna found in the Arctic including Gyrfalcons, Saxifrage, Mountain Avens, an Arctic While Butterly, and Black Blister Beetles.

 

Female Guam Kingfisher on Red by Ashley Cecil

Female Guam Kingfisher on Red and Male Guam Kingfisher on Red (each 10″x13″) features one of the National Aviary’s Guam Kingfishers, a bird species extinct in the wild due to the accidental introduction of the Brown Tree Snake. These rare birds are part of a breeding program aimed at reintroducing this species into the wild.


Art in your mailbox

It’s time once again for your mailbox to receive some artistic love. My next full-color 5.5″x8.5″ postcard featuring one of my latest paintings is about to be mailed far and wide. This colorful and frameable antidote to unsolicited restaurant menus comes three times a year. You can get your subscription in my shop, or give the gift of tiny flora and fauna art to the person in your life who also needs a break from cringe-inducing junk mail.


Art, technology, and bird songs all wrapped up in Dawn Chorus

If you use a smartphone, love the sound of songbirds, and appreciate nature art, then this post is for you.

During my artist residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I crossed paths with technologists at the Innovation Studio, “the design, development and workflow laboratory at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.” After a few chats about possible ways of blending physical art and museum-centered technology, we found a first fit in Dawn Chorus, the newly launched alarm app for smartphones that stirs you from slumber by the call of songbirds (download it on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store).

Screenshots of the Dawn Chorus, a smartphone alarm app that wakes you up to the sound of songbirds

In nature, a dawn chorus is a swelling serenade of songbirds beginning at the break of day. In this digital version, you can set the time of the chorus and snooze it. There’s also information about each of the featured bird species, including conservation risks, and ways to help the feathered vocalists. 

Screenshots of Dawn Chorus, a smartphone alarm app that artist Ashley Cecil contributed botanical art to.
App screenshots curiosity of the Innovation Studio

My contribution to the visual interface of the app is modest – the botanical accents of Mountain Laurel, which you may remember from my bird conservation-inspired residency paintings and pattern (and this scarf). The wonderful bird illustrations are by the talented Sam Ticknor.

Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil's handmade infinity scarf 

Go on and download it. You know waking up to the sound of a Magnolia Warbler or a Scarlet Tanager will make you much happier than your phone’s default alarm.


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

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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.

Voting for this poll has closed.


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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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A tray of Red-legged Honey Creeper specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
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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.

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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.

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Stephanie Kirby’s floral handiwork and my painting of her bouquet. The painting is a work in progress.
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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.

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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!

Ashley_Cecil8-2000x3000px-72dpi

 

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.

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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.